Benon Herbert Oluka

Visible Children

How a community campaign in Uganda did what 'Stop Kony 2012' and US$ 2 billion aid money could not do.

Janet Akello was forced to kill a small boy who had tried to escape from the Lord's Resistance Army camp where she, too, was held captive. Phoebe* had a gun to her head when Joseph Kony raped her for the first time, when she was 14. Victoria*remembers fighting three armies handling a machine gun; abducting, burning, looting and serving as a wife to four commanders. They are now back home and, unlike most other former child soldiers, doing rather well. How a community campaign did what 'Stop Kony 2012' and US$ 2 billion aid money could not do.

One year back, 'Stop Kony 2012', an internet campaign conducted by the US evangelical group 'Invisible Children' conquered the world. A 'Stop Kony' YouTube video exhorted youth worldwide to help arrest warlord and child abductor Joseph Kony, free the child soldiers and see them through recovery from their trauma. The campaign, which got millions of young people and their parents to order 'Stop Kony' posters and T-shirts, focused on Uganda, in spite of the fact that Kony wasn't even in Uganda any more by 2012. The campaign also didn't mention that most of Kony's former child soldiers had returned from LRA captivity years ago, in 2005, and were now housed in refugee camps. Support the cause, 'Stop Kony 2012' said, and you'll support Uganda's kidnapped children.

Now, in 2013, Uganda's once-kidnapped children might as well be truly invisible. Aid projects in the damaged northern region have collapsed and former refugee camps stand abandoned. Thirty-thousand returned former child soldiers have, after years in the camps, been left to their own devices. The 'Invisible Children' project itself is preparing an exit strategy, much like the hundreds of foreign programmes in the region. "Returned to their villages, the [former child soldiers] may be worse off than they were in the [refugee] camps," notes a report from the UK aid agency DFID. The report, as well as other reports, mentions the fate of the many returnees: disease, alcohol, vagrancy, petty crime.

One small group of returnees, however, did find their way back into society. Janet Akello is now a trauma counsellor. Phoebe* studies biotechnology, and Victoria*is pursuing a degree in development studies. Others in their group of 25 girls, all kidnapped from St Mary's College, their school in Gulu/Lira district, Uganda, in 1996 and held captive as child soldiers and sex slaves for over ten years, are lawyers, lecturers, counsellors and journalists.

Key to their recovery was not a foreign aid programme or donor recipe, but their own community. A ZAM Chronicle reconstruction.

The NGO economy has gone

The once war-ravaged town of Gulu in northern Uganda is recovering remarkably. Since cessation of hostilities, plunder and kidnappings by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army in 2005, ten banks, a taxi industry, markets, hotels, supermarkets and a Toyota showroom have sprung up in the area. Refugee camps stand empty, NGO projects have folded. "All this has developed independently," says a local journalist, explaining that part of the revival is due to peace in, and trade with, neighbouring south Sudan. "This is private entrepreneurship. The NGO economy has gone."

Gone, too, are thirty-thousand returned child soldiers, now grown-up and traumatised, with memories of war, mutilation, rape, murders of loved ones, and of being forced to commit atrocities. Returning from the nightmare, most spent years in refugee camps where boredom and alcohol reigned. And in spite of over US$ 2 billion made available by donors for reintegration, returnees were, after the camps folded, mostly abandoned by the Ugandan government. The worst is feared in the case of many: petty crime, vagrancy, alcoholism, sickness, death.

Foreign NGO's conducting their own programmes did not do much better. "We trained them in tailoring, basket making and catering", says Florene Ogoola of Invisible Children, one of the many foreign entities active in the area. "But now there is an oversupply of these skills in the region. So the returnees are struggling to survive." Says village elder Mansur Odoch: "The NGO's did not always understand the needs of the returnees. They were just coming from the bush, traumatised. They had never worked in a trade. Many had children and family responsibilities."

Often, 'children and family responsibilities' meant having children by rebel leaders. Night Achiro, abducted when she was 14, had two when she returned after eleven years as a 'wife' to several commanders. She wanted to become a 'tailor or a chef' she told me then, when we met at a World Vision shelter in Gulu in 2005. Now, in 2013, the shelter stands empty and project manager Suzan Alal has no idea where she might be. "We trained her for three months. She left after that."

