Students explore the legacy of Uganda’s child soldiers
A passion for humanitarian work recently prompted a pair of University of Toronto undergraduate students to investigate the plight of child soldiers in Uganda. Now, after spending over three months in the country, they are taking their findings to the United Nations and elsewhere for action.
“Frankly, the stereotype of a child soldier is a little black boy with an AK-47,” said Salvator Cusimano, a peace and conflict studies and international relations student at Trinity College. He conducted the research along with Sima Atri, a peace and conflice studies and political science student at Victoria College.
“We wanted to break down the stereotype to better understand how community members see the association of children with armed groups, and how that affects the processes of justice and reintegration,” said Cusimano.
They surveyed nearly 700 people across 17 villages and small communities from which the Lord’s Resistance Army — a militant group engaged in rebellion against the Ugandan government — recruited children throughout its 1987 to 2007 campaign.
The students found the children are viewed as both victims and criminals, and say a more careful look at the reintegration and reconciliation process is required. Both agree there needs to be a victim-centered approach to justice for these war-time atrocities.
“We looked primarily at questions of justice for these children and the process of reintegration into their communities. Some of them were forced to commit crimes in their own communities,” said Atri.
The project grew out of the students’ curiosity. After the pair found only partial answers to questions about the practice of employing children as soldiers, they wanted to fill in the gaps to better understand local perceptions of child soldiers and their part in the post-conflict peace process. The duo enrolled in an independent study with political science professor Vera Achvarina and obtained funding from a series of grants and scholarships from across the university and the Canadian International Development Agency.
While in Uganda, they gathered feedback from non-governmental organizations, local community leaders and community members.
“We were careful about what kind of response to elicit,” said Cusimano, adding that the surveys and focus groups were designed to be minimally invasive and maximally revelatory. “We left it to the respondent to share as much as they wanted to, and found that almost everyone was willing to talk to us. There is no government initiative to encourage people to talk about these issues, so many people want the chance to be heard.”
The students have since begun work on a report that will include recommendations for improving the transitional justice process, as well as an academic paper. They have also appeared before staff at UNICEF, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict at the United Nations.
“We want people with the ability to effect change to make use of what we found,” said Atri.