Uganda with Former Child Soldiers
November 2, 2005
-Mark Canavera, RPCV, Burkina Faso (1999 – 2002)
Since my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, I have been mostly in graduate school, first Notre Dame, and now the Kennedy School at Harvard. For the last two summers I have returned to Africa, this time Uganda in East Africa to work with an Italian organization, AVSI. Associazione Volontari per il Servizio Internazionale is a Milan-based Catholic humanitarian relief agency. They have been working in northern Uganda for 19 years, ever since the beginning of the terrible conflict there. Most of my time has been spent in the town of Kitgum and nearby internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, which are populated by Ugandans who are refugees in their own country.
Kitgum is located in Uganda’s far north, just shy of the Sudanese border. Flying from southern Kampala (the capital) to northern Kitgum, one watches Uganda transform. Cruising over the southern portion of the country, one sees roads, houses, and farming patterns – stripes, rows, rectangles, and diamonds of alternating crops. When the plane crosses north of the Nile, however, the views of houses and crop patterns stop abruptly. The vista of the north is seemingly bare of human activity, punctuated every 20 kilometers or so by vast “camps” of the internal refugees of Northern Uganda. The huts which comprise the IDP camps are incredibly dense, congested and compacted, one hut running up against the next. From a plane window, the camps look like a rash on the otherwise unblemished skin of the land, each hut raised like a pimple.
This land is far from unblemished. Years of guerrilla warfare led by the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have fostered the development of these IDP camps. Seeking to avoid rebel ambushes in the less populated areas, “the bush,” the people of northern Uganda have moved from their far-flung and unprotected home villages to towns and larger villages, areas of higher population density. Eventually, the Ugandan government army created a consolidation policy and ordered citizens to relocate to officially sanctioned camps. Although the army nominally protects these camps from the LRA, sometimes (or perhaps often) their protection seems more like predation. Estimates for the number of northern Ugandans living in IDP camps range from 700,000 to over one million people.
The war in northern Uganda is most famous to the international community because of the child night commuters, who have become famous in the international press. The child night commuters are children from the villages outlying Kitgum Town (as well as Gulu, a larger town about 100km southwest of here) who, from 2003 – 2004, walked into town every evening to sleep in protected areas – churches, hospitals, UNICEF tents, NGO buildings, and schools – to avoid abduction by the LRA. In the morning, after a night of sleep on the ground, where they huddled by the hundreds, the children walked back to their villages to work in the fields for the day. A nightly trek of one to ten kilometers was doubled by the return walk at sunrise. Each evening, the roads into town were lined by children and their mothers, carrying tiny bundles on their heads of clothes and other necessities. In June 2004, an estimated 20 to 25,000 child night commuters came to Kitgum Town each night.
In the summer of 2004, I worked in AVSI’s Psycho-Social Support Programme which provides long-term services that are geared towards vulnerable children and families. The AVSI offices are small but frenetic, filled with a few Italians, a staff of 30 or so Ugandans, and a seemingly endless stream of clients in need of support and assistance. During this first tour I worked as an intern assessing the Programme’s data collection methods, everything from how staff members identify vulnerable children to how they perform follow up visits to children whom they are supporing. This last summer (2005) I acted as an internal consultant on improving AVSI’s outreach to the outlying IDP camps, where 90 percent of northern Uganda’s people now live.
The Psycho-Social Programme targets several groups of vulnerable children and families. Most of the organization’s clients are formerly abducted children (sometimes called former child soldiers), to whom AVSI provides numerous services, including counseling, group therapy, medical assistance, funding for formal and vocational education, school supplies, and start-up capital and training for income-generating activities. The sheer numbers of formerly abducted children they support is impressive. Since 2000, AVSI alone has provided some form of assistance to over 1,700 formerly abducted children. Other target groups for the Psycho-Social Support Programme are orphans and HIV positive mothers.
My activities outside of data analysis and consulting have been varied. On Friday afternoons, I would tag along on home-based care visits to AIDS patients with Chiara, a cherubic Italian doctor, two other AVSI staff members, and a team of volunteers from a local HIV/AIDS support organization called Meeting Point. The reality of living with HIV/AIDS in Kitgum district can be grim, for anti-retroviral treatment has only recently become available to a handful of people. Some of our visits were mournful: to buy some more anaesthetizing local brew, for example, one patient sold the antibiotics that Meeting Point had provided him. But the pervasive atmosphere of most visits is celebratory and hopeful. One women who could not walk a week earlier proudly displayed the few steps she could take, laughing louder with each step. The bed wounds that once immobilized one man slowly healed, and he began to sit up and eventually stand. Afternoons with Meeting Point remind me of the therapeutic power of human concern.
During the summer of this year, I spent much of my time in IDP camps meeting with various community members. In Acholibur, south of Kitgum Town, for example, I and a colleague worked with the representatives of numerous small development groups. These groups include youth groups that perform theatre skits for local kids about HIV/AIDS transmission, women’s cooperatives that sells small dried fish in the market as an income-generating activity, and support groups for disabled community members. Days in the camps were always full of new heroes for me.
Despite the desperation of life there, working in northern Uganda has always provided me with reason for hope. After 19 years of warfare and destruction, the people there continue to cling, tenaciously, to the possibility of a better future. Of course, the war’s roots are deep, and the current political situation may remain non-conducive to ending the violence. But the region’s prospects for peace, embodied in the resilience of the people, will never be extinguished.
You can contact Mark Canavera at firstname.lastname@example.org.