Children were particularly vulnerable to the impacts of displacement. Angelika Mendes/JRS
Kitgum, 1 September 2012 - Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) set up the Kitgum project at a time of great change in Ugandan history. Just emerging from a horrendous 20-year war, the majority of the population of Kitgum, northern Uganda was displaced. Still based in camps, but now able to return home, JRS chose to accompany the internally displaced persons (IDPs) of Kitgum at this crossroad in their lives.

Northern Uganda was terribly scarred by the war between Ugandan forces and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). A range of shocking atrocities including brutal killings, abductions of young boys and girls, tortures, lootings and burning of houses had rendered people powerless and traumatised.

In 2002 as the LRA attacks intensified, a government-led initiative enforced mass displacement of the majority of the population of northern Uganda into centralised camps for their own protection. Suddenly moved out of their home villages, the people there added a sense of bewilderment and displacement to the list of traumas they had experienced. Massive social and economic infrastructure breakdown occurred as close to two million people left their old lives behind and became confined to the camps, some of them for up to ten years. In Kitgum District there were 25 camps, which then reduced to 11 in 2009 when Lamwo District was created.

Directionless and despairing, people living in the camps often felt no better off than before they moved. Although protected from the scourge of the LRA, the daily pain of lost livelihoods, lack of access to education and healthcare, a loss of traditional values and ongoing psychological trauma, plagued IDPs. In 2006, the conflict ended after the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CHA) between the Ugandan Government and the LRA. However, although the CHA ended the attacks, a formal peace agreement was not reached and so the LRA left northern Uganda and shifted its area of operations into the territory bordering South Sudan, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). With this change, a period of relative peace at last came to the northern part of Uganda and meant that the people in the camps could gradually move back to their home areas. Due to various challenges (destroyed infrastructure, lack of basic services, land mines and insecurity), the journey home took place in stages, first to satellite camps, and then to villages of origin.

JRS accompanied, served and advocated for the people of Kitgum for six years from 2006 to 2012. A flexible approach was required throughout the entire project due to the various stages of the returns process. JRS’s impact in Kitgum has been profound and life-enhancing.

Addressing the need

In 2006, Kitgum District was one of three districts in Acholi Sub-region, the others being Pader and Gulu (in 2012, there are seven due to subsequent sub-division). Kitgum was particularly affected by the war and over 90 percent of the population was displaced to camps due to the insurgency. After a needs assessment was carried out in 2004, it was agreed that JRS would start working in Kitgum in March 2006 with a focus on social services and community building, education and peace-building. The programme began in IDP camps in two sub-counties, extending its areas of operation to eight, but then following an assessment, reducing to four in order to maximise effectiveness. These were Akwang, Kitgum-Matidi, Lagoro and Nam-Okora. A parish-based approach to programming was adopted, later evolving to a village-based approach. IDPs were addressed at a parish level to ensure they could be assisted consistently as they moved locations during the return process.

It was clear to JRS that one of the major needs lay in the accumulated frustration, stress and trauma that Kitgum IDPs had to deal with on a daily basis. Engaging people in constructive activities was one method of helping communities come to terms with their situation and to make sense of it. Emphasis was put on working with those most in need, including formerly-abducted children, orphans, widows, persons with disabilities and child-headed households, as well as ensuring the whole community was included in activities as much as possible. Serious issues such as alcohol abuse, domestic violence and child exploitation were amongst the many social problems that the psychosocial programme sought to resolve.

Working hand-in-hand with volunteer groups helped initiate a sense of ownership from the start and was designed to ensure the project could become self-sustaining over time. The IDP to IDP approach (community volunteers) was used and IDPs became part of implementation teams which could then reach out to the communities to maximise impact.

Skills for life

Education in the form of functional adult literacy (FAL) and vocational training was identified by JRS as being of great practical use. The
education programme opened with the formation of the JRS Community College in 2007. The college provided vocational skills training courses to orphans, young mothers and formerly-abducted children. The college was a direct response to the depressed situation of the youth in the camps and their tendency to adopt negative behaviour patterns (drinking and early sexual activity) as a reaction to their displaced and uncertain situation. Many of the IDPs had missed out on learning to read and write due to the years of war and the lack of access to education in the camps. Later, the education programme expanded to include agricultural training in order to help returnees prepare for earning an income.

