Obol Obongo used to be the best fighter at school.
With his slight build and close-cropped hair, the fourteen year old could pass for twelve. He sits on the front bench in his one-room school, bare feet resting on the cement floor. Posters taped to the wall behind him show sketches of people killing, looting and kidnapping.
Obol is familiar with violence. He lives in Gulu, an area in northern Uganda that has been at the centre of a war for the past 18 years. Accustomed to conflict since he was a child, he has learned to resolve his problems using his fists, sticks and stones. But over the last year, Obol has been learning about peace — and how to put the concept into practice in his daily life — and he isn’t fighting so much anymore.
The peace project that has provided a new, non-violent framework for Obol and his classmates was piloted in three schools in Gulu last fall. The Injury Control Centre of Uganda (ICCU) developed the peace project because their research showed violence as the top cause of injury and death in Gulu. “These kids speak violence,” says Milton Mutto, the organization’s research assistant. “We want them to know that there are alternatives.”
The ICCU has found that the young people are eager to learn about peace, despite their difficult circumstances. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a ragtag rebel group founded and led by Joseph Kony, has been trying to overthrow the Ugandan government, supposedly to replace it with a regime based on the Ten Commandments. However, the group has become well-known for its acts of senseless slaughter, rape and even cannibalism.
Young people between the ages of eight and 16 are prime targets for the LRA. They live under constant threat of abduction by rebels that make routine attacks in the villages at night. Schools are targeted during the day. The LRA established a routine of attacking schools throughout the 1990s and this continued through 2002. If captured, the teens are forced to work for the army as fighters and sex slaves. Conservative estimates place the total number of teenagers and children abducted by the LRA (since the conflict began in 1986) at more than 20,000.
To avoid being kidnapped, many sleep away from their homes. They have become “night commuters.” Every night like clockwork, about 2,500 of them stream onto the roads, making their way to the hospital or the centre of town, where regular patrol by the government army and police keep the area safe. Many seek shelter under a shop veranda in town. Those who can make it to the hospital sleep in a partially constructed ward or in the hospital courtyard where leafy trees provide some shelter when it rains. Others sleep in the bush.
“We did focus group discussions and in-depth interviews of these kids and we found every single one of them was traumatized. That means seeing their father murdered, seeing their brother murdered, having their house burnt down by rebels and of course sleeping in the bush or the hospital to avoid being abducted,” says Dr. Ron Lett, president and international director of the Canadian Network for International Surgery, a group that works with the ICCU in Uganda. “It’s not that the kids don’t empathize or have sympathy. It’s just that they don’t know about alternatives,” he says.
When the organization first surveyed the schools in 1998, they found examples of the teenagers in Gulu mimicking the actions of the rebels. “The rebels commonly attack in the area by using the roads as a place to stage an ambush on a convoy of vehicles,” says Dr. Lett. “We learned that the kids, when they are angry at one of their classmates, mimic these actions and stage ambushes on each other along the road.”
“These traumatized kids become adults and they go into the future not being aware that there are non-violent alternatives to dealing with conflict,” says Dr. Lett. He strongly believes the cycle of violence will end by getting through to the kids. That’s where the peace project comes in. The course teaches matters of conscience, empathy, fairness and forgiveness through drawing, skits and music. The youth who have taken the course have even developed a panel through which they can resolve their problems together.
So far the project has shown promise. Rose Korma-Kecch, a teacher at one of the schools says that students from other classes hang around the windows hoping to overhear snatches of a conversation or skit from the peace curriculum.
The teachers also report seeing a difference in behaviour in just one year. “They can control themselves. Injuries have been reduced during recess.” Korma-Kecch says. She also reports fewer incidents of students “stoning” each other with rocks and mangoes. “At lunch time now the students all line up neatly instead of pushing and struggling. I have even seen some of the students that have taken the peace course advising other classmates on how to talk and solve their problems. We have become a peaceful class,” she says.