LONDON (AlertNet) – Some refuse to sleep indoors, preferring to camp in the open even after they have returned home from the bush. Others eat raw food, unable to stomach hot meals.
For children kidnapped from remote Congolese villages by Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels from northern Uganda, there’s also anger, sleeplessness and sadness to cope with when they are finally reunited with their families.
For the communities they go back to, there’s fear of renewed attack by the LRA, which has evaded the region’s armies for nearly 30 years, brutalising civilians and snatching thousands of children to use as fighters, porters and sex slaves.
“The level of suffering is massive,” said Kevin Davies, a psychologist working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
For over a year, Davies has been overseeing an ICRC project to promote mental health awareness and an understanding of the consequences of violence in Dakwa, Doruma and Banda – three villages in Democratic Republic of Congo scarred by LRA raids.
Since being ejected from their native Uganda in 2005, LRA fighters have roamed the lawless expanses of South Sudan and Central African Republic and the isolated northeastern tip of Congo, seizing at least 591 children between July 2009 and February 2012, according to a U.N. report.
The worst of the attacks on the three villages took place in 2009, and virtually every person there has witnessed a raid, been displaced by violence, or known someone who was abducted, Davies said.
It’s often enough for villagers just to hear of an atrocity committed by the LRA to be deeply affected by it, he said.
“Mutilating of faces, forcing people to clap and cheer to attract attention and then carrying out a massacre, being forced to kill someone – (these things) really leave an imprint on the minds and psyches of the people,” Davies told AlertNet in a phone interview.
Even the rumour of an attack, whether confirmed or not, can trigger widespread anxiety in communities conscious of how isolated and vulnerable their villages are, he said.
Part of the ICRC’s work has been to help Congolese Red Cross volunteers, teachers and religious leaders to better understand the symptoms of trauma such as aggression or alcohol abuse. Two trained counsellors are on hand in each village to treat the symptoms.
Davies and his team also work with children who were captured by the LRA and are now back home. Many struggle to readjust, finding it difficult to shed habits acquired in the bush, where they describe being forced to carry heavy loads, constantly marching between jungle hideouts.
One young teenage girl Davies came across had been reunited with her family. Yet every morning she would sit outside her home with her bag packed, staring into space as if waiting for an order to move again.
“When you get inducted into armed groups, there’s a whole socialisation process happening. Behaviours can become automatic and it takes a while to unlearn them,” Davies said.
“There’s difficulty sleeping – not just because of nightmares, not just because of fear, but also because before they were sleeping rough under a tarpaulin altogether, and now they come back and live in a house. There’s a whole process of resocialising back into community life.”
Another common problem for former child soldiers is the risk of being rejected, feared or stigmatised by the communities they have rejoined, the ICRC says.
In the bush, many were not allowed to express pain or else they would be beaten. But once free, some of that bottled-up emotion manifests itself in explosive anger – a reaction that is often greeted with suspicion by others who put it down to “bad spirits” or fetish rituals the children were forced to undertake in captivity, Davies said.
“We’re really pushing to destigmatise people and help people understand that these are normal reactions once you’ve been exposed to abnormal events,” he said.
While the ICRC offers support to traumatised communities, there are limits to its programme, as it operates in areas where accessing even the most basic health care, such as malaria treatment, is hard.
For that reason, the organisation cannot provide for people with serious mental health illnesses like schizophrenia.
“Quite often in these situations, the people with the severe mental health problems are the ones that are most neglected because no one has the capacity to provide a good quality of care,” Davies said. AlertNet