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Empowering youth from the army barracks as peacemakers

Last July, the WPDI Community Learning Center in Gulu, which doubles as our country office in Uganda, hosted a new kind of trainee: 21 youth from the Army barracks took a series of trainings in conflict resolution upon the request of their chief, Lieutenant Ahmad Hassan Kato from the 4th Infantry Division. He had heard of our work and the impact we are having on the local youth, remarking, in a letter he sent to us, that WPDI’s “Center is such a very resourceful treasure which has tremendously helped in shaping our children and mentoring them as positive future citizens of Uganda with good, and sound morals which can be clearly defined in their current character which was unbearable before they enrolled into the programs at Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative.”

Based on this, he decided to contact us to train a group of youth from the barracks. These young people had a lot in common with many of the youth we work with. Most of them were school drop-outs, many of them with complex personal issues and histories of rough behavior.

In that light, it is striking to note that youth trainees from the army barracks  we interviewed were impressed by life skills component of the training. One of them, Otim David told us: “Before I joined this training, I had low self-esteem and could not interact freely with my colleagues because of my past experiences, generally my life was very complex.” Another one, Opiyo Brian said: “Before attending the Conflict Resolution training, I was a short-tempered person and never had patience with anyone. I was not having any idea and could easily give up in giving advice or solving any issue. There are quite a number of issues I had never solved because of my attitude and my feelings about everything. Through the training sessions I have been able to work on my attitude and gained skills in mediating many conflicts. The training has changed my understanding of peacebuilding and conflict resolution, I know what to do when confronted with a conflicting scenario, I am no longer short tempered and have friendly feelings to everyone and as a result, I have become easily approachable by my friends.”

We consider these testimonies as a proof of success as we consider the capacity for inner peace to be a fundamental skill that all citizen should possess. The success of this training was also perceptible in the testimonies of our interviewees. Otim David said “After going through this training, I am delighted and impressed that I have learned and gained skills in conflict resolution. As I talk now I am able to resolve conflict among the conflicting parties within the societies and myself as an individual. The mediation session has empowered and given me more confidence to reach out to my fellow youth in conflict and address such conflict with appropriate approaches that I learned from the sessions of approaches to conflict. Within the community I have also been able to organize, mobilize and sensitize them about the dangers of conflict to an individual and community that interfere with the distribution of social services for the people in the country.”

Our satisfaction with the course was matched by the enthusiasm of their chief, who witnessed first hand some positive changes in the behaviors of the youth at the barracks: “With the knowledge of peacebuilding and conflict resolution, the rate of violence among our youths and unnecessary quarrelling have greatly reduced, the youth now have self-control and a common sense of belonging and a group of positive youths to identify with while at the Center. I am very surprised that now days, our youths organize football and volleyball matches and after win or lose, no violence have been registered among them so far. They have even gone further to arbitrate and mediate among their fellow youths and also to support our soldiers who are locked up into bitter quarrels, fights and arguments while at home with their spouses and comrades.”

At a deeper level, such reaction from a military authority points to the heart of our mandate, which is to promote peace through prevention and reconciliation, dialogue and non-violence. It is important that young recruit understand that conflict is a complex reality - one that happens everywhere, in our families, our communities, or our schools, not just on the battlefield - and that many conflicts can be solved without the use of force, which should always be a last resort in the respect of the rule of law.