Hope Again Uganda – Conference for Former Child Soldiers
At a Glance
- Brought together 110 former child soldiers, ages 14 to 26
- Held in Lira Uganda August 27, 28, 29, 2008
- Africa Centre helped raise over $35,000 for this conference
- Led by local Boulder 22-year old student Zack Gross
“For me, Hope Again has brought me new life.”
– Janet, age 19
“I had never danced in my whole life before last night.”
– Beatrice, age 26
New Hope for Former Child Soldiers in Uganda
By R. Avy Harris (reprinted from Mytown with permission of the author)Lira, Uganda – Children began trickling into the guarded compound in shy groups of 2 and 3 just after noon, leaning against concrete walls to escape the scorching African sun. Most had walked or biked from nearby towns; others had traveled from as far as 100 miles away. The youngest was 14, the oldest 26. One carried an infant at her back. Although most had never met before, their somber silence revealed a common background: all of these children had once been soldiers, abducted by the rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). They were invited by Hope Again Uganda to attend a four-day conference last week, the first of its kind intended specifically for returned child soldiers.
The United Nations estimates that the LRA has abducted 20,000 children across Northern Uganda since 1987, when civil war erupted against Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Stolen from their homes and schools during brutal raids, these children are indoctrinated into the LRA by being forced to witness and commit acts of horrific violence. Rebel commanders may force abducted children to kill their own family members, while girl abductees are often used as “wives” and sexual slaves. Since rebel leader Joseph Kony signed a shaky cease-fire in 2006, the majority of surviving child soldiers have escaped from the bush. They are slowly beginning to return home, but their suffering is not over. For many, a whole new struggle has only just begun.
“The absence of war does not necessarily mean peace” Angelina Atyam told the children during the Hope Again Uganda conference. When her own daughter was abducted in 1996, Atyam became one of the most outspoken advocates for returning child soldiers. She works to educate others about the difficulties former child soldiers face upon returning to their communities. Physical and psychological scars haunt abductees for years. To further complicate the reintegration process, many return to a home that is only a semblance of the one they left – they may find family and friends either dead or displaced, their farmlands destroyed, their homes gone. Just as damaging, communities may stigmatize returning child soldiers as rebels and murderers.
Hope Again Uganda emerged to help ease the transition period for these children. Creating a support network for former abductees was the vision of University of Colorado graduate Zack Gross. The 22-year-old co-director laughed with the participants over the fact that some were his elders — still, his warm presence earned their trust and respect over the course of the four-day conference. “I believe you youth in front of me are the future leaders of Uganda” Gross told them during the opening ceremonies. Gross initially thought of the idea while studying abroad in Uganda during his junior year as an anthropology student. Many of the former abductees he met had asked him what other children were doing to cope with reintegrating into the community. Inspired, Gross united a team based in Lira to help organize a conference. He also developed a partnership with Concerned Parents Association and UNICEF. Gross then returned to Boulder to finish his degree and seek funding. Along with Boulder-based co-director Brie Stranahan, they inspired friends to help fundraise by writing letters to everyone they knew. The letter-writing campaign was a success: he raised enough money to return to Lira in May to finalize and oversee the resoundingly successful conference.
Over the course of four days, 110 former abductees met for presentations, workshops, and team-building games. They learned tools for nonviolent communication and goal setting, and heard from local politicians and activists. Participants also co-created a declaration asking communities, politicians, and donors for, among other things, support for their education and help changing stereotypes against child soldiers. For 19-year-old Janet Oroma, the most important part of the conference was realizing that she was not alone in facing the problems of reintegration. Abducted in 2000 and raped by rebel leaders, Oroma escaped only after realizing she was pregnant. Out of fear of stigmatization, she had told no one but her mother about her ordeal. The conference changed all that: “coming here I see so many other people like me – now I can go home and know there are others…For me, Hope Again has brought me new life.”
The conference also gave the war-traumatized youth the chance to just be normal children again. They played soccer and drew pictures, watched movies, and were treated to a surprise conference by five local musicians. “I had never danced in my whole life before last night” said 26-year-old Beatrice Aciro, who spent ten years in the bush as the forced “wife” of a rebel leader. “It was a big success” an exhausted but happy Gross said of the conference. However, the work is not over. He hopes to find the funding to be able to extend the conference to more children in more districts across Northern Uganda. “We’re dreaming big” he says.
In Boulder, Hope Again Uganda is under the umbrella of the Africa Centre, a Boulder-based non-profit. Donations can be specifically directed to Hope Again through the Africa Centre at www.africacentre.org.