Unlike Night Achiro, however, Janet Akello, and her fellow St Mary's College group members Phoebe and Victoria, are easy to locate. They have homes, receive trauma support, and study at university. Fellow St Mary's returnees returned to start a career at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, or in the office of President Museveni. Their reintegration is the success story of a community - made up of parents and teachers - that stood tall to support them throughout the years, and that organized warm homes, a new school, counselling and bursaries upon their return. Janet, Phoebe and Victoria don't understand how general aid programmes could not have done the same in the case of their fellow returnees. "If they want to help them" asks Victoria, "why don't they simply ask them what they need?"

A realistic understanding

That is precisely what no-one ever did. "Hearts and minds of the northern [Ugandan] communities [have been missing from] most reconstruction efforts so far," says a recent report for the Nordic Africa Institute (a research centre jointly financed by Scandinavian governments), compiled by Ugandan academic Florence Adong . In essence, Adong says that the Ugandan government and its donor allies have wasted US$ 2 billion on reconstruction programmes that don't link to communities, and that have consisted of little more than the running of camps for 'IDP's': internally displaced people, covering both refugees from destroyed villages and returned child soldiers.

In terms of reintegration, the government made agricultural subsidies available to returnees, but this effort was again hampered by a schism between the official structures and the actual communities. No one in the government had noticed that land in the villages, left behind by abducted or displaced community members, had over the years been claimed by former neighbours. Land ownership issues are causing much continuing conflict in the communities, notes a report from UK aid agency DFID. The report suggests that it was a long shot in the first place to believe that traumatized youngsters, after years in the refugee camps, would happily turn into efficient farmers. "They may not have a realistic understanding of the difficulties associated with farming," the authors note diplomatically.

Close to nothing was done, either by foreign NGO's or by the donor-aided government, that practically assisted traumatised and fragmented communities with health, housing, education and conflict management. (Health being particularly important among these: Northern Uganda was and is still suffering from the mysterious and fatal nodding disease, that became an epidemic among returnees after 2005.) "The government should be perceived as catering to the [public's] interest," Florence Adong notes dryly, adding that there should be an "increase in public services and assistance to the returning population and their villages", or returnees could end up "worse off than they were in the refugee camps, with obvious implications for peace and stability in the region".

In contrast, the group of abductees to which Janet Okello, Phoebe and Victoria belonged, never struggled to find sympathy for their needs and specific circumstances. Their needs were taken into account, already from the time that Janet (who was 26 years old when she, after eleven years, escaped from an LRA camp in 2005) jumped three meters from plane steps into her fathers' arms, shouting 'Daddy!'

Making noise

Even before then, the group had known that they were not alone. The very day after their abduction by Joseph Kony's men from St Mary's College in Aboke town in Gulu/Lira district on 10 October 1996, the frightened girls - 130 in total - were astonished to see their deputy principal, Sister Rachele Fassera, and teacher John Bosco appear in the midst of the jungle. Sister Fassera, an Italian nun, and local teacher Bosco had followed the rebel group and their hostages for 300 kilometers, following cool drink cans and sweet wrappers, which the rebels had plundered from the school. Amazingly (and undoubtedly helped by the fact that Sister Rachele was foreign, white and a nun; this was after all a group calling itself the Lord's Army) the two managed to convince the rebels to release 100 of the total 130 abducted girls.

Not being able to rescue all of them haunted the teachers. It also inspired them to continue to work tirelessly with the girls' parents to see the others set free. The parents formed the Aboke Parents Committee; the school started a foundation to raise support for a campaign to rescue the abducted girls. Even inside the LRA camps where the girls were held, through the years, news filtered through of the campaign: the mother of Charlotte Atyam, chair of the Aboke Parents' Committee, was meeting Ugandan president Museveni, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Thabo Mbeki. The Italian nuns who ran St Mary's even got the Pope to call for the girls' release. "We were beaten every time [our supporters] were making noise," the former abductees recall, but the campaign nevertheless helped to convince the captors that the girls' relative safety and wellbeing were being followed by the entire world. The Parents' Committee managed to get Sudanese president (and Kony-supporter) Omar al Bashir to intervene on its behalf, and then secured a meeting with Joseph Kony himself. Kony still refused to let the girls go, saying they had been 'too expensive', but it was clear that he now recognized them as valuable bargaining chips.

