African Youth Initiative Network
AYINET - Uganda
Former child soldier makes peace with self and family
Richard Odongo is a 24 year old born and raised in a family of eight in Lalwa B village in Pajule sub county, Pader district. At first sight, Richard, a tall young man, looks like any other youth from the village; however, his behavior is a little different from that of most of his colleagues. He is described as anti-social, aggressive and is not integrated into the community or his family.
In a particular instance, Richard stole his sibling’s academic document because he felt belittled by his family for not having gone to school. When asked about its whereabouts on suspicion of his involvement, he hurled insults at his family and as the tension grew, he disappeared from home for two months leaving his mother helplessly worried.
Richard, however, is not like any other normal troublesome kid; his behavior goes back 16 years when he had an experience that changed his life completely.
“One evening when my parents were out in the gardens, the rebels attacked our village and took me and my uncle away,” he narrates. Only eight years old at the time, Richard was taken to the bush and had to spend four years living with the LRA rebels as a child soldier.
Richard is one of the tens of thousands who were abducted by the LRA rebels in northern Uganda and continue to suffer the consequences. Though the guns have gone silent, trauma, aggression, suicidal tendencies and stigmatization are daily occurrences for these individuals and their communities.
With support from USAID SAFE, AYINET’s Trauma Healing for Post Conflict Peace and Reconciliation project reaches out to people such as Richard with a focus on addressing issues of post-conflict trauma and the need for psychosocial support, as well as post-conflict reconciliation.
Richard was identified and approached by the AYINET counselors who engaged and helped him heal from his traumatic experiences through series of counseling sessions.
During a recent visit to his home, Richard welcomed us with a big smile and sitting relaxed under a huge tree, he narrates his experience,
“Before I met the counselors, I had differences with my parents, they would say I have a mental problem, but now they talk to me as their own child and a normal person.”
His mother, who used to worry a lot about her son’s wellbeing, agrees that the counseling changed the situation positively,
“As a mother, I feel that the counseling from AYINET staff has brought peace at home and in Richard.”
Since the beginning of the counseling, Richard has demonstrated attempts to reconcile with himself, his family and his community. He has returned the documents he once stole, joined a community football team and enjoys a much better relationship with his parents and siblings.
Child abductee overcomes haunting past
Betty (not real names) is a mother of six, 35 years and a resident of Paluti Parish in Agago district. At 16 years of age she was abducted and later after escaping to live in a camp, she was still shot by the same LRA rebels that attacked that IDP camp leaving her with a bullet in her back that was so complex for the doctors at the time to remove. This forced her to live with it for 11 years till weeks of medical surgery and counselling to restore her back to a normal way of life.
It was in March 1999, ten years into the LRA rebellion in northern Uganda that was marked by gross human rights abuses in the northern part of the country, when Betty was abducted by the rebels in the middle of the night in their home in Odek subcounty along with 10 others who were siblings and relatives. She was then trained as a child soldier enduring torture and manual labor carrying sacks of food supplies that were usually looted from homesteads they attacked.
Betty narrates one of her most memorable experiences in captivity…
“I recall when I killed a certain lady to grab a sack of white beans. The next morning when I passed the place I shot the girl, I found body had changed like the beans I had gotten from her; it was white even to the clothes. This made me so afraid and terrified, I shivered with fear, I thought the lady was a ghost… Whenever I see white beans, I begin to fear and usually think the girl is close to me, sometimes I see her in my bed then I pray a lot to send her away from my house.”
This experience kept recurring regularly even after she escaped from the rebel fraternity with one child. On her return she was taken to Odek Internal Displaced Persons’ camp. Instead of recovering, it would only to get worse. In August 2000, the camp was invaded. Even though she survived abduction this time around, she was shot from behind and retained a bullet in the back. Hopes of seeking treatment were shattered when Doctors at the referral hospital in Gulu told her the bullet was hidden and could not be removed. She lived with it for the next 11 years in pain.
In subsequent years with this pain, Betty could not bend; carry water or even a child. It gave her a very difficult time during the weeding and harvesting seasons even though she had to fend and provide for her family of six children.
Through AYINET’s community mobilization efforts in implementing the Medical and Psychosocial Rehabilitation Program supported by the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), Betty was identified and supported through Medical surgery; removing the bullet in her back and counseling to help restore hope and dignity in her life.
Judith Amongi, AYINET counselor recalls;
“when I started out with Betty, it seemed very difficult because she was not sure of her safety and of coming out of this difficult situation she was undergoing. I helped her talk about the past and bring them to present that will make her realize that she was no longer in the same situation and that she was safe from any danger. Betty talking about her own story ultimately gave me courage and was very happy with how she could now interact with the community freely and talk about her situation at any time.”
Even though it was initially difficult for Betty to accept and open up about her ordeals from captivity to life with a bullet in her body, upon full recovery from the surgery and counselling sessions, the fearful memories of dead white bodies and physical pains are no more.
