A Walk In Their Shoes: Former Child Soldiers – Part One

A Walk In Their Shoes: Former Child Soldiers – Part One

Sophie’s Story

 

I met Aruju Sophie whilst volunteering in Gulu in the north of Uganda. A beautiful young woman with a grace that made her seem way beyond her years. At 19, I learnt she had already endured more than any adult should ever have to go through. Her current situation meant that she was not in school, and after missing most of her younger education, this was not only playing on her mind, but also limiting her opportunities going forward.

She was born to a family of 6 children, being raised by her Mum and Dad in a village near Gulu, Uganda. The insurgency of Joseph Kony (or Kony’s army, more commonly known as the Lord’s Resistance Army or LRA) started long before she was born, spanning 3 decades, and impacting everyone that lived in the north of Uganda at that time. I haven’t met one person from the north of Uganda who hadn’t been directly affected by the war; either having been kidnapped, losing family and friends, or having to flee their home. In fact some 25,000 children were kidnapped during this time, and this is precisely what happened to Sophie. She has clear memory of what happened but was so young that she doesn’t know what her age was and is also unsure how long she was actually ‘in the bush’ (the term given to having been kidnapped or kept prisoner in the wilderness by the LRA).

 

A horrific legacy left by the war

The war officially ended with a truce between Kony and the President Yoweri Museveni in 2006 after two decades, but the reality is that it didn’t stop then and children and adults were still returning from the bush up until a few years ago. Decades of killing, kidnapping and looting, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, tens of thousands abducted, many left maimed or injured, millions of people displaced and a whole country ravaged and in turmoil.

“In 1996, Graça Machel, former wife of Nelson Mandela, released a UN report entitled “The Impact of War on Children”. Advancements have been made by the international community to address issues of security, displacement, and human rights monitoring, but less support has come to the psychosocial needs and trauma rehabilitation of child soldiers” 

I am Somebody’s Child Soldier

Despite media attention over the years, mental health response and rehabilitation work, as well as support for the abductees has been limited and I saw nothing at all in terms of support or work being done by the government. In fact, even the NGOs helping on the ground during the war have mostly left; leaving a huge deficit of support and healing that is needed here. A final draft of a transitional justice policy underlining the responsibilities of the government in providing reparations to the victims has been pending approval by the office of President since 2013. That’s 5 years ago. We are nearly 13 years on since the ‘truce’ and still no action from the government to assist the people who’s lives have been obliterated.

Telling their stories

When we sat down to talk and do our first interview, it was clear that she had worked hard to get some education since returning home, as she spoke English well and was able to articulate herself in this, her second language. As she began to describe her experience, I wasn’t prepared for the horror that this young, but mature woman had witnessed. She was taken from her home, along with many other children of the same age, and their main job at first was to carry food and pans etc. Through her words I could feel the struggle of walking for miles and miles with heavy loads and no food for days and very little water. Shockingly the young age at which she was kidnapped ended up being a blessing, as she was too young to match with a commander as his ‘wife’. This happened to all the young teenage girls; many who now have children whose fathers were commanders in the LRA; another story entirely.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that Sophie’s dreams are still haunted by the real-life horror story that she and so many others lived and the atrocities that she witnessed. She was again ‘lucky’ in the loosest sense of the word, that she wasn’t trained to hold a gun. It was predominantly the boys that, as soon as they were able to hold a gun or a ‘panga’ (a type of machete), they would be trained to kill, and she told me that they were then forced to do unspeakable things! She also described women forced to club their babies to death, and when they refused, they were killed.  Tragically not one-offs, each person I interviewed spoke of similar things, where humanity seemed to have disappeared and a kind of hell-on-earth reigned.

“They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children…” 

Who was to blame?

