Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Lessons learnt from a war-torn classroom

Few would think uneducated and deeply traumatised pupils from an impoverished school in a war-torn country would have much to teach students about life — two Queen’s University students however, would beg to differ.



QUB psychology postgraduate students Paul O’Callaghan and John McMullen, who visited northern Uganda last summer as part of their studies, were so moved by the children’s experiences that they deferred plans to tour the district and instead, concentrated their efforts on one particular school — “home to some of the most traumatised children in the world.”

Laroo Boarding School for war-affected children in the Gulu district of Uganda, has classrooms filled with children, most of whom were enslaved under the murderous regime of the country’s rebel tyrants, the ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’ (LRA). Many are either former sex slaves or child soldiers who were ordered to massacre and mutilate.

John McMullen said: “We could never have imagined the breadth and depth of trauma that we would find in the children in the school we are working at. It is the combination of this normality with the depravity of their past that is difficult to process in our own thoughts. These children, in their neat uniforms, banter and laugh as they kick around a football or rugby ball like children in every playground in the world. Yet their stories reveal a previous life of such wicked violence that cannot be easily conveyed.

“Inhumane, evil, demonic, sadistic are words that are not powerful enough to describe the actions of the LRA and the suffering of these kids.”

Paul O’Callaghan, who counselled many of the children with the help of a local interpreter ,told the Community Telegraph: “There is a lot the pupils of this school can teach our society, not least, the act of forgiveness.

“There are children in this school who sit side-by-side with those child soldiers who have murdered their parent and in some cases, have orphaned them. I had the opportunity to speak to a mother who sent her child to this school and he is in the same class as the boy who murdered his father. She does not blame the child or any of these children — she told me ‘we have to put this in the past in order to move on, it is the only way forward’.”

John added: “There is no frame of reference in the western world for the resilience of the people here. They are the survivors. While we came to look for trauma, depression, anxiety, our early observations and conversations have

been infused with perseverance, resilience and hope.”

Through this body of work they carried out in Uganda, both Paul and John remarked on the similar psychological comparisons these ex-child soldiers share with another significant group of children who have been caught up with paramilitary violence — here at home.

Paul explained: “Although this research among child soldiers in Uganda may seem far removed from the lives of children in Northern Ireland, there are strong parallels in the shifting sense of identity that can occur with children here who may initially have been coerced into joining criminal or paramilitary organisations, but then go on to internalise the values, justifications and methods of these organisations over time.

“The study highlighted a large prevalence of ‘traumatic bonding’ — where children adopt an abuser’s views, attitudes and behaviours. The study found that over time some of the children began to identify more and more with the values and attitudes of their captors and even began to blame the victims for the violence they were subjected to.”

The team at QUB will continue their work pioneering a treatment for psychological distress among child soldiers in the Congo this summer.

Paul and John went public with their work for Red Hand Day on February 12 to draw attention to the plight of the 250,000 children forced to serve as soldiers in war zones, and to remember the thousands who have lost their lives as a result.

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