From WILL - The Public Square -

Shara Esbenshade on United for Uganda

My name is Shara Esbenshade. Over the past twenty years, Uganda has suffered a devastating civil war. The Lord's Resistance Army was founded by Alice Lakwena in 1986 and has since been causing violence throughout the Acholi region of northern Uganda. Initially formed to defend the rights of the Acholi people, today the LRA has lost its purpose, and exists solely to protect its leaders. Because of the lack of popular support, the LRA resorted long ago to the use of child soldiers. Since its inception, the LRA has abducted tens of thousands of children ages 5 through 12 who serve as soldiers and as sex slaves, and against whom the current LRA leader, Joseph Kony, has committed unthinkable war crimes; he is known for chopping off the lips and ears of his soldiers.

The children are forced to kill sometimes their own loved ones. The psychological and emotional damage this war has inflicted upon northern Uganda's youth is vast.

Millions have been displaced.

In August, the LRA finally agreed to peace talks with the government of Uganda, and a cessation of hostilities was even signed. But since then, talks have been moving slowly and ineffectively due to the ICC's criminal charges against the LRA. The Ugandan government is reluctant to speak with declared international criminals while the LRA leaders demand amnesty from the government and fear arrest if they resume talks. The Acholi, the very victims of this crisis, have voiced that they would rather have peace than the LRA punished but the Ugandan leaders have yet to rectify their priorities.

United for Uganda is a group of students based at Uni High School. Our focus is to raise awareness about the situation in northern Uganda, while conducting in-depth research and raising money to support the Uganda Children of War Rehabilitation Center, which provides former child soldiers with psychological counseling and medical help. If you would like to make a donation, email Bianca Zaharescu at bzahares@uni.uiuc.edu.

United for Uganda sponsored a panel discussion last Tuesday entitled "Invisible: Understanding Child Soldiers & the Conflict in Northern Uganda." The panelists, professors Ibulaimu Kakoma, Paula Treichler, and Kirk Hauser and student activist Laura Stewart, discussed the above issues, the psychology of child soldiers, Uganda's exemplary response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the spirit of organizational change.

The message of our last panelist Ms. Stewart was a powerful one: it is our obligation as global citizens, especially with the resources of the university at our hands, to give back to this world. Yet an equally powerful concept discussed Tuesday was Uganda's resilience and how intertwined that resilience is with its spirit of forgiveness. The kind of forgiveness where one embraces the very people who killed one's family. The kind of forgiveness that is hard for us Westerners to comprehend, and indeed the only kind of approach that can solve this crisis and heal its victims.

And so I was left with the following firm conviction: give back to the world, but always remember to learn from those you would like to help.