It would perhaps be easier for those whose lives were irreversibly changed and damaged if they were be able to blame someone and then get some recompense or be shown remorse, but even the ‘commanders’ forcing these things to happen, were themselves predominantly taken as young boys. They were forced to act in heinous ways, along with being brainwashed, and so if you grow up in this environment do you have a chance at all of becoming anything other than an empty shell who knows nothing but violence, death and suffering? So can you then be blamed or punished? It is a question many have been asking and I was shocked to hear that forgiveness was often offered to these people by their victims, as well as a level of understanding that I never thought would be possible towards people who had torn lives apart. Even when I questioned adults and particularly the women who had been involuntarily taken to be the commanders’ wives, and who had often forcibly borne children of these men who were now on trial with the International Criminal Court, they still often talked about the men with a deep empathy. People know that most of these men that had become the commanders of Kony’s Army had also once experienced the same treatment as them, and had endured so much that they had become disconnected from reality and almost inhuman. Instead of hate and anger, which I expected, the people who had been victim to their commands (under Joseph Kony’s ruling) actually wished them well and healing.

 

From one nightmare into another

For Sophie, the nightmare continued even after she escaped and managed to get to a village where she was then taken to a camp for kidnapped children. She was able to access a small amount of counseling there, which is more than most had, and then waited at the camp whilst her family was tracked down. After months of waiting in the camp she was met with the tragic news that not one member of her immediate family had been found alive, and to this day this is still the case. She lost her parents, five siblings, her aunt and uncles and both sets of grandparents. She breaks down as she recalls finding out that they had all been killed, I couldn’t hold back the tears either as she wept; it’s heart-breaking, and pains me still even as I write this. How is it possible for this to be a reality for so many, that everyone they love is taken from them? It doesn’t bear thinking about, and as I try to comfort her, she surprises me even more by bravely pointing out that she knows she must carry on her life, for them, and was lucky to have distant relatives who survived, who she now lives with. Then something even more courageous; she dreams of continuing her education and becoming a nurse, she remarks:

“I have seen immeasurable suffering and want to be able to help those who suffer”

What an extraordinary soul!

Next steps

I decided at that moment that, yes although there were hundreds of thousands of people with a similar story and the need for support to be able to study to open up the opportunities to have a brighter future than their past, she was here with me now for a reason and I would help her in any way I could. So the very next day we went to pay school fees, buy all her school requirements and enrolled her in high school. Even though this was a small gesture from someone who was blessed to grow up in a safe place and get all the education I wanted, I had never seen such a big smile and I wish that I could grant this to everyone, all those who have suffered pain I can’t even fathom; which is where Be The Change comes in.

 

Be The Change: Futures project

We would love to be able to match those who are able to support a young person like Sophie, with those in need, so that they are given a chance to change their story going forward. Their past may be one of loss and pain, but their present can look brighter with a little help from those who care. We also have a vocational programme that we offer to adults who missed out on their education due to being involved in the war in Northern Uganda. It gives them the chance to learn a trade, which increases their chance of employment, and thus can change their circumstances.

Many returnees face additional problems on top of the obvious, and find it hard to find a place back in their communities, which is exacerbated by a stigma against them and what they were forced to do. So they may have lost their families and then don’t have a home to return to, land they own, or a place where they belong, which as you can imagine is extremely distressing and debilitating.

I also got to facilitate story circles and arts therapy, and supported Watwiro Dance Company, who are helping tell the story of those who were kidnapped through dance and drama, as well as teaching expression of their trauma and encouraging healing through these avenues. Together we hope to be part of bringing together these broken communities and facilitating healing as a collective; a very long journey as you can imagine, and one that desperately needs support so that it can keep being the change and doing life changing work. 

Sophie's time to shine!

We had an update from Sophie, who I keep in touch with regularly, that she finished her first year of senior school and despite all her issues at home, and having missed the first year, she came FIRST in her class in their end of year exams and has been asked to be head girl! This demonstrated her tenacity to take back her life and change her story. We will keep you updated on this amazing woman’s journey, and those of the other young people that we have on our Future’s programme. If you would like to BE the change and create opportunity amidst chaos in someone’s life, please sign up to sponsor a child.

Author: Suzie Ford

Author: Suzie Ford

Suzie achieved her BSc in Zoology at the University of Leeds, and studied online for a Diploma in International Environmental Law from the United Nations Development Programme. She is passionate about volunteering and conservation work.

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School fees in Uganda and how they work (or don’t)!

School fees in Uganda and how they work (or don’t)!

