Former child soldiers in Northern Uganda use arts-based therapies to support healing of their traumas

Blog by Jassi K Sandhar, University of Bristol

Students from Gulu Primary School come together to perform a piece about solidarity and abduction prevention.

Last month, on 16th December 2018, YOLRED (a community-based organisation designed, driven and led by former child soldiers based in northern Uganda) convened a talent show in Gulu, Northern Uganda. The event brought over 350 people together for a day of creative arts-based performances, organised to facilitate dialogue on several issues related to child-soldiery and the Ugandan-conflict that were not addressed during post-conflict peacebuilding, and continue to remain overlooked today. This day played a critical and essential role in putting former child soldiers at the forefront of their own restoration, whilst also encouraging commitment towards the collective responsibility of tackling child soldiery and the importance of creating peaceful and welcoming environments for returnees. Disenfranchised by the lack of national response and limited reach of international actors beyond the capital of Kampala, this day emphasised the importance of conflict-affected populations in leading and delivering their own programmes to support their healing. It is former child soldiers, and their communities, who know best their needs for protection, safety and reconciliation.

This talent show built on the success of the previous, and first ever, cultural festival, held in December 2017 with a similar purpose – to provide a safe space for former child combatants and their communities to come together to re-enact their experiences. Following the positive feedback received from former child soldiers who expressed feelings of empowerment and importance, YOLRED were able to deliver a larger programme which was inclusive of many groups, including different genders, abilities, clans, and ages. Omony Geoffrey, executive director of YOLRED and himself a former child soldier, speaks of the importance of such gatherings:

Because there is power in coming together, former child soldiers were able to gain psychological, physical and emotional healing which made the show a success. I know that when given the opportunity, former child soldiers can perform more than we can imagine as witnessed during the show. And as a child soldier myself, I know that, there is nothing for us without us.

Despite relative stability for the last few years, Uganda has experienced concentrated periods of destabilising civil war (particularly between 1986-2006). Much of Northern Uganda, particularly Gulu district, is heavily associated with forced abduction and child soldiery; approximately 29,000-38,000 children participated in the conflict of Northern Uganda, and although abduction and forced recruitment has declined in the region since 2009, former child-combatants are still trickling in slowly. picture1These individuals have lived in captivity for many years, only to return as adults without ever having experienced freedom or peaceful co-existence in a community.

Unfortunately, former child soldiers face severe marginalisation and stigma, and their needs often come secondary to their communities – they are largely expected to suppress their emotions. Any displays of anger, frustration or sadness lead to ridicule or shunning, and suggestions that these traits result their time in captivity. Such retorts act as a constant reminder of their enslavement and time served in the conflict, and therefore become a hindrance to accessing freedom and being emotionally, mentally and physically free from the ramifications of child soldiery. Therefore, providing a platform solely for them to express these emotions is essential for their well-being.

elders dance
Elders dance – an Acholi dance performed to commemorate those who have passed on.

YOLRED supports these challenges and the reintegration of former child soldiers back into society. One of their methods for doing so is their music therapy programme which utilises creative art-based therapies of drama, music, film, and dance as a tool for social healing, confidence-building and empowerment of ex-child combatants in the region. Under this programme, YOLRED works with community groups across Northern Uganda who have been affected by the conflict and are still dealing with the ramifications of child abduction or other violations. The talent show provided a non-judgemental platform for groups to showcase the pieces and presentations they had been working on throughout the year, with former child soldiers performing alongside their communities, as a means of facilitating healing, forgiveness and peacebuilding.

Having former child soldiers speak about or perform their experiences is part of YOLREDs programmes; it has proven effective in capturing the attention of non-child soldiers, generating innovations in learning about security and child well-being, as well as memorialising individual and collective war experiences. The former child soldiers of Northern Uganda have experienced a sacred space in music, drama and dance that has allowed them to express their emotions in a creative manner and facilitate making peace with their journeys. It provides an outlet for them which, despite the memories of their past, encourages thinking about a better future and make efforts to start afresh. The creative-expressive forms are a dialogue process between the community members that initiates the process of more inclusive, tolerant and peaceful communities.

Acholi cultural dance.

The music therapy programme also works to build the leadership and creative capacities of youth, and a community of folk artists and musicians socially inclined and motivated to engage in advocacy work. The festival was organised in a public space, where the performances were showcased to a wide-ranging audience (i.e. elders, civil society groups, grassroots organisations, media, and politicians); situated in the local roots of Acholiland, where expressive arts like music, dance, drama and storytelling are at the heart of cultural practices, rituals, and traditions that support an individual’s life within its community. Such creative therapies are salient with the local population and powerful enough to bring about social change.

men playing drums
Acholi men making music through drumming.

Whilst the International Labour Organisation (ILO) declares that forced recruitment and abduction of children to serve in armed-conflict constitutes modern-day slavery and one of the worst forms of child labour, there was very little protection for Uganda’s youth during the conflict. And, over a decade later, governmental post-conflict support for returnees is non-existent. Any international involvement and programmes carried out for former child soldiers often adopts a top-down approach designed in European states which is not inclusive of the voices of survivors and thus neglects their specific needs. This is most significant for former girl and women soldiers, who become invisible in narratives of child-soldiery as social constructions of gender do not consider them to be fighters. With these structural barriers in mind, the work of YOLRED and other community-based organisations becomes pivotal in both the protection of potential child soldiers, and in combatting some of the stigma which exists for returning former child soldiers.

As a disclaimer, it is very important to note that while this particular piece focuses on Uganda, child-soldiery is not an African phenomenon (despite the biased reporting on the subject) and exists in all countries where there is conflict.

This festival was generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the Anti-Slavery Knowledge Network (as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund) as part of a wider project titled “Bila Pi Kuc: Creative Art-based Therapies for the Prevention, Reintegration, and Healing of ex-Child Combatants in Northern Uganda”. I would also like to thank the SWW-DTP for their continued support with this project and my research.

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