“I am free from the conflict, but I do not feel free”: experiences of child soldiers in Northern Uganda
Press release issued: 4 February 2019
By Jassi Sandhar, PhD candidate in International Law
Ahead of Red Hand Day on 12th February (international day against the Use of Child Soldiers), we are very excited to share a comic which brings to life the voices and experiences of former child soldiers in Northern Uganda. Each panel presents direct quotes from 27 former child soldiers living in the region, made up of 19 women and 8 men who were recruited into the Ugandan conflict as children.
This comic benefits from a greater inclusion of former girl soldiers (now women); despite increased recognition that girl children do participate in war, their realities and voices continue to be side-lined in narratives of child-soldiery and resultantly they become particularly excluded from legal mechanisms designed to support child soldiers. Therefore, this project intentionally pays more attention to girl soldiers, to inform and challenge the dominant discussions about child fighters and to provide more space for this marginalised group.
Co-producer Geoffrey Omony, and a former child soldier himself, states “for decades, the voices of former child soldiers have not [been] included in outputs. The perceptions about former ex-combatants are often untrue, that they are a hopeless and vulnerable group who cannot achieve anything positive. They are dehumanised. Girls are also not included in conversations about child soldiers. So, getting these voices heard through this comic will help with the deconstruction of existing negative stereotypes about former ex-combatants”
There remains a great disconnect between international legal frameworks designed to protect child soldiers and the realities on the ground in many countries. Accessing the law, benefiting from any post-conflict programmes (including the disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration programmes), and enjoying a life of freedom, which includes economic, psychological and social freedom, after participation in conflict remains a challenge for many former child soldiers in Uganda. Additionally, much of the language used when discussing child soldiers in the international arena is heavily charged and biased, which does not support the requirements of returnees and instead reinforces stigma and humiliation by serving as constant reminders of their enslavement and time served in the conflict.
This output is part of a larger collaborative project between Jassi Sandhar (University of Bristol) and Geoffrey Omony (YOLRED, Uganda) which aims to deconstruct dominant – often white, European and top-down – narratives, which indirectly lead to the stigmatisation of those held in captivity. In place, we aim to provide an empathetic understanding which is based on humanising child abductees and encouraging support for their realities. It urges non-abductee adults and children in war-affected regions to review the language they use when describing former abductees (i.e. aggressive, rebels, lazy, etc). Moreover, it calls on international researchers, lawyers, journalists, NGO workers and scholars working on issues of child soldiers to assess how the language they use could impact the realities for former child soldiers. For the project team, it is imperative that if discourse documenting the lives of child soldiers is being created then it must include their voices and lived experiences, and adopt a bottom-up approach (where they are involved in the production of outputs).
As an important note, it needs to be emphasised that child soldiery is absolutely not an African phenomenon. Whilst this comic is based on the Ugandan context, the location was chosen as it is the jurisdiction of the project partner. It is crucial to understand that child-soldiery takes place in almost every country where there is conflict (including the UK, Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand, all of which enlist children into military activities).
This project is generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the Anti-Slavery Knowledge Network (as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund) as part of a wider project titled “Bila Pi Kuc: Creative Art-based Therapies for the Prevention, Reintegration, and Healing of ex-Child Combatants in Northern Uganda”. I would also like to thank the SWW-DTP for their continued support with this project and my research.
To keep engaged with this project, please follow:
Illustrations by Jennifer N. R. Smith, www.jnrsmith.co.uk