School fees in Uganda and how they work (or don’t)!

School fees is a term you will hear a lot if you visit Uganda, and a lot of other African countries for that matter. When I first heard it I didn’t know what it meant, why were families who couldn’t afford it sending their kids to private school?! Well they’re not – everyone pays for school from day one in reception class in Uganda!

 

A big problem

As I was interviewing families as part of the volunteer work I was doing, and making friends, I started to realise how big of a problem this is in Uganda. It is literally starving families of life, driving them to desperation every term just to be able to offer their kids an opportunity for a better future –  something every parent innately desires, and should be able to do. In the UK we don’t even have to think twice about whether our child will get an education through supported home schooling or attending school. Can you imagine if we had to make the choice of which child to send to school? Or to have to send our children out to work instead? This is a reality in Uganda, and one that is made even worse by high-mortality rates from HIV, other illnesses (and lack of medical fees – another blog post all together), the previous war and accidents. These mean that children are often left with one parent, or none, making paying school fees near impossible. There is no infrastructure such as social services to ensure the child is catered for, so for these children, the future becomes even bleaker on top of their loss.

Could we help?

In the rural areas of Uganda that I had the pleasure of staying in, I watched the communities and families deal with death and difficult situations in admirable ways; families that already had nothing rallying around to ensure that no-one went without and no child was left homeless or alone. Watching this, and after many long conversations with the headmasters of the schools, we decided to create groups where we could address some of these issues and see how a charity, that could potentially support positive change, would really need to operate and what they would benefit from – and thus Be The Change was created!

 

Different types of schools

The ‘Government schools’ are deemed as less successful and less desirable by parents, but they do charge lower fees. If a child takes the cheaper option and attends a government school however, this then means that they may not be able to attend certain high schools and universities (if they manage to get this far) due to them specifying certain previous schools. This obviously encourages parents to strive to raise the more expensive fees for the ‘better’ schools, but almost always this means getting deep into debt, and with family sizes traditionally large, the problem is exacerbated and results in family debt being unmanageable, or children missing out on education altogether. There is then on top of all this, the strict ‘requirements’ they need when attending school, such as reams of paper, exercise books, pens, chairs, shoes, uniform…and this gets worse if its a boarding school, which the majority of secondary schools are, (or offer the option for), so then add on trunks for their belongings, brooms, mattresses, sheets, meal costs, sanitary products. This is all added expense, a lot of which we would take for granted as included in schooling – see the issue?

 

Solutions…

Be The Change is working with several schools, to keep the conversation going about school fees with the government. The Ugandan government wishes for a future for the country, and so needs to invest into its’ children and their education – and it is not as if it cannot afford it! In the meantime though, we are also providing support to families in need, which is essential. Those who cannot provide school fees for their children’s education due to lack of employment opportunities, the obscene size of fees in comparison to wages, or the fact that they are a single-parent, or no parent family, need help in any form it comes. We also support former-child soldiers who have been left with no family at all and missed out on education for years whilst being forced to be a child-soldier. We link kind people like yourselves as sponsors to children and young-adults who need it the most so that they can get back into school. We also provide workshops for the care-givers of these vulnerable children (predominantly orphans) and single parents, so that they have the opportunity to train in a vocation; creating employment opportunities. Another avenue we create is selling their crafts to provide fees for the children they care for. Some of these care-givers are also former child-soldiers themselves, so the support is multi-functional, giving as much opportunity all round to everyone involved. If one life is better-ed, the reverberation of this positive change can be felt all over the community.

 

Join us

If you would like to be part of the Be The Change family please do sign-up to donate monthly or sponsor a child.

 

 

Author: Suzie Ford

Author: Suzie Ford

Suzie achieved her BSc in Zoology at the University of Leeds, and studied online for a Diploma in International Environmental Law from the United Nations Development Programme. She is passionate about volunteering and conservation work.

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A Walk In Their Shoes: Former Child Soldiers – Part One

Sophie's Story   I met Aruju Sophie whilst volunteering in Gulu in the north of Uganda. A beautiful young woman with a grace that made her seem way beyond her years. At 19, I learnt she had already endured more than any adult should ever have to go through. Her...

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