For five years, Francine* was held captive by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), in the north east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Once infamous for their widespread atrocities in Uganda, the LRA is now scattered among the border regions of South Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the DRC. Since 2008, an estimated 7,600 people have been abducted by the LRA in these three countries alone – many are young people.**
The LRA has had a devastating effect on young people in this part of the country. Those who have been abducted and manage to escape, often struggle to reintegrate into their communities and must deal with the emotional trauma of the violence they were exposed to, as well as a lack of acceptance by their community.
For Francine, now 18, one of the many negative effects of this captivity was that she forgot how to speak Lingala – the common language in this part of DRC. Instead she learnt to speak Acholi, the language spoken by LRA commanders.
After escaping captivity and returning home, Francine struggled to communicate with people in her community. She also carried the stigma of being an LRA returnee - many returnees are ostracised by their communities who are often suspicious or even fearful of them. Francine explains:
After coming back from the bush I had a lot of problems. The community didn’t like me. Sometimes I used to go to the bush and cry. There was nobody to help me. I started school, but the other students used to call me ‘LRA’ and even the teachers were against me.
During this time, Francine heard on the radio that our partner organisation Justice, Peace and Reconciliation Commission of the Anglican Church (CDJPR), was gathering the names of LRA returnees in the region:
I heard on the radio that this organisation was helping those that returned from the bush. I heard that these people could really help me.
CDJPR helped connect Francine with the Friends of Matondo (CFAM), an organisation that runs meetings and workshops for young LRA returnees. Between September and December 2017, CFAM worked with 22 LRA returnees, including Francine, to help them readjust to life outside of captivity. This support includes a mixture of counselling, training on conflict resolution and community development work, as well as helping them to learn new skills. Francine explains:
They started to teach me how to sow, how to do tailoring. They taught me how I could adapt from being in the bush to living at home. They gave me some good advice.
These new skills are now enabling Francine to not only support herself, but also provide an opportunity to interact with other people in her community, which is slowly helping to change their perceptions towards her:
After I started to do some good work, people from the community started to give me their clothes and asked me to sow them. CFAM keep on visiting me, they encourage me and give me advice on reintegration.
Mr Jacques Tati Tarule is the Director of CFAM:
We are beginning to see a positive transformation in the lives of these young returnees who have joined our group activities. The training allows them to get to know other young people. They talk and perform community tasks together. The young returnees become more and more kind in their behaviour.
Through working with grassroots organisations like CDJPR, Conciliation Resources is supporting the reintegration of returnees, as well as training young people to undertake conflict prevention work in their own communities. Traditionally viewed as agitators or victims of conflict, our work aims to strengthen young people’s involvement in preventing conflict and to help others find paths away from violence.