One of the only two remaining reception centres in northern Uganda helping reintegrate former members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is threatened with closure. This would greatly reduce psychosocial support available to those directly involved - often as a result of abduction - in one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts.
“We are considering closing our reception centre by March this year, but we hope to continue supporting these children outside the centre and other communities in [the] north through our child protection, health, education and livelihood programs ,” Paddy Mugalula, World Vision’s programme manager in Gulu, told IRIN.
Since 1994, the two rehabilitation centres, the World Vision Reception Centre and the Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO), have attended to some 25,000 abductees and former fighters, according to their managers. They are the only centres still in operation, out of an initial six.
“There will be a problem with the reintegration of [adult] male returnees since our reception centre handles only children and women,” Robert Okeny, GUSCO’s program director, told IRIN.
Among the services offered at these centres are assessment and treatment for trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and sexually transmitted diseases.
These are serious concerns among demobilized LRA members. A 2008 study of former LRA child soldiers found that more than half exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress distress, concluding that there is an unmet need for psychological services.
Returnees are also normally provided material support like farm implements, cooking utensils, blankets and mattresses.
The centres also provide follow-up support to the reintegrated returnees, through training programmes in construction, tailoring, mechanics, baking and small business skills, to improve their ability to engage in productive, civilian work. Even after their reintegration, many returnees - especially girls and women who returned with young children - have continued using the centres as points for referral to access support from other agencies.
The positive role these reception centres play in reintegrating former LRA members into their communities is well documented.
“Available evidence emerging, with respect to the impact of centres on children’s rehabilitation and reintegration in Northern Uganda, suggest that children who spent time in centres have better mental health and psychosocial well-being compared to children that are returned directly to communities,” a report by the Institute for Security Studies said.
Lack of funds
Managers of the rehabilitation centres say this and previous closures have been occasioned by a lack of funds. Operating the centres is expensive, and though they continue to provide important services, just a handful of new returnees are currently being received.
“We are [concerned] because these centres are still relevant and doing the good work of receiving, counselling and even treating the injured children and older returnees, and engaging communities deep in villages to help them forget and foster amicable co-existence with these people [former rebels] who once tormented them,” said Mathew Alobi, a local leader in Bobi Sub-county in Gulu District.
According to the locals, the rehabilitation centres have always facilitated the first contact between returnees and the community.
“When we talk about the LRA reception centres, we are talking of children returning from the LRA, so everything here counts if we are to win the confidence of these affected persons,” Daniel Kibat, a local leader, noted.
“What do you think those rebels out in the bush will imagine if they hear that centres are closing?” he asked.
Patrick Ojok, one of the returnees, told IRIN he would find it hard to go back to his community without the aid of a reception centre. Without rehabilitation, he said he would rather seek “military work in the Uganda People’s Defence Force as a soldier because I see no other way out” of military life.
The LRA continues to abduct people in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, with 66 abductions recorded between July and September 2012, 20 percent of them children, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Often, the abductees work as porters, sex slaves or fighters. Many of them find it hard to rebuild their lives upon return.