One of the greatest tragedies of the war in northern Uganda over the past twenty years is the devastation it has inflicted on the civilian population and especially on the youth. Throughout most of the conflict, the LRA rebels employed a strategy which terrorized those living in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps by abducting youth—both boys and girls—to use as child soldiers and wives for the older soldiers. Many were kidnapped directly from their villages and from the IDP camps where they were supposed to have been protected from rebel attack. Once abducted, it is well documented that the rebels often used brutal psychological tactics on these youth by sometimes forcing them to kill their own family and community members.

As the violence began to subside in 2005 and 2006 with the onset of the Juba Peace talks in South Sudan between the LRA and the Government of Uganda, increasingly more youth who had been soldiers—some since the age of eight—were able to escape and return home to their villages. However, it wasn’t just as simple as walking back into the village and being greeted and welcomed by loved ones and community members. First, many former abductees had nobody and nothing to come back to. Secondly, they were ostracized and also experienced a great deal of stigmatization, which was simply overwhelming for most.

This stigmatization may seem odd to a Westerner at first because, after all, it was not these youth’s fault that they were abducted and forced to commit terrible acts against their own people. Nonetheless, when they began returning in larger numbers, the community had a great fear of these “former rebels.” The community had knowledge of the acts they had committed and many members of the community had witnessed these acts first-hand and now were faced with accepting those youth who had committed these acts back into the community.

I asked a colleague at Human Rights Focus—a non-governmental organization in Gulu that has been one of the leading monitors and watchdogs of the human rights conditions in the IDP camps over the past few years—the following question: What are some ways to help the youth/former abductees to overcome the stigmatization they usually feel upon reentry into their communities? He responded, “The abductees were removed from their community by the rebels. They were then forced to carry out serious human rights violations and to abduct others. People in the community have a very serious fear of these children when they return to the camps. They are ostracized from the community, ignored, and socially excluded. They are kept in a constant state of rejection.”

He continued on to say that the question, then, that communities and organizations in Gulu are now asking themselves is: How can we help reduce the stigmatization and foster a process of reintegration that encourages harmony, peace, and reconciliation. The Church has begun to take on this role at an institutional level. Archbishop John Baptist Odama did not ask the child soldiers to repent for any atrocities they committed. Nor did Odama set out by laying culpability explicitly with LRA commanders—although he did condemn their actions. Instead, he took the sin of war and of the ongoing humanitarian crisis onto the whole Acholi community. For Odama, the community repents because the community was responsible for the well being of these children—the sin is taken on by the whole of the Church. Furthermore, Odama has never referred to the LRA or those abducted as “the rebels.” He has, instead, continued to call them “his children.”

But action is also taking place among the youth themselves as they realize that any attempt at adequate reintegration into the community will ultimately have to begin with their own efforts. Consequently, many camps now have youth groups that have risen up, formed by young leaders who were once victims of abduction. They have returned with the goal of working to reharmonize their community and especially their fellow youth.

Dennis, the leader of the Yub Pa Lacwey Youth Group in Lacor IDP camp started his group in 2006 for those youth in Lacor IDP camp who were returning from the bush to their community after being abused by the rebels. Dennis himself was abducted at the age of 8—he is now 18—and was forced to do things he says are unimaginable for any human to have to endure.

Indeed, the psychological trauma of these youth is more than substantial and for most, professional treatment is a need. However, there are virtually no psychiatrists in the region and even the NGOs, community organizations, and the Church are often underequipped, undertrained, and underfunded to be able to carry out any substantial and widespread post-trauma and psycho-social treatment.

So, instead, the youth in Lub Pa Lacwey group come together under a common them: unity. In Yub Pa Lacwey’s mission statement, they say their main objectives are to reduce the level of stigmatization that former abductees currently face, to offer each other support emotionally, psychologically, and economically, and finally to uplift good cultural practices through the practice of traditional cultural dances and through the formulation of dramas which offer community sensitization on such topics as HIVAIDS, peace and reconciliation, and landmine awareness.

When I had a chance to witness Dennis and his group performing the traditional Acholi “Bwola” dance, I could sense the role that this was playing in the release of suppressed emotions and tragic memories. The dancing, the harmony, and the unity of the dance itself acted as a moment of peace for these youth, even if only for a few minutes. It reminds these youth that peace is still possible in a world that for them has been torn apart by senseless violence.