Bad girls from the bush

Similarly, upon her return after escaping in 2005, Phoebe was hosted by relatives and received counselling after finding that her mother had passed away from grief; Victoria came home to a warm welcome. The group of former Aboke abductees was offered access to a new school, where they, again, stood together when the need arose to be heard. "Initially we were caned by teachers, because there was a caning practice at the school, and we were supposed to be treated just like the other girls," says Aboke returnee Victoria*. "Can you imagine that? In the jungle we were beaten and caned all the time. Our backsides still bear the scars. And now we were caned again. So we decided to challenge the teachers." The next time a teacher came to punish their class for "making noise", the Aboke girls refused to budge. From that day, the caning was over.

They managed to pull each other through the classes, too. "At first things were so hard," said Victoria. "They were so hard that you would think, 'will I pass'? But we would encourage each other." They helped each other through all the challenges that any former child soldier or sex slave would have faced: social stigma as well as interrupted education and housing issues. Phoebe* had to live alternately with her grandmother and other relatives. Like most returnees, the Aboke women experienced cruelty from neighbours who saw them as 'bad girls' and rebels 'from the bush', and made heartless remarks about their rebel-fathered children. They had to ward off advances from suitors: after what they had been through, few of the women now wanted to date or have relationships.

They struggle daily with the traumatic memories. All three can start to tell a story and then, midway, bite their lower lip, fight back tears, shake their heads, chuckle and end with the words, "Ha! Things were not easy." They often think of their friends who died in the bush: Judith Enang, the former head girl, beaten to death as the others watched, for allegedly collaborating with SPLA soldiers to plan her escape. The other four girls who perished: Stella Atoo, Jessica Aguu, Namahele Loiusa and Mirriam Akello. Those who didn't make it back are commemorated every year, on the 10th of October, in a ceremony at St Mary's College in Aboke.Apologies to donors

But the families and their erstwhile school, St Mary's, still stick with the survivors. Funds raised for bursaries have enabled Phoebe to pursue a degree programme in biotechnology. Victoria is set to finish her degree in developmental studies, aspiring to assist in the reconstruction of her home region. Janet Akello, also in developmental studies, is quickly becoming a go-to mentor in her church and at university. "There are many people who don't have hope," she says. "They are taken up by minor challenges but if you talk to them about the experiences you have gone through, then you will find that it helps them."

Unlike most other abducted children, the Aboke girls did come from a middle-class background. This was the reason they were in a good school with international connections in the first place; why their supporters managed to access international media; why there are now two books having been written about their experiences (and the film rights having been bought by Steven Spielberg); and why they were able to ensure 'assistance and services' from a national government, which failed so miserably in providing the same to other returnees. But their example shows that the problem is not in finding out what war-torn communities and victims of war need. They know exactly what they need, says Victoria. Her question "Why don't those who want to help them, simply ask them?" continues to echo through the abandoned aid camps and projects of northern Uganda.

Meanwhile, the government hardly seems to have taken note of its own failings or of the public interest at all. When US$ 13 million went missing from northern region support programmes, Museveni's government apologised to the donors - not to the Ugandans for whom the support had been meant. Invisible Children in Gulu prepares an exit strategy. "We have twenty-two ladies here, who make baskets, which we sell", says Invisible Children's Florence Ogoola. "They are basically our employees. The question we are asking now is: how long are we going to keep them here?"

*Janet Okello is her real name. The other two interviewees have asked to remain anonymous: Victoria and Phoebe are not their real names.

** Rebel armies are often used by dictators to do their dirty work. Sudan's al-Bashir supported Joseph Kony so that Kony's troops would fight Bashir's own rebels in South Sudan. (In the words of an anonymous Bashir follower: "We can always fight the SPLA by just getting more children from Uganda"). Peace and independence in South Sudan have consequently helped to diminish Kony's reign of terror.

Benon Herbert Oluka is a journalist who started his career with Observer Media moving to Monitor Publications in 2008. He has also contributed as a freelance writer to The Mail, The Guardian and The Africa Report. His work has earned him a number of accolades including Winner of the Akintola Fatoyinbo Africa Education Journalist Award 2008, Winner of the Uganda Investigative Journalism Awards in 2007 and the Golden Pen Journalism Awards in the same year.

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