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A National Gathering of the Next Generation of Human Rights Defenders
Editor’s Note: Robert is a former child soldier of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. After initially facing rejection from his community upon his return, Robert later became a leader for community group “Can Bwone.” He championed human rights and development to help his community recover from the devastation of the LRA and support fellow former child soldiers.
Three weeks. Twenty-one days. Five hundred and four hours. That is how long Robert spent walking back home as a child after escaping from captivity in the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, in northern Uganda. In his seemingly endless two years with the rebels, he was forced to kill, abduct young children, and walk over 300 miles, usually in dense jungle without shoes. And yet just three short years later, he is leading a successful community project to help his fellow former child soldiers to generate income and reintegrate back into society.
Even after his incredible journey back home, Robert faced stigma upon his return. It nearly broke his strength. “When I came back home, people said I had evil spirits. I felt as if I was being chased away, and people would bring back those horrible memories from the bush [from the time I spent with the LRA]. Anyone who was angry would vent his or her anger on me, because of what I was forced to do in the bush.” Approximately 66,000 youth have been abducted by the LRA over the years, and many thousands of them have expressed similar sentiments.
But these bad experiences didn’t stop him. The situation in northern Uganda was changing in 2006: the rebels were moving out of northern Uganda into the surrounding region, leaving Robert’s home area more stable than it had been in two decades. The peace process seemed to be moving forward, and people were starting to rebuild. Robert knew that he had to pick up the pieces and move on. He had a family to take care of— he now had three children of his own.
Not only did Robert move on, he led. “I wanted to take my bad experiences and turn them into good,” he explained. He wanted to help his family, his community in Alokolum, and the people who were abducted with him. “They don’t deserve those bad things. We need to rebuild together.”
Last year, Robert became chairman of the group “Can Bwone” (pronounced Chan Bwon-ay, meaning “Poverty requires humility”), a community group formed two years ago with the support of the Grassroots Reconciliation Group. Robert explained “Can Bwone” to us in his own words: “We have 25 people, and half of them are returnees [former LRA child soldiers and concubines], and we work together three times per week on a farming project. When we are working hard like that on our project, we are transforming ourselves. We sensitize the community to not stigmatize other returnees, so that they won’t call them names or bring back the bad memories.” The new opportunity has not only changed his life but it has also transformed the community’s perception of him.
Being in this group has helped erase the bad memories from the bush, because we interact very well and socialize often. Now people don’t say that I have those evil spirits any more. They say I have a humble, good character. That is why they chose me to become a group leader.
Robert then took initiative and went even further. “Last year I also organized our group to form a cultural drumming and dancing group, and I entered us into a regional dancing competition. The music and dancing helps our community heal, especially the returnees. We are like a family.”
This profile and many others were compiled for The Enough Moment, a book by John Prendergast and Don Cheadle about engaged citizens – known and unknown, in the U.S. and abroad – who are mobilizing to help end genocide, rape, and the use of child soldiers in Africa. Visit the Enough Moment Wall to hear people describe their “Enough moment” and to upload a video, photo, or written testimonial of your own.
Photo: Soldiers from Uganda's Lord Resistance Army await the arrival of delegates at Ri-Kwangba in southern Sudan in 2008. (AP Photo/Glenna Gordon)