“Would I even believe that I would be helped after I was told the bullet is located somewhere that it cannot be operated. I thank the almighty father for having used AYINET to help me with both my pains. I can now support my family fully without any pain of the mind or body glory be to God for having helped me”. Betty shares with gratitude.
Young war victim trades wounds and scars for hope and inspiration
Ogwal Isaac, 12 from Agago District is wounded at a tender age. But throughout the course of his life, he is to undergo a lot of stigma and torture owing to his maimed nature. Isaac, like many of his friends, relatives and village mates are victims to the two decade conflict of the LRA rebellion in Uganda, in which period, the greater north of the country suffered atrocities and gross human rights offenses. A medical rehabilitation program implemented by AYINET, a war-victims centered human rights organization, offered Isaac an opportunity that inspired him to make helping others, like himself, a lifetime ambition.
In 2003 in a village known as Odokoker in Agago district, Isaac is only One and a half years old safely tucked away, breastfeeding in their home; a grass thatched hut in a triad of other similar huts, when the LRA rebels attacked.
“They (the rebels) ordered them to catch the pigs that where roaming around and killed them, extracted only the fat, threw on the grass thatched house and forced all women captured into the hut in which Isaac and his mum were in, after which they lit the house.” narrates Nyanga Denis, Isaac’s caretaker who luckily survived on that fateful day by hiding in a nearby bush.
The pigs thrown on the huts were to be forcefully served to the civilian captives they were taking. After a while of battering these captives with some of the women in the burning hut already dead, bullets are fired at men trying to escape and were killed. It is after that gun shot that the UPDF (Uganda Peoples' Defence Forces) come to their rescue. For Isaac, even though he is still alive from the flames of the burning hut, his face is burnt with hot ash falling from the roof and hands severely burnt from crawling and holding onto burning wood.
The injuries he suffers at infancy leave him with a disfigured face, burnt eyelids with puss oozing out the right eye continually. His right hand with non-functional fingers while his left hand with a contracture on the fingers. Isolation, stigma and consistent pain the eyes becomes a part of his life,
“When at school my class mates always called me names like 'wangi obedo agwacha,' (a lango phrase translated as, your eyes look like pasted greens in peanut butter) yet they used to pain a lot. With a lot of tears and anger, I could look for a stone to throw at those who called me bad names.” Isaac narrates.
In October 2015, Isaac Ogwal was identified and selected by AYINET (African Youth Initiative Network) to be a repair surgery recipient in a Medical and Psychosocial rehabilitation program funded by the DGF (The Democratic Governance Facility). The program seeks to provide physical and psychosocial healing to victims of war as a core need in achieving and promoting justice, lasting peace and reconciliation in the post conflict communities of the great northern Uganda.
After successful facial and hand surgeries, Isaac is now recovered. He is able to see well and play with all his friends without worrying about being called bad names, he says,
“I want to thank God and the People who helped me because now my friends do not call me bad names any more, I can hold a stick and a cup very well. I am even going to study well to become a doctor to help other children like me.”
Youth Leadership promoting peaceful conflict resolution.
Twenty-six year old Okeng Martin, a resident of Ngetta Subcounty, Lira District, dropped out of school in lower primary due to the the LRA insurgencies. He feared being killed like his parents or abducted like his relatives. As the eldest in his family, at 13 years, he took up the responsibilities of taking care of his younger brother and three sisters. He explains, “I hustled to make ends meet. I would walk to and from town a distance of about 10kms hawking roasted g-nuts and managed to see my siblings through till they all joined vocational school.
It was through this ordeal that he realized he had inborn leadership and problem-solving skills. He always took time off to attend community meetings, dialogues, and mediations, but he couldn’t find a way to become more involved: “I always wanted to participate but I didn’t have the confidence.”In 2014, he joined an AYINET-trained youth group in his community.
“I was amazed at the way the youth conducted their activities, mediated conflict, had the confidence to speak in a public forum, and also trained other youth. From then I felt a sense of belonging in that youth group and with my already inborn skills of leadership and problem-solving, I felt I was in the right place and doing the right thing.” he said.
In April 2015, there was a land wrangle in Okeng’s neighborhood that had taken years. Though the local council land committee, religious leaders, and clan chief attempted to intervene through community dialogues, Okeng explains that they “always ended violently with drunkard youth from both sides holding stones, pangas, and sticks in their hands and using obscene languages, therefore disorganizing the mediation process. To them, confrontation and use of force was the only solution to the problem.”Witnessing the confrontation, he became interested in ending this chaos and reconciling the two parties with his newly acquired skills in conflict mitigation.
Okeng endeavored to be inclusive and listen to both parties. As he explains, “I realized the problem was complex, as both parties were to blame, the mediators had taken sides, the youth were bribed with alcohol to cause violence, the environment was not friendly enough for problem solving, and the boundary demarcation that caused conflict was not clear.” He therefore arranged a private meeting for the two conflicting persons together with few witnesses like the LCI, community and religious leaders. Okeng took lead in the mediation process using dialogue and negotiation that he had learned from his time with the youth group, and he solved the problem. The conflict ended with acknowledgment of the original boundary, reconciliation, and planting of trees locally known as “omara omara” to demarcate the boundaries.
