Thursday, August 7, 2014

World Vision

World Vision in Gulu is a rehabilitation center for child soldiers and LRA abductees. The Christian-based organization is present in 100 countries, working on child exploitation issues from child soldiers to prostitution to clean water and gender issues. The physical place in the Gulu site is a gated compound in town. We are greeted by staff members who give us an overview of the organization's mission, see some of the drawings done with children returned from captivity, and hear one woman's escape story.

An abducted child's drawing of the arduous jungle passage
Angela was abducted when she was a teenager and escaped when she was in her early twenties. Though she didn't have children of her own (an extraordinary fact given that rape is the norm for abducted women), she escaped with two other children and a young mother, hysterical with the risk of getting away. The children were two girls, ages 3 and 9. The nine-year-old belonged to one of the wives of a top general who begged Angela to take her daughter with her when she is finally ready to leave.

Angela tells us she had a voice in her head telling her she needed to take advantage of the moment to get away. At what she felt with the right moment, she found herself near tall grasses that seemed impenetrable. She doubted the possibility of escape. She tells the story that something inside of her compelled her to reach into the grasses upon which discovered a passage. She carried the three year old and the nine year old followed close behind. Trailing them was the mother of the three-year-old threatening the whole time to turn them in, but still following behind.

Her story feels Biblical. Something about the passage that seems to appear in the grass leaves me feeling the weight of her story. I find myself listening as both a fellow human being and as a parent, imagining what surrendering my own daughter to the hope of her survival and freedom might feel like. Back in the states when stories of nearly 60,000 Central American migrant children crossing the borders without their parents makes headlines, I am reminded of Angela's story and the sacrifice the mothers sometimes make in giving their children hope for a better life. 
Angela and me at World Vision, Gulu

After a difficult passage through dense vegetation and across rivers, Angela and the others reached Juba, a nearby town, and found a military man who helped them to safety, and ultimately to World Vision.

Now Angela works in the World Vision rehabilitation center. Her job entails documenting stories and working to help recent returnees get resettled into mainstream life. One of the biggest challenges is helping the children find a sense of community and adapt to life away from the bush. To many people, the children represent not abducted victims, but the returning offspring of violent militia men.

While many of the recently returned are isolated from society, she tells of powerful reunions between children who discover they share the same fathers, LRA fighters who indiscriminately raped many abducted women. Ironically it's the shared connection to these villains that offers the children a sense of family and belonging. We talk about the great potential in establishing support groups for these families as they work to settle in.

Invisible Children's relationship with World Vision is based on this shared goal of rehabilitation. Lauren Manning, Invisible Children's US staffer in Gulu and our host for the trip, travels with World Vision to villages in advance of the reintegration of LRA victims. While many are overjoyed to reconnect with loved ones, other individuals find the years away have left them disconnected and afraid.

Lauren tells me of one man who contemplates returning to the LRA because reintegrating is proving to be so stressful. 

Ongoing work with returning soldiers will be an important part of rehabilitation in the region.

A Rescue Vehicle at the World Vision Compound

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