Opinion Piece by Eric Okori Okonye
Despite being least responsible for the outbreak of violent conflict, children are disproportionately at risk of being affected by the violence and exploitation that occurs during and after the conflict. As a result of conflict, children disconnect from their homes and families, have their education disrupted, others forced into becoming child soldiers, whereas others lose their lives. According to the UN, there are 250 million children affected by armed conflict. This is five times the population of Uganda.
It has now been 15 years since the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict ended in Northern Uganda, but war-affected communities, especially those who had been abducted, and children born in captivity, still suffer. According to Watye ki Gen, a community-based organization working with World Vision, more than 1,000 children born of war are still in need of help across the seven districts of Acholi region. Mothers of these children are having difficulties locating the children’s paternal families since most of the children’s fathers are former LRA commanders.
The reintegration of these children and their mothers into the community remains a challenge, and the children, who had nothing to do with the conflict, are now suffering the aftershocks. They have no sense of belonging and lack familial relationships. This is mostly as a result of the continued stigma and isolation by some community members, referring to them as ‘rebel children’, ‘children of Kony’ and other names that marginalize them.
The effects, both physical and mental, and the barriers to services and support that stigma creates, can be devastating and lifelong.
“I have only one problem–everyone hates me,” cried one child.
The LRA conflict attracted international attention in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but since the war ended, priorities have changed. The assumption perhaps, is that since the war is over, life is back to normal, which isn’t the case. There are still thousands of formerly abducted youths, women, and children born in captivity that languish in poverty. There is still a great need for reintegration through counselling, community sensitization on reconciliation, skills development and economic empowerment for the youth, and education for the children.
Government and nongovernmental organisations previously put reintegration and recovery programmes in place, but due to the dwindling funding, it was never enough. Today, the risks faced by these vulnerable children continue to loom. A handful of NGOs operating in the region have been forced to close.
When children affected by war can no longer safely access learning, they begin to feel there is no hope for a future. We wouldn’t want it to get to a point where they believe wartime is better than peace. Research has indicated that socio-economic and circumstantial factors can push boys and girls into rejoining armed groups, if they are left with no choice. This would be more dangerous for them and for the country as well.
According the UN, over 100,000 people lost their lives during the LRA insurgency in northern Uganda. About 60,000 children were abducted and mostly forced into becoming child soldiers and sex slaves. As the world celebrates International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers today, also known as Red Hand Day, it is important to acknowledge that former child soldiers and thousands of children born of war still roam the streets and villages of northern Uganda, with no place to call home.
With the conviction of rebel leader Dominic Ongwen at the ICC last week, war-affected people in Acholi region have started to receive justice, but the need for cohesion and peaceful coexistence can never be overlooked.
The reintegration of children formerly associated with armed groups into their families and communities is a crucial step for their well-being. At World Vision, we believe that all children should have the opportunity to experience life in all its fullness, and our programming focuses on strengthening the protective environment around them. On this Red Hand Day, we ask that all will join this protective environment turning a child’s cry of “Everyone hates me,” into “I am loved.”