Once we were Warriors: Realizing Resources, Demobilization and Community Resilience Among Former Child Soldiers in Fragile States


Start date: 13 March, 2012 End date: 14 July, 2017 Project type: Smaller projects: PhD Project code: 11-095RCT Countries: Uganda Thematic areas: Conflict, peace and security, State building, governance and civil society, Lead institution: Aarhus University (AU), Denmark Project website: go to website (the site might be inactive) Policy Brief: Policy Brief Project coordinator: Helle Harnisch Total grant: 2,895,919 DKK Project files:

Project summary

In fragile states the potentiality of sustainable peace, livelihoods and civic security are inseparable from the pursuits of political stability and demobilization of networks of terror.  Youth is a particular pertinent group when ensuring sustainable futures in fragile states: Youth holds the future, but at the same time are often targeted to be victims as well as recruited perpetrators in violent conflicts.  Of the 300.000 child soldiers in the world, 40.000 are situated in Uganda. Many of those whom managed to return from networks of terror struggle with war-related trauma and with breaking the cycles of violence; others return to combat. Up to 27.6 % of child soldiers however, despite worst odds, manage to demobilize, build sustainable livelihoods and contribute to community resilience, and the potentiality of peace (Klasen et al 2010).

This PhD project explores the positive processes and outcomes former child soldiers in fragile states display, stating that indispensable knowledge lies in studying the representatives of positive differences in contexts of ongoing adversity when wanting to realize strategies of Danish development assistance.

The project will thus identify, document and describe what proves to be the key factors that enable resilient outcomes and demobilization in fragile states by following the daily routines, struggles and sense-making of a group of youth who were once warriors but now wish to be something else – and are successful in pursuing this.


Project completion report:

In five contributions, the thesis unfolds how most of the Acholi women and men in the study turned to avoidant coping via responses such as silencing, suppression of vulnerable emotions, distraction (Contribution 2, and 4), and dissociation (Contribution 3) to