JRS provided peace education training for young people in Kitgum.

Kitgum, 1 September - In 2005, at the end of the long LRA conflict, the Archbishop of Gulu Diocese, Uganda (His Grace Jean-Baptiste Odama) invited Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) to help restore peace, human rights and dignity amongst the displaced and disunited population. JRS responded immediately by embarking on a peace education programme in Kitgum District.

JRS's peace-building programme began with a peace education approach, training the community on concepts of peaceful co-existence and imparting knowledge and life skills. JRS made huge contributions to the lives of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had experienced various social difficulties throughout the years of the conflict. Living in deplorable conditions in camps for nearly 20 years had created communities for whom aggression, discordance and hostility had become a way of life. The Acholi people no longer lived as a community. JRS trained them on non-violent ways of resolving conflicts, how to develop a positive attitude in order to move beyond the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) violence, the integration of values to effectively analyse conflict and its dynamics, and how to make decisions which can help peaceful co-existence and development activities.

Transforming peace education into peace-building

During the initial stages of the programme (2006-2007), JRS reached out to IDPs living in 25 camps spread across Kitgum District. To effectively reach large numbers of IDPs, JRS staff held community workshops, formed community peace committees at the parish level, and trained local leaders on pro-active conflict management tools. The inclusion of the church in the Kitgum project was vital, as people could be united through religious values. Local leaders were particularly crucial in restoring social, cultural and leadership structures at the grassroots.

Later, in 2007 and 2008, JRS realised there was a need to expand its educational approach to a more inclusive peace-building process. In addition to peace education, community structures which had lain dormant during the conflict were strengthened to enable the growth of a sustainable peace-building strategy. The approach was people-centred and prioritised community participation. The reviving of traditional justice mechanisms by building the institutional capacity of target groups (diocesan justice and peace commissions, church leaders, primary school teachers, community leaders and local government officials) was also very important.

The wisdom of global peace-makers

In his book, 'No Future Without Forgiveness' retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote: 'forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim.' This wisdom was built into the JRS peace-building programme to encourage IDPs to overcome conflicts through forgiveness. Added to that, was the sentiment of Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr. as outlined in his book 'Where Do We Go From Here' He wrote: 'the ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy… Returning violence for violence multiplies violence adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can
do that' These words gave JRS the inspiration to tailor peace-building activities which were responsive to the changing needs of the communities.

IDPs reaping the fruits of restored peace

JRS's work in Kitgum has assisted many IDPs to reap untold rewards, borne of restored peace. Children's rights have been supported, community members have benefitted from peace-building skills training, community volunteers have been empowered and land conflicts have been reduced.

Campaigns for children's rights, debates, sports clubs, peace clubs and integration of peace education lessons into the academic curriculum have all encouraged children in primary schools to develop skills which will enable them to uphold and promote their rights and help create a peaceful atmosphere in their schools and homes.

For the broader community, life skills such as the art of dialogue, negotiation, mediation, reconciliation, decision-making, problem solving, assertiveness, and critical thinking have helped IDPs develop coping mechanisms for every day life. Whilst still in the IDP camps, JRS was actively engaged in a massive anti-violence awareness campaign. Out of this initiative, eight community peace committees were formed to disseminate information, mediate on minor conflicts and refer serious cases to the authorities for proper management. This was an effective strategy until the return process started. Quickly, the JRS strategy changed to a more sustainable model. The peace committees were dismantled and instead a team of 36 community volunteers, drawn from each of the 11 parishes the peace-building programme was working with, was formed. Community volunteers still remain the vital mediators of minor theft and land conflicts, holding regular meetings with communities to identify issues of concern, and helping families in dealing with domestic violence cases through counseling and mediation. They have also assisted in reuniting EVIs with their relatives, promoting community cohesion. Overall, since 2007, these volunteers have facilitated 119 community awareness sessions that have educated around 23,500 community members on human rights, pro-active conflict management, and issues such as sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

Continuity of JRS peace-building efforts

In March 2012, JRS handed over its peace-building work to the Acholi communities living in Kitgum District. After years of being immersed in violence, they can now enjoy the rewards. The need for continued peaceful co-existence and reconciliation can be felt at all levels. During the handover meeting to the sub-county authorities, the impact of JRS work prompted the Local Council III Chairperson for Kitgum-Matidi Sub-county to remark: 'there is a reduced level of domestic violence and drunkenness within our sub-county, resulting from the contribution of JRS to peace-building.'

It is important that the community volunteers and local leaders trained by JRS, maintain on-going support for community-led peace-building. In the long-term, the work that has been instilled there will help communities move away from the dangerous sub-culture of war and violence towards peaceful conflict resolution, tolerance, genuine forgiveness, reconciliation and hopefully a culture where people's rights are upheld as part of a constitution.

By John-Paul Akera, Peace Education Advisor, JRS Kitgum

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