“I found bodies everywhere, all along the road…,
including those of my older brother and uncle. I buried 22 bodies that day.”*
– Congolese survivor of an LRA attack in Dec. 2009
Several armed groups currently operate across central Africa, targeting civilians with violence, intimidation, and exploitation. The violence itself, as well as its ripple effects (displacement, poverty, instability, etc.) all create immense stressors at the individual and communal level, which can be deeply traumatizing. Unaddressed trauma not only hinders the ability of individuals, families, and communities to recover from violent conflict and rebuild, it can actually increase the risk of participation in violent and destructive behavior down the road.
The LRA alone, which is a relatively small fighting force, has disproportionately terrorized and traumatized hundreds of thousands of people across DR Congo, South Sudan, and Central African Republic. Since 2008, the LRA has killed more than 3,000 people, displaced more than 300,000 civilians, and abducted more than 7,000 others across central Africa. Many abductees who were able to escape have continued to carry deep psychological scars with them long after they were physically free from LRA captivity. Returnees have reported that they experienced severely traumatic events while in captivity, such as being forced to attack and kill other civilians, witnessing the beatings and deaths of others, and raped at the hands of LRA commanders.
From interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch with Congolese survivors of a December 2009 massacre by the LRA, we now know that many of the children who were abducted in these attacks were subsequently forced by the LRA to torture and kill other abducted children that tried to escape or failed to carry out orders correctly. One young boy who eventually escaped from the LRA told Human Rights Watch,
“They often asked the children to kill people in the bush. I saw this myself, and they even asked me to kill someone. They first tied the person up, and then they asked me to kill him with a large wooden stick. It was a Congolese Zande boy. I saw 10 people killed like this–girls and boys. Each time they were killed by other children who had been abducted. They chose the victims randomly and then would give us the order: ‘Take your bat. Kill this animal.’”
Returnees often re-experience symptoms of their traumatic events, exhibit avoidance behavior of anything related to the traumatic experiences, and become hyperactive when faced with anything related to their traumatic experiences. In addition, many community members who were not abducted have also been traumatized by witnessing the deaths or abduction of family members or being forcibly displaced during the LRA conflict. Some community members harbor feelings of stigmatization towards LRA returnees even though they were forcibly recruited into the LRA. All of this disrupts returnees’ normal behavior, personal well-being, and relationships with people in their community. As a result, many returnees have not been holistically reintegrated into their societies.
In order to strengthen the resilience of vulnerable communities in the face of violent conflict and reinforce their ability to reconcile, work together, and break cycles of violence, we must support community-based approaches to addressing trauma and building social cohesion. This not only supports the lasting recovery of individuals and their families who have experience severe trauma, it strengthens the ability of communities to respond to and recover from threats of violence, using the unique strengths and resources locally available to them.
WHAT WE’RE DOING ABOUT IT
We are strengthening the resilience of vulnerable communities and helping them heal from trauma. Here’s how:
We work with with some of central Africa’s most severely isolated and vulnerable communities to ensure that they are well equipped to recover from the impacts of violence and break cycles of future violence. Together with them, we identify each community’s unique strengths and local wisdom, and we complement that with additional support and expertise in order to help them heal from trauma, mediate conflict, foster unity, and plan for a hopeful future.
+ With our community partners, we develop and provide community trainings and tools for peaceful dialogue and nonviolent conflict resolution, which are shared with communities through local workshops and FM radio programs.
+ We have developed trauma healing modules in partnership with local and international experts, which we distribute to community leaders and organizations to better equip them to support the healing and recovery of families targeted by violence.
+ With our community partners, we develop and train Community Peace Committees, which not only provide communities with a forum for constructive dialogue and the creation of solutions to a variety of security concerns, they are also equipped to ensure their own communities support the safe and peaceful defection of former rebel combatants.
*Source of quote: Human Rights Watch, March 2010.