“I was not sure of what to do with my life with all the stigma, abuse and lack of education. But with the training and help I got from CNSJ, I can now say that I have gained hope for the future.” Oketta smiles with relief, a 15-year-old rescued from the horrors of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.
It’s not hard to imagine the horrors Oketta experienced when he was abducted by the LRA and forced into being a child soldier – we all have seen the Kony video and heard of the atrocities. But it’s harder to think of what happens to the child soldiers who escape from the LRA and return to a peaceful life.
Oketta was one of these. He was lucky. One day when his gang of LRA fighters was busy attacking a village, he threw away his machete and ran into the bush. For a long time he hid there, slowly making his way back to his grandmother’s home. She was the only adult he knew he could trust.
But life was not easy back home. He was disorientated, unsure of what to do now. His neighbours did not trust him. “I was scared to talk to people and could only think of what I had witnessed,” he explains. “People looked at me like I am worthless.” Isolated from the villagers, his only family his Grandmother, with no money for school education and no way to earn a living, Oketta felt hopeless for his future. It was a typical scenario facing abducted children who find their way back home – and it often ends with them deciding to return to the LRA and its violent ways.
Then one day he was selected to join a peace youth group led by the Community Network for Social Justice. CNSJ are a child protection organisation who reintegrate former child soldiers into communities and help them to lead productive lives, contributing to a sustained peace.
First Oketta was placed in a regular counselling group, sitting beneath a mvule tree with a group of fellow ex-abductees. They talked about their experiences, learning to accept what had happened, acknowledging it wasn’t their fault. They faced up to the guilt and horror of what had happened, and went on to plan a peaceful future for themselves.
To help make that dream a reality, CNSJ gave him a little money to buy livestock – chickens and goats with which he could earn a living. They also trained him in peacebuilding, conflict management
Today Oketta can pay his way, and even earns enough to attend school. He knows how to avoid violence and conflict. More importantly, he has hope.
Not only do CNSJ work with young people like Oketta: they also involve entire village communities in resettling ex-combatants for the long term. They engage parents and children in peace dialogue groups, teaching peacebuilding and community development, as well as offering counselling. They also run community groups, training people about savings, co-operatives and credit organisations, to reduce the poverty that so often underlies conflicts. Now the families can work together to change their lives and rebuild their own communities.
“We tell the young people and their parents that they have what it takes to build their own lives,” says Loum Constantine, founder of CNSJ. “Our role is to share with them their value and aid them minimally to achieve better livelihood and peaceful co-existence.”
I’m telling you about CNSJ because they are one of the four winners of our new competition, Tomorrow’s Peacebuilders. This global competition aims to discover new, dynamic organisations who are working to prevent violence and build peace with local leadership. It’s a powerful example of our work to fund and promote peacebuilders like CNSJ throughout the world.
This work is vital. Now at this time of finding new projects, please help us to fund small organisations like CNSJ in building long-term peace.