Former Child Soldiers in Uganda take the Lead
by Jimmie Briggs, Goldin Institute Board of Advisors
For nearly three decades starting in the late 1980’s, over 60,000 girls and boys in Northern Uganda were forcibly conscripted into fighting a guerilla war against their government, under the brutal domination of the Lord’s Resistance Army. In war that displaced 1.5 million people mainly of the Acholi ethnic group from communities such as Gulu and Kitgum, as well as the areas surrounding them, children bore an overwhelming weight not only as combatants, but also in carrying a stigma which has typically left them marginalized and overlooked as young adults today.
YOLRED, or the “Youth Leaders for Restoration and Development,” aims to address the challenges endured by former combatants with a key distinction which separates it from other well-meaning NGOs (non-governmental organizations) both local and international: YOLRED was founded by formerly abducted child soldiers to serve other young adults with the same shared experience. It is the only group of its kind to be designed, founded and led by members of the community which it serves.
Its origins come out of mobilization of just under 200 former combatants from across Northern Uganda to capture and document oral testimony about their respective experiences in the civil war. Through a partnership with the Goldin Institute and local supporters, the core team of YOLRED led the effort to collect over 150 peer-to-peer interviews with former abductees about their experiences and insights.
Not unlike child soldiers in other countries who are undergoing the formal DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration) process without long-term support, many of those individuals who participated in the story collection project recounted being stigmatized, left homeless and struggling in poverty. The Goldin Institute in partnership with Arigatou International and Cartitas Counseling Training Institute worked with regional Ugandan leaders to support these child soldiers to assume agency and leadership over their own destinies.
Equipped with this knowledge and the sense of solidarity developed through the research process, these community researchers produced the “Alone and Frightened” report to restore these voices to the conversation about reintegration and laid the foundation for an organization dedicated to achieving the aspirations of former combatants.
In a ceremony attended by partners from the Goldin Institute and a wide range of local partners, YOLRED was officially launched on August 27, 2016 in Gulu after years of careful planning, listening and outreach. YOLRED’s five co-founders – Geoffrey, Charles, Janet, David and Collins — seek to support all young people who were impacted by the civil war, including ex-child soldiers, abductees, the displaced, the children of former abductees and child mothers throughout Northern Uganda. Indicators of well-being including health, education, employment and livelihood, as well as peace and security. The team is actively restoring the communities that were torn apart by the conflict and taking steps to prevent the abduction of children into conflict in the future.
In preparing for the launch of YOLRED, the team partnered with the Goldin Institute, Arigatou International and Anorak who worked with YOLRED’s leadership to develop a five-year plan detailing its organizational structure and its primary initiatives including reconciliation, entrepreneurship and agriculture.
“I am happy for Youth Leaders for Restoration and Development, as a platform for former child soldiers. As a leader of the organization, I will [help] ensure that our problems and the solutions are implemented are locally. The output of this organization must be felt and seen in the communities.” — Geoffrey Omony, Co-Founder, YOLRED
Further, the credit union scheme is not only intended to provide low and no interest loans but also financial literacy for those without bank accounts nor a credit history. Grassoots entrepreneurs will be supported in their start-up efforts and encouraged to be peer mentors to others seeking to create businesses or authentic leadership in civil society and government. YOLRED will be critically evaluating all of its programming at key stages of its development.
Presently, the organization is applying for support from the IDEO Youth Empowerment Challenge, as well as Echoing Green for general operations as well as capacity building.
We invite you to learn more about YOLRED and how to get involved at www.yolred.org.