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Giving Peace a Chance in Northern Uganda

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia. Victor Ochen is from northern Uganda. He is in his late twenties, affable, and wears a permanent smile. But being 20-something and from northern Uganda means he is part of an entire generation lost to war. From the late 1980s to 2006, the Lord's Resistance Army, (LRA) a militia led by the charismatic faux-religious warrior Joseph Kony, turned northern Uganda into as close to hell on earth as you can imagine.

Tens of thousands of people were killed and over 2 million displaced in two decades of conflict. But those numbers tell only half the story. The LRA was notorious for swelling its ranks with child soldiers. In all, some 60,000 children were abducted during the course of the war.

How they conscripted these children are tales that defy the imagination. One night seven years ago, the LRA raided the village of one of Victor's friends. Rebel commanders separated the children from their parents and hacked to death the adults. In all, 27 people were killed. But the LRA was not done. They placed the human remains into a large pot and cooked them over the fire. LRA commanders forced the children to eat the stew.

Such were the horrors to be visited upon northern Uganda. But acts like this were not done out of sheer brutality. They had a strategic purpose, which was to drive a deep wedge between conscripted children and the places they once called home.

Today, the war is coming to close. The leaders of the LRA are wanted by the International Criminal Court and a tenuous peace process is underway. But deep social cleavages born from these acts of brutality remain embedded in war-affected communities, making long lasting peace difficult to achieve.

This is where Victor comes in.

He was one of the 'lucky' children who avoided conscription into the LRA. Life was not easy, though. He grew up in refugee camps. His mother paid for his schooling by carrying water for government soldiers. In high school, he paid his own school fees by selling heated charcoal. Still, he distinguished himself as a student leader forming student groups to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS and for the needs of former child soldiers.

He is now a budding social entrepreneur. I met him at a meeting of the Africa Commission's Youth Panel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The forum was sponsored by the Government of Denmark (which also sponsored my trip) and included around 60 youth leaders from 22 African countries. Victor attended as the founder and director of an NGO called the African Youth Initiative Network.

The NGO's mission is no less than to heal the social rifts caused by two decades of conflict. It is an ambitious goal, but with very limited resources, the network has already accomplished much. In 2006, the NGO received a $50,000 grant from the International Criminal Court's victims' trust fund, which is a small pool of money provided by the ICC to support victims' rights in places the court has opened cases.

With $50,000 Victor was able to work miracles. One of his first projects was to bring in a team of Dutch plastic surgeons to treat victims of mutilation -- a common LRA tactic, again intended to make it difficult for victims to re-integrate into their communities. With such a small sum, the Africa Youth Initiative Network was able to provide plastic surgery for 80 patients, mental health services to over 1,000 and other surgical services, like removing bullets, to 200 others.

The NGO also provides advice to local village leaders on how to bring traditional forms of justice up to international standards. "We want to teach justice, not revenge," says Victor. This work, he says, is most central to the Africa Youth Initiative Network.

All of these programs have a singular purpose, which is to promote grassroots forms of community reconciliation and rehabilitation. This is an urgent need. In 2011 there are national elections scheduled for Uganda. Elections, though, have historically been times of chaos and organized violence. And with such a large population of alienated youth whose only marketable skill is wielding an AK-47, Victor is fearful of what may come.

On the other hand, if grassroots peace building organizations like the African Youth Initiative Network are supported more robustly, lasting, durable peace stands a fighting chance.