Documenting public health needs in African communities destabilized by militia violence

Jocelyn Kelly interviews a mother of a girl who escaped from the LRA and returned home. Photo by Lindsay Branham for DTJ

March 6, 2012

The militant group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has waged a 25-year campaign of fear in Uganda which has since spread to neighboring Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), killing and mutilating tens of thousands of people, looting communities, and abducting children for forced conscription. Last fall, U.S. President Barack Obama shone an international spotlight on the group’s horrific practices when he announced that he was sending 100 U.S. troops to advise countries battling the LRA and hunting for the its fugitive leader Joseph Kony.

The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) is working to document the destabilizing effect that the LRA has had on the region. Jocelyn Kelly, MS ’08, director of HHI’s Women in War program, traveled to northern DRC in January with documentarian Lindsay Branham, program director for Discover the Journey (DTJ), a co-collaborator on the project. They conducted an assessment of the needs of communities as they recover from violence and also struggle to reintegrate children who escaped from the LRA. A report detailing their findings will be released in March.

A girl who sustained gunshot wounds to her legs in an LRA attack. Photo by Lindsay Branham for DTJ

Q: What did you find during your assessment?

A: The effect of LRA violence is shockingly profound. What we see in this area, as we see in many other conflict-affected areas, is that even a few instances of violence can have a powerful ripple effect that destabilizes entire communities.

In this region, the fear of experiencing violence is leading to deep food insecurity. Communities are starving because they are too afraid to go to their fields. Consequently, we saw public health problems like extreme malnutrition, and also widespread waterborne diseases and diarrhea because can’t travel to find clean water sources.

Q: Describe the communities you visited in northern DRC.

A: Many people have had to leave their communities in a hurry out of fear of violence. We drove past ghost towns. The rain had washed away entire villages of mud huts. All that was left were scattered possessions. You would see a house where the roof had fallen in and the rain had washed away most of the walls, leaving only an overturned bed. Though displaced, people from these communities are still trying to find ways to survive and maintain a sense of normalcy. Children who were abducted from these communities by the LRA and have since escaped are trying to find ways to reconnect with their families and communities. But this is complicated by displacement and the fact that there is such deep poverty in the places where the abductees are returning to.

As we arrived in a community called Duru, we saw a young boy who was crippled and had terrible burns all over his body. He was being accompanied by a soldier from the Congolese national army, who told us that the boy had just escaped from the LRA a few days ago. The boy had walked for two days, with a tree branch as a cane, through the forest to get to the nearest road, so he could begin the process to find his family and reintegrate into his community.

I think what really struck me was that he said he was 15 and he looked like he was nine. He was extraordinarily malnourished. But the boy had an incredible spirit and a smile that you couldn’t forget. He was looking forward to trying to find his family. We helped transport him to the nearest service point where he could start to begin the reintegration process.

A boy who recently returned from the LRA sits amongst his family in a village outside of Dungu. Photo by Lindsay Branham for DTJ

Q: How do communities react to former child soldiers when they return home after escaping from the LRA?

A: It’s actually extraordinarily inspiring. In a story that is as sad as this, there is an incredible ray of hope in that these communities say “Of course we will accept the children back. We rejoice when they return.” We really didn’t hear of any cases of communities fully turning their backs on the former LRA abductees. And you can’t take this for granted, because in other counties, children who have spent time with armed groups may face serious problems when they try to return to civilian life—communities may say these kids are too violent and they don’t want them back.

However, people in the LRA-affected areas are very clear-eyed about the fact that the children come back with problems that neither the children nor their communities are equipped to handle. There are mental health issues, and difficulties reintegrating into the school system and figuring out how to make a living. Many of the children feel isolated. They led extraordinarily regimented lives in the LRA and they don’t know how to go back to a life that is less structured. Often it’s things that you wouldn’t think about. We’ve heard heartbreaking stories about children hiding food under their pillows or only being able to eat raw food because they haven’t had cooked food in years.

Q: Will HHI continue working on this issue?

A: As a result of this assessment, HHI in collaboration with DTJ will be releasing a report to inform humanitarian programming in the region, in addition to creating a high-level policy brief to inform decision-makers at the national and international level. In the future, we would like to do a comparative study looking at the DRC, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and possibly also Uganda, to try to understand the regional picture of how the LRA is affecting all of these different countries. The LRA doesn’t respect borders, so we need to look across borders in our research.

–Amy Roeder

Learn more

The Oozing Fog of War (Harvard Gazette)

Jocelyn Kelly: Seeking the Whole Picture of Congo Violence (Harvard Gazette)

Rape of the Congo: Making Sense of Sexual Violence in Central Africa (Harvard Public Health Review)