by Jillian LaBranche, Associate
“The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has the potential of becoming the sub-saharan al-Qaeda.” So stated Norbert Mao, a prominent Ugandan politician in 2013. The rebel group, which builds its ranks by brutally abducting children from Acholiland in Northern Uganda, has not only terrorized Uganda, but also subjected the citizens of former Sudan, Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo to its reign of terror. The consequences of returning child soldiers from the LRA is not simply a Northern Uganda or Ugandan issue, it is an international issue. Thus the reintegration of these children is critical to the future of Uganda and the region.
The majority of former child soldiers released, captured or escaped from the LRA enter an informal government-enforced Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) process, intended to help them regain the normalcy of life before captivity. Due to the lack formality behind this program, however the government of Uganda relies heavily on established NGO programs to reintegrate ex-combatants.
This reliance on NGO programs has proven to be a detriment — as only short-term solutions are offered to these child soldiers. According to Mao, when the guns fell silent in 2006, all but 30 (of the approximately 200 that existed previously) NGOs left Uganda, ignoring the vast amount of issues that had yet to be addressed. Follow-up care in Uganda is lacking, as these NGOs are not familiar with the deep history and culture in Acholiland. For example, they do not advocate for communal conflict resolutions and cultural healing ceremonies such as Mato Oput, which is traditionally used to forgive transgressions committed by community members.
What the Ugandan government does offer child soldiers, however, is blanket amnesty. In the first twelve years of the Amnesty Act of 2000, Uganda granted amnesty to 26,232 individuals. This decision has become a point of contention. Many Ugandans believe child soldiers forced to commit atrocities while in captivity should not be punished upon their return, while others want the now adult soldiers to be charged with looting and murder. This tension results in animosity towards returning child soldiers, who are often stigmatized, alienated, uneducated and found in chronic poverty.
Addressing the issue of stigmatization is undoubtedly critical, but the NGOs in Uganda currently provide a one-size-fits-all approach towards reintegration while not doing enough to educate communities on the experiences of child soldiers. It has been reported that World Vision, for example, uses a Christian method of reintegration — deeming ex-combatants ready to integrate based on their ability to talk about their “sins” and “repent”, despite their religious affiliation.
Additionally, many NGOs fail to include young girls and women into their reintegration schemes. Issues of mental health are also prominent, as many of these children experience symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Education and vocational skills are not acquired in captivity and those who return from the LRA must work diligently if they wish to close the gap between those who were abducted and those who were lucky enough to avoid this scenario.
Ex-combatants are trained in particular skills by several NGOs and the Amnesty Commission – the government’s only reintegration scheme – such as bicycle repair, brick laying, and tailoring. These skill sets, however, are not in high demand in their communities, resulting in a frustrating process for many returning children and adults that cannot find work nor contribute an income.
The lack of long-term research on child soldier reintegration makes it nearly impossible to evaluate the progress and efficacy of these programs. One effective way that could be accomplished is by examining variables such as the rates of alcoholism, crime, domestic violence, and primary school dropout. Such external influences have the potential to demonstrate a strong correlation between existing turmoil in Northern Uganda and unsuccessful reintegration attempts as ex-combatants struggle to regain normalcy.
The Ugandan government needs to stop relying on the NGO community to reintegrate returning child soldiers. It should implement its own program, with a particular focus on Acholi cultural traditions in dealing with trauma. The Ugandan government should also enact long-term research for its reintegration programs. An imperative step in resolving the future and worsening problems related to the return of former child soldiers in Uganda is evaluating the effectiveness of reintegrating former child soldiers into their communities.
As long as the reintegration process remains ineffective, Uganda is going to suffer. These traumatized and desensitized children are growing to be adults. They are the future leaders of Uganda, and their main means of conflict resolution is violence. Immediate, effective, and culturally sensitive reintegration is imperative to deter a future dictated by atrocities in Uganda.
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