Saskia Mitreuter, member of the European Union’s Marie Curie Initial Training Network, “Children born of war – past, present and future project,” from the University of Leipzig, went on a 5-weeks-research stay with the Center for Children in Vulnerable Situations (CCVS) and the University of Gent to different cities in Uganda.
Saskia spent almost two weeks with the CCVS in Lira, whose goal is to provide psychosocial activities and help to individuals and groups in communities, schools, and prisons, who have been traumatized or otherwise psychologically wounded by armed conflict in Northern Uganda. A particular focus is on children and youth, but many activities are also directed at adults. Saskia joined the community counsellors of the CCVS to one of their weekly visits of a community living a 45-minutes-drive away from Lira in Barlonyo, where rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) attacked on September 21st, 2004.
On that day, between 200 and 500 (differing numbers according to sources) residents of Barlonyo were massacred or went missing. Today, there is a memorial site displaying an array of mass graves. She witnessed and participated in the interventions that the counsellors implemented such as breathing exercises, metaphor work, and ball games, and listened to memories of women and men who were attacked on that day, witnessed pain and suffering, or were formerly abducted and kept by rebels of the LRA for differing periods of time and have eventually returned to their home.
Another time, Saskia joined the counsellors to the mental health unit in Lira to visit some inpatients having developed severe mental issues due to their stigmatizing experiences after having been diagnosed with HIV and individual therapy sessions with a young girl, who had been sexually harassed and subsequently developed severe PTSD symptoms.
As a researcher with experience in designing and conducting quantitative research, Saskia assisted the CCVS in developing research questions, hypotheses, and measurement instruments in order to implement their research ideas on war-related psychological problems in Ugandan communities and the CCVS’ treatment efficacy.
The second half of her stay, Saskia traveled together with Julie Schiltz from the University of Gent even further to the north of Uganda, to Adjumani, where Julie conducts her PhD research on uncertainty in the context of conflict, displacement, and encampment. She has conducted interviews with South Sudanese youth (Dinka and Madi people) living in a refugee settlement in Ayilo, close to the South Sudanese border. Saskia and Julie planned and conducted a photovoice research project (e.g. Wang & Burris, 1997) together.
Photovoice is a qualitative, participatory type of assessment, where participants are given cameras in order to document meaningful contexts in their environment as seen through their own eyes and thereby identify, represent, and enhance their community. Together with the South Sudanese youth, they developed specific questions that they would answer by taking pictures. Such questions were for example “What do I want to remember about the Ayilo settlement and what do I want to forget?” and “What do I want to tell about the Ayilo settlement?”
The two researchers left the youth for some days to go and document their realities with the cameras individually or in groups, then collected the cameras, developed the pictures and came back for a group discussion on what the pictures were portraying. Many important issues came up during those discussions such as the youth’s fear of not being able to attend secondary school and as a result not being able to get jobs and integrate into the Ugandan society in the future.
Through the picture projects, the adolescents were given room to record and reflect their community’s strengths and concerns. The photo project promoted critical dialogue and knowledge about important issues of the South Sudanese refugee youth, which can be more easily disseminated to the public and policy makers through pictures as compared to scientific articles.
Saskia and Julie also visited the Nyumanzi reception center where over 85,000 South Sudanese refugees have arrived since the recent fighting erupted in July 2016 and where humanitarian aid workers do everything to cope with the extraordinary challenges that this influx brought.