Life in the bush: Stories from former child-soldiers – Part One

During my time in Gulu, Northern Uganda, I have been blown away, not only by what people have been through, and that they have survived, but also by their bravery after that and the way that they forgive, start re-building their lives, and want to help others. Omara Gerald is one great example of this; a 14 year old boy in Senior 1 Class, he speaks bravely to me about what he went through. As part of a healing process that the charities Be The Change and I am Somebody’s Child Soldier (IamSCS) are working to get embedded here, I am interviewing the war-affected children at Laroo School and then working with them 1-2-1 and in groups to try to help them find some way to process and deal with the unspeakable traumas they have been through. Most of the people that suffered under the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have had little or no counselling or support since returning. Amazing organisations such as GUSCO and World Vision helped at the time with returnees, but with 25-30,000 children abducted, and more born in the bush and returning as young children, the task was mammoth and a lot of people got missed, or just didn’t get enough of the help they needed, and still haven’t. Having seen horrors that would even be too much for an 18-rated horror movie seems like the norm here, and that is something that I can’t get over. It’s mind-blowing, it’s on a massive scale, and it’s too much even for words…this is clearly going to have serious long term effects and needs strong and clear action and support to ensure that these traumatised people get the help and solutions that they need to move forward and have a brighter future. Shockingly, since the war ended, help and support from the government has been almost non-existent and a lot of the NGOs that were once here, are now leaving. But the help is still needed, just because the direct threat of abduction and war has gone, the damage has been done and leaves a darker problem simmering just beneath the surface. So how do we help? Well that’s part of what I am here doing, trying to find some answers to that question and explore the best ways to support war-affected individuals and help them find some peace in the  now, and find their potential for their future.

 

Life in the bush

When he was 9 years old he was abducted by the LRA whilst walking home from school. He had 6 other brothers and sisters, but was the only one abducted. He then spent 2 long years with the LRA at first being trained as a soldier, and then working as a soldier, and remembers in his words that “it was only bad things, all day every day”. Over the course of several discussions with Omara he detailed some of the things that he had been forced to do, and what daily life looked like; it’s harrowing hearing these stories and words coming from anyone’s mouth, let alone a 14 year old boy’s! In one of his accounts he describes being so hungry all the time and having to hunt for food themselves. He then pauses and goes on to tells me that he was given a gun and forced to kill many people, this wasn’t an option, kill or be killed, as we’ve heard from others before. This has obviously stayed with him and he explains how he still feels anger at this and doesn’t know how he will ever let that go. His father was killed by the LRA, which adds to his anger, and he is haunted by nightmares, and hears gunshots in his sleep still, which wakes him up at night. He tried to escape the LRA several times and each time was caught, but luckily was not killed. He said the beating was so bad that he wondered if he would die, but he somehow pulled through to then escape a last time and succeeded. As he details his last escape, running through the long grass towards a village where he hopes there will be a place to hide, being followed and dropping his gun and literally running for his life, the hairs on the back of my neck go up and I can really feel a small taste of his fear coming through his words and tone of voice. He hid in the village and thankfully the people following him gave up. I sigh with relief as I was expecting to hear another beating story, but sadly the story isn’t the immediate happy ending I was expecting. He then spent 2 years in a school in another area, as he had no idea where he had come from, whilst they searched for his parents and family. They eventually found them but this meant he had 4 years away from his family, and in that time his family members had also suffered trauma at the hands of the LRA; his Dad was killed and his Mum is left with 6 children to care for, meaning he had to live with his uncle as she couldn’t support them all. He lights up as he describes coming home, it makes me well up and we exchange a smile, which has stayed with me since.

When I first met Omara I watched his body language, watched how he held himself in a closed way, and spoke quietly looking down a lot. He seems to be showing signs of PTSD, which at his age, is really pretty awful. As we have spent more time together he has opened up more and definitely relaxed a bit. He also adds to our group discussions and is a friend to many of the other boys. He tells me how he dreams of being an accountant (Mum and Dad would be pleased to hear this), and loves maths and geography. He sadly can’t afford to pay for school though, and so although Laroo Primary School allowed him to study for free, he now has to go onto secondary school where that option is not available and where the fees are so much higher and out of reach to many young people and their families.

 

Moving forward

So what is in store next for a young man like Omara? He had some counselling at the school that he stayed at when he first escaped from the bush, but from what I can assess, he definitely needs more emotional support and to be taught ways to deal with his anger and sadness when they arise, as well as the bad dreams and other things haunting him. We get to work on this and discuss different techniques and explore how anger looks and feels. We also discuss future dreams and things we are all grateful for in the present; I hope to continue these sessions with him and the rest of the group.

As previously mentioned, Omara shares another problem with a lot of other returnees; he can’t afford school fees and so no longer attends school. This seems to be the secondary issue resulting from returning to the bush; they missed out on school, return without family or with family members lost, and so fulfilling the need to catch up on school is just not possible due to the nationwide issue of paying school fees that is only exacerbated by their situation. In discovering this I also decided that I would do my best to get him and the other Senior 1 class boy, Aruu Solomon, into senior school, which I didn’t tell them - we hoped it could be a surprise, IF I could make it happen.

After meetings with several schools about the 2 boys, a college accepted them with a mind to put them into their selection process for the school football team in October, which would earn them a bursary to cover school fees going forward. Normally this would mean they would have to have studied at the school all year, or attend from next February, which would mean them missing a whole school year, but they made an exception, based on hearing about their football talent and good grades. The boys also were showing willing and a keenness to catch up on studies and work hard for their grades. So we elatedly told them the good news, only to then be dashed the next day when the school then changed their mind and demanded school fees as well, which on top of the fees for uniform and books, plus costs of mattresses, kit, bags and all the other things that they need to go to boarding school, I knew that I could not afford to cover this myself. Solomon (the teacher from Laroo Primary) and I met with the school again and negotiated them down as much as possible (earning me the label of being courageous, which means feisty here haha), but it was still out of reach for me to support this. So I put it out to the universe as I cried over the thought of having to tell them that they now couldn’t go. Thankfully the universe heard my prayers and thanks to all my amazing friends and family, the money was raised to send them to school!

 

Bright futures

Having an opportunity to attend school and study is all these children ask for, which still shocks me on a daily basis. They are so keen to learn and further themselves, and they show bravery of which is unprecedented. To have come through so much, and want to look forward and work hard in the now to be able to ensure that their tragic past does not affect their future, really is admirable! They don’t rely on anyone else in the sense that they know what they need to do and focus on achieving it. Sadly this often is unattainable due to money restrictions, but they keep on striving, working any job that they can to save some money and knowing one day they will get to school. It has been an honour for me to be able to work with these young men, and also the others that I have personally sponsored, to be able to help them take the first step towards their dreams. Its down to them now to work hard and make it happen, and I have no doubt they will make everyone proud. It is with a light and happy heart that I say thanks to everyone who supported 'Be The Change' and continues to do so, these smiles wouldn’t have happened without you all!

Omara is the second from the left in the first photo, and on the left in the second photo.

 

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