After successfully resolving the land conflict, he thought of taking part in more leadership opportunities. He registered in one of the political parties for the post of LC1 of his village. As he says, “The people in my community had their trust in me, and they supported me. I almost got through in Primary elections but lost by three votes. This encouraged me to move on and aim higher in my leadership career despite my poor education background.” Okeng received tremendous support, even though he had no experience in being a political leader. he won the trust of his community through his leadership , problem-solving skills and qualities. “I’m grateful to AYINET for empowering me and paving way for my new beginning.”
Through AYINET’s youth program funded by USAID’s SAFE program, (Supporting Access to Justice, Fostering Equality and Peace). AYINET conducts community and school outreaches, radio talk shows, youth leadership and peace building trainings, established youth groups, supports community conflict mitigatiors. These activities drive towards engaging and empowering youth as responsible and peaceful leaders within their communities as this shows youth involvement in leadership, reconciling conflicting communities, crime reduction and above all youth participation in peaceful electoral process within their communities.
My Life given back
Mary Agenorwot 24 her arm that still has a bullet stuck in and left are Jewelry made by Mary for sell.
Mary Agenorwot (not her real name) is a member in one of the groups in Gulu supported by AYINET; she now lives life normally and socializes easily without worries “because I have my life given back”
Mary Agenorwot now 24 was abducted in 1999 and returned in 2005. “While in captivity I suffered sexual violence, beatings and I was subjected to carrying heavy loads. I was starved and forced to take my urine whenever I was thirsty. At 8years of age I was made a wife to one of the generals who passed away six month later due to HIV/AIDS. I was then recruited and trained into the LRA army. The worst was when I saw a recruit who attempted to escape being killed before my own eyes at a tender age, It was a very painful experience to see a person’s neck being chopped and slaughtered like a chicken, from that day every time I saw a chicken being slaughtered I remember the boy who was killed even when I returned the boys voice still echoed in my Ears saying please don’t kill me have mercy.”
Agenorwot managed to escape with her 5 year old son born in captivity in an ambush when the Army attacked the LRA south Sudan base in 2005. Amidst heavy gun shots she successfully made it, though with a bullet stack in her arm.
When she returned home, her trials were far from over as her family was no more “my mother and two of my siblings were killed while one went missing upto date just after my abduction, I was all alone with my son who was born in captivity. Life became a nightmare as I had nothing to survive on. I couldn’t get a casual job because potential employees thought I was possessed with evil spirits and besides the bullet in my arm couldn’t allow me do any manual work, i was stereo typed and nick named “ADUI “ meaning rebel by the people I usually begged from”
I am grateful that AYINET has promised me medical support in their next Rehabilitation project that will help me have the bullet removed from my arm after staying with it in my arm for years since I returned from captivity.
Mary was trained by AYINET to become a peace builder and conflict mitigator,
“AYINET trained me with peace building and conflict mitigation skills, together with other livelihood skills , am now able to earn a living through making jewelry and i have forgiven all my past though I’ve failed to forget”
Thank you AYINET for empowering me and giving me a new journey in Life. I will always be peaceful and look forward to working for peace, I no longer look at the past but am making a good from my past.
“I saw person’s neck being chopped and slaughtered like a chicken. Every time I see a chicken being slaughtered I remember the boy who was killed even when I returned the boys voice still echoed in my Ears”
My Life Awaken
The hatred and desire for revenge increased, as they often referred to me as “Anek” meaning killer. As custom demands that anyone involved in murder should pay money and cows as means of compensation commonly known as “Culu Kwor” in Acholi. “I was so helpless and felt so guilty for my brother’s kidnap and death . In the whole village my step mother influenced people’s attitude and perception towards me inciting hate. Many judged me, pointed fingers and mocked me. The hatred had penetrated deeper that the clan elders and religious leaders attempt to reconcile us was futile.”
I decided to leave home as the situation intensified and besides I couldn’t afford to pay for compensation.
“ It was an intervention by youth trained by AYINET who came up and helped us reconciled when I shared my story with them, they took me through the healing and reconciliation process , they arranged meetings for me, my family, clan and church leaders in July 2014. It was in March 2015 when the storm finally came to an end, with tears rolling out of her eyes, my step mother and brother fully embraced, forgave and asked me to come back home. I was free from the pain and hatred at last. After the reconciliation and reunion, a cleansing ritual traditionally known as “Kiir” was carried out by my clan leader to mark peace between me and my step family.
Am now able to live happily with my steps mother and brethren’s, since am no longer being accused as it was in the past and life is more bearable and I see a lot of possibilities.”
AYINET’s support is strengthening the adoption of transitional justice mechanisms as it also clearly shows the roles of youth participation in peace building.
Remedies and Redress to Victims of Sexual Violence
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Lillian A – Seven Years Later, Surgery Helps Woman Support her Family
Maurice O – Medical Treatment Relieves Suffering of Elderly LRA Victim
© African Youth Initiative Network - Uganda 2016