The Guns are Silent but Trauma Prevails

By Ronald Mwaka
The Guns Are Silent But Trauma Prevails

I live in a village called Pajimo in northern Uganda, it is among the many villages that was terrorised by the Lord’s Resistance Army during the insurgency. The LRA began as an evolution of the Holy Spirit Movement, a rebellion against Uganda’s Current President “Yoweri Museveni”, Oppression of the people of Northern Uganda though it later spread to South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. Its leader is “Joseph Kony” who founded it in 1988 with the claim of restoring the honour of his ethnic Acholi people and to install a government based on his personal version of the Ten Commandments. The group was characterized by violent attacks on villages, burnt homes and abducted children leaving behind a trail of destruction and trauma.

My family was one of the many who were forced to flee our home to escape the violence and seek refuge in a crowded displaced refugee camp. It was composed of five kids, three boys and two girls of which the ages ranged between 6-14. I was twelve. My parents were peasants in their late forties who worked in a community store where they generated income to take care of us.

The Camp we  lived in was three kilometres close to the city centre. It was created to cater for internally displaced people in the nearby villages. The conditions we lived in were terrible. We struggled to find enough food to eat, clean water to survive and basic health care. We had to always wait and depend on the little provided by Humanitarian organizations. In the camp, We lived in fear of the LRA attacks at any time,they could burn houses, slice and cut people lips, hands and legs and at times rape women.

When I was 12 years old, the LRA attacked the camp with guns and machetes and burnt houses, and abducted several other children including me. I was forced to become a child soldier, trained to kill and do unspeakable things. In one instance, we were forced to kill adults or other children who failed to obey the LRA’s strict rules or try to escape. The killings frequently had a ceremonial nature, with children surrounding the victim in a circle and each taking a turn beating the victim with large wooden sticks until the victim died. Refusal to participate would be a death sentence. Girls abducted by the LRA would also undergo military training but were also forced to become wives or sexual slaves of LRA senior fighters. They usually stay with the same fighter during their entire time in captivity.  The trauma of the war weighed heavily on me, and I often had nightmares and flashbacks like during sleep. I alway have flashbacks of one night when I was forced to detonate an explosive in a village where I had relatives, their pain and cry burning in grass thatched houses are still fresh.

After several years, the LRA became weak, the government constantly attacked them in their hideouts at garamba forest. One day the LRA camp was attacked and every one ran in a different direction, with them they had carried foodstuffs they had looted and abductees, this was at the uganda-Congo border. This is how other children and I managed to escape, as every one was trying to hide out from the government forces.

My commanders failed to trace my where about. I had climbed a very big, thick tree with packed leaves that no one could tell I was hiding there. When they left to a different direction I started to look for my way out. I move through swamps, crossed rivers and villages. After some days I reached close to an Army detachment where I surrendered  to the government forces, they interrogated me but when I explained to them how I was abducted and escaped, they relaxed on me. I was returned to my family, the joy and ululation was unbearable. My mother was very happy, she continuously touched my whole body and asked if I was fine. I did not know how to react. I was feeling joy inside me but at the same time pain regarding what I had gone through. I was no longer the same person.

The trauma of my experiences as a child soldier had left deep scars on my psyche, and I struggled to adjust to civilian life. I found it difficult to connect with people and often felt isolated and alone. I felt like being violent all the time, feelings of guilt and shame, I felt like revenging and abusing alcohol. I suffered from depression and anxiety and would often spend hours sitting alone lost in thoughts that resulted in sleep disturbance, restlessness and difficulty concentrating. My family and friends tried to support me. They invited me to their places where they made sure I was engaged in activities like games and traditional dances but they didn’t understand the depth of my pain. A friend once told me, “This is a truly horrible thing that has happened. I can see you’re in an incredible amount of pain.” Though it was encouraging, I felt much more pain. I was like how can he know what I went through?

My experience was not unique. Many individuals in northern Uganda were affected by the LRA war and continue to suffer from its aftermath. For many the trauma left deep emotional and psychological scars making it difficult to adjust to normal life. One day, I met an old war veteran who had also fought in the same war. The veteran recognised the pain in my eyes and knew exactly what I was going through. I had scars all over my body as a result of the beating that I was subjected to when I was just abducted. We sat down together under a mango tree on big rock stones and talked about our experiences, our fears, and our hopes. He told me, “After all these, the community will still judge you but never give up, don’t feel guilty, for it was not your fault, you were just a young child.”

Through the conversations, I began to realize that I was not alone. There were many other child soldiers like me who had come back from the war with scars that were not visible on the outside. I also learned that it was okay to ask for help and that seeking therapy was not a sign of weakness. The time a spent with with the veteran was so relieving and encouraging, I had not met anyone who talk to me in that manner
With the help of the Veteran, I met a counselor who specializes in treating trauma survivors. The counselor recognized the signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder like vivid flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and images. in me and began working with me so that I could heal. This included stress inoculation which involved methods intended to help me prepare in advance to handle stressful events successfully and with a minimum of upset, developing a meditation practice which involved  body, feelings, awareness, loving-kindness, release and self-fulfillments. Physical activities like sports and mediation were also done.

Through therapy, I was able to process the trauma of these experiences and find ways to cope with my symptoms. I learned breathing techniques to help calm down during panic attacks. This involved Sitting or laying down comfortably with my eyes closed, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth fully, expanding my belly on the inhales. Repeating 30-40 breaths with short and powerful bursts of air. I found solace in connecting with others who had experienced similar traumas, sharing their stories and finding strength in their collective resilience.

I then joined a support group of other former child soldiers who had gone through similar experiences. We shared stories, offered each other encouragement and support, and reminded each other that we were not alone. We also did art and craft and other activities that could keep us busy during these times.
As time passed, I began to feel more connected to the world around me. I started volunteering at a local community center and found joy in helping others. While the trauma of war would always be a part of me, I had learned to live with it and found hope for the future.

While the guns may be silent, the trauma it inflicted still prevails. However, through community support and resources, survivors like me are finding ways to heal and move forward. We are finding ways to rebuild our lives and communities and to overcome the legacy of the conflict that has left such deep wounds on the country.

3 June, 2023