Dennis says of the dancing, “It is so refreshing to dance and to meet people who had been through the same things. I feared returning to the village not just because of the stigma and problems of food, but because if the peace talks break down then the soldiers will come back for us and this time they will kill us. But when I’m dancing I forget the past, the bad images and bad dreams. It silences the cries of those I saw killed. It refreshes me.”

The possibilities!

After only a few weeks working in the idp campss, I am already beginning to understand the complexities of development work. Whenever a service is provided or a material item is provided to people who are in very vulnerable situations, such as the internally displaced persons around Gulu, the implications of this give-take relationship can become enormous for the sustainability of any development project. Take, for example, our project with BOSCO. Right now we have installed low power computers, internet access and VOIP telephone service at seven sites in various IDP camps around Gulu. Yet it is not as easy as it sounds to just plop a computer with internet access wherever you please in these camps. First, there are technical things to consider and with the radio transmitters that allow the network to function, there are only certain places in these IDP camps which are accessible.

Secondly, one has to consider security issues. The computer has to be kept in a building which keeps it safe from the elements (this is not always easy to do in some of the camps which lack feasible structures for keeping such equipment) and safe from theft. This means that some of the computers must be kept in traditionally non-public spaces such as a teacher’s office or the residence of the local priests in the rectory of a church.

This brings us to the third issue. Who takes ownership of this material item that has been given? In this case a computer with access to the internet and cheap phone service has been installed; so does this belong to the person with whom it resides? Does it belong to the local school? Does it belong to the IDP camp as a whole (populations in the largest camps can be in the tens of thousands). One of the difficulties then is that when the material item has been given it often comes attached with privilege and power as far as who is allowed to access this new material item. Clearly, only so many people can have access to a computer at once so it is not feasible to say that anybody from and IDP camp with 30,000 residents is free to use the BOSCO computer at any time they choose. The question remains then, how can we best set up the expectations to realistically accommodate as many people as possible, facilitating as many users of the computers as possible, while also keeping in mind the restraints listed above.

One of the easiest solutions to this is simply to have more computers. Right now in some of the we have many people who are learning to use basic computer programs as well as discovering for the first time the communications and self-advocacy potential of the internet with email and VOIP. They are becoming capable users of this technology simply because they have access to it and can learn with very little guidance how to use it. In some camps, we even have users that are proficient enough that they have started trying to train other peers in the camps by setting up tutoring schedules.

Consequently, in a short period of time, I am already convinced that one of the key issues to expanding the abilities of those interested in becoming proficient in computers is simply access to a computer. These days, most of us each have our own personal computer at home. Some households have as many computers as people. And how are we (most of us!) able to stay ahead of the curve in our use of a computer to complete our daily tasks: again, simply because of the ease with which we have access. With more computers—even only a handful—at each of the existing sites, we could greatly improve the abilities of the Acholi people to learn to become proficient users and, in time, they can be trained to use the internet to advocate for their own cause.

For example, BOSCO has set up a wikispace page which allows internet users in the camps to collaborate with each other and with those in far off lands such as the U.S. Using this wikispace, the users in the camps have been able to post their own proposals for various causes. The site works like an easy-to-use webpage allowing people in the camps to edit and post their own material. In the Pagak IDP camp, farmers have started to post farming proposals on the BOSCO wikispace. This is a great tool for these farmers to start advocating for their own cause as they resume farming again after being cut off from their main source of income during the war (people living in the idp camps didn’t have access to their land when the conflict was at its peak).

For those interested in viewing one of these proposals, you can visit . Christopher who currently lives in Pagak camp, has organized a youth farming movement and has posted his farming proposals on the BOSCO wikispace. If you navigate to this site, simply click on the "Organic Farming" link and it will take you to his proposal page. Once users such as Christopher are proficient enough to use the computer and the internet in these kind of ways, the next challenge is trying to get their proposals read by the appropriate organizations who could help fund such proposals. Nonetheless, I think these proposals demonstrate the value of having access to computers and the internet in a post-conflict landscape. I hope that it will continue to be shown that providing people with resources that allow them to advocate for themselves will be a sustainable model of development for BOSCO!

Farewell Philipp!

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BOSCO has lost a fine asset in Philipp Glaser, who is now returning to his home in Europe. Philipp served one year in a volunteer position as our local network administrator in Gulu. In his time in Uganda he trained a team of local technicians, taught community members how to make use of the BOSCO system, and even drew up a proposal for our upcoming mini-deployment, now scheduled for this fall. We will miss him, and we all hope he will be available to return, as he has so indicated, to lend his expertise to our next major deployment (in Kitgum and Pader) in the months to come. Best wishes for the future, Philipp!...T


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