Social services and community building was split into the psychosocial programme and the community outreach programme. The psychosocial programme was core to addressing the ongoing trauma and mental wounds caused by the protracted conflict. An extensive
counseling programme, including the training of volunteer community peer counselors (CPCs), was designed to address social problems like alcohol abuse and domestic violence, and psychological issues such as grief, fear, anxiety, depression, hopelessness and nightmares. Later, support groups were developed for formerly-abducted children and group counseling sessions held. Extremely vulnerable individuals (EVIs) were another group who needed special support in the form of construction of new houses in their villages of origin, as well as support to return.

Community outreach was mainly focused on the youth who had lost a sense of identity and belonging due to the war. This involved training youth leaders to work with the broader community, encouraging cultural dialogue between youth and elders to revive traditions, volunteer work with the elderly and disabled, inter-parish competitions and debating events.

The peace-building component of the project was designed to bring disintegrated communities together once more and revive traditional
community structures, social support systems and conflict resolution methods. Cultural and religious leaders, teachers, and communities
were trained on issues such as rights violations, conflict resolution, mediation and advocacy. Community outreach groups were formed to be sustained after the closure of JRS.

JRS used a wide variety of techniques to bring its messages and training to the communities - celebrations of international events, traditional dances, sports, radio shows, door-to-door outreach, teaching, and community dialogue were all used to reach as many people as possible.

A powerful learning experience

The JRS work in Kitgum was not without its challenges - the largest of these being the dependency syndrome that had been created by the huge and prolonged material interventions of agencies in the district. JRS took the approach of emphasising the resilience and strength of the IDPs in their programmes, focusing on doing with the people rather than doing for. It was a hard task at the beginning - trying to redirect the perceptions of IDPs from a culture of dependency to one of self-reliance. However JRS felt the effort required was essential for building a sustainable situation and for long-term recovery. In addition, all of the local social support networks had collapsed due to the war, and were almost non-existent. It was daunting to try to revive these networks in the many communities and often JRS came up against a lack of interest or resistance to change.

Often the needs could be too much so much bigger than the services available. Sometimes counseling clients would experience relapses, sometimes mediated cases would revert back to conflict. Reintegrated, formerly-abducted youth would be called names by their own families and chased back to their old ways. Other young people would lose hope and drop out of their youth groups, returning to drinking once more or breaking the law. Sometimes the houses constructed for EVIs would burn down, and JRS would hear stories of volunteers being despised in their own communities for the work they were doing. JRS could not reach out to all of the communities in need, and instead had to focus its efforts on those most in need, as well as designing community outreach programmes to encourage a ripple effect.

These challenges were hard for the staff and the volunteers to deal with. Sometimes a return to war felt close and peace perilously unstable as the LRA were still active in neighbouring Sudan and the DRC. In addition, external factors such as lack of access to basic services (healthcare, water, education, sanitation), landmines, land conflicts, scarce livelihoods opportunities, an insufficient legal system and inter-clan disputes could affect the stability of peace.

Despite this, JRS continued, and the programmes gathered strength and momentum as more and more returnees reaped the benefits and
began giving back themselves to their communities. JRS engagement has made a crucial difference to the lives of many people in Kitgum District, who will continue living the mission of JRS after its exit. JRS accompaniment will continue through structures put into place, service will continue through volunteers, and advocacy will continue through established network systems. The knowledge given to the
communities by JRS is the biggest asset an organisation can provide, and it will continue growing.

Peace and reconciliation

Peace and reconciliation is a long-term process. It is vital for all peace-building programmes to work together with government structures in order to establish a stable basis for the future of a society. The approach adopted by JRS Kitgum involving working with outreach teams in the communities, proved to be effective and sustainable.

Reconciliation in northern Uganda has so far taken place at a small scale, however a number of organisations are now working on initiatives focused on continual involvement of local communities, including documenting the 20-year conflict in northern Uganda. As of June 2012, the majority of the former main IDP camps have been officially closed by the government - some have been turned into trading centres and others returned to their owners. A few remain open due to land disputes. Compensation to the people by the government is an ongoing process as well as efforts to rebuild lives.

In little steps, a more peaceful society is being built, and peace as a pre-requisite for development is slowly being realised. JRS is grateful for being able to play a crucial role in starting this process and building the skills required to continue it.

By Stephanie Brosch, Project Director, JRS Kitgum

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