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Intern finds heartbreak, hope in Ugandan camp

 


Intern finds heartbreak, hope in Ugandan camp

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo courtesy of Africa University

Akelo (left) holds her son alongside another child mother at a camp for displaced persons in Uganda.
March 21, 2005       

By Andra Stevens*

MUTARE, Zimbabwe (UMNS)—Everyone has a story to tell, and the story of 16-year-old Akelo is not an easy one to hear.

The teenage mother is caring for her 2-year-old daughter and infant son in a camp for internally displaced persons in the Pader District in northern Uganda.

Abducted from her worn-torn home at gunpoint at age 12, Akelo spent four years in the bush with the Lords Resistance Army. In the years that followed, she saw young boys turned into combatants and other young girls gunned down for not walking fast enough or for trying to run away. She survived a government forces attack on the rebels by lying in a pool of her friends’ blood and playing dead.

Dragged from place to place while the group waged war on the Ugandan government and people from bases in the north of the country and in southern Sudan, Akelo was terrorized, used as a sex slave and became a wife and mother at age 14.

Her adolescent experiences have left her traumatized, depressed and scarred.

Learning through real life

David Manyonga believes Akelo’s story, though difficult to hear, must be told and heard.

A graduate student in Africa University’s Institute of Peace, Leadership and Governance, Manyonga is doing an eight-week internship in the Pader district. He is one of 22 interns who left the safety of the institute’s lecture halls in January to immerse themselves in real-life environments to learn about peace building, leadership and good governance.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo courtesy of Africa University

David Manyonga (in cap) is documenting the experiences of former child soldiers and abductees in Uganda.
“The physical situation is bleak and greatly shocking,” said Manyonga. “I’m living in the camp too and I see how little the people have and how cut off they are from the world. But the spirit of the people is so encouraging.”

The institute’s partner, the United Movement to End Child Soldiering, a Washington-based organization, facilitated Manyonga’s placement in Uganda. Both bodies are closely monitoring the pilot internship program. The goal is to build a long-term collaboration to equip community organizations working in conflict zones, and to test the relevance and effectiveness of the Institute’s training programs in one of Africa’s most protracted conflicts.

“We are hoping that this is just the beginning of other relationships, not only in Uganda, but in places like Burundi, Liberia, every place where there are problems,” said Elijah Chanakira, a lecturer at the institute and coordinator of its internship program. “We are hoping that our graduates will be the people who will be relevant and effective in situations of this kind—people who can help resolve conflicts and bring about peace.”
 
Though he has multiple roles—intern, mentor, trainer, learner, adviser and planner—Manyonga’s most important contribution is to interview former child soldiers and abductees and document their experiences. He’s working with a community-based organization called Friends of Orphans to rehabilitate and reintegrate former child soldiers and other war-torn children into their families and communities.

Manyonga is in a camp for internally displaced people that houses 25,000 mostly women and children. He describes his work with Akelo and other abductees as crucial. Listening to the voices of some of this war’s most innocent victims, he believes, is part of the process of national reconciliation, forgiveness and peace building.

“In telling their stories these young people find release, they are able to reach out and find that there are people who care,” Manyonga said. “It’s also important that we know what actually happened to them, the atrocities they suffered in this war that has been going on for almost 19 years but is little talked about and at times, seems almost forgotten.”

Responding to needs

As the stories are told, wide-ranging and critical needs emerge. Akelo, for example, was in primary school when she was abducted. While she was in the bush, her parents were killed. The Uganda Police Defense Forces’ Child Protection Unit rescued Akelo during an attack on the rebel unit she was traveling with. She now is psychologically damaged, has little education, no parents and two children to support. How can she go back to school? How will she support her family?

Akelo is not alone. Sixty-four young mothers or heads of household between the ages of 9 and 16 are clients of the Christian Counseling Fellowship drop-in center at the camp. There are also scores of orphans, former child soldiers and women—all needing long-term counseling, literacy and skills training and help to develop their income-generating activities.

“In a way, it’s a miracle to rebuild their lives as (they’ve been) to hell and back,” said Beatrice Achan, a social worker at the center.

The local community is leading the response. Though their resources are meager, local church leaders established the CCF drop-in center to offer food, health education and counseling and to start small self-reliance projects for child mothers and orphans. That work and that of Friends of Orphans is being supported by international partners such as the United Movement to End Child Soldiering.

The organization is advocating for additional financial and other resources and providing funds for school fees. With the movement’s support, Manyonga is helping to enroll children and youth from the camp in area primary and high schools. He is helping plan a 2005 education program to strengthen relationships among Friends of Orphans, local officials and other community-based organizations working with war-affected youth.

Planning for the future

The United Movement to End Child Soldiering is so pleased with Manyonga’s work that it wants to expand the internship program and its partnership with the institute and Africa University. Arthur Serota, the movement’s executive director, is considering internships in the areas of water and sanitation, technology, agricultural development, counseling and conflict resolution.

“David plugged into Pader beyond what is possible to describe,” Serota said. “His role in Pader District and his ability to make a difference both on site with Friends of Orphans and in the community, at many levels, has already become apparent and appreciated.”

The Institute of Peace, Leadership and Governance at United Methodist-related Africa University was initiated in June 2000. Based in Mutare, Zimbabwe, the institute is the first of its kind, linking issues of peace and security with leadership and governance in Africa. The institute offers post-graduate diplomas and master’s degrees in Peace and Governance. Its first group of students enrolled in March 2003 and graduated in June 2004. Construction of a building for the institute is under way.

Africa University is the only United Methodist-related university on the continent. It opened in 1992 and has 1,283 students from 21 African countries.

*Stevens is director of information and public affairs at Africa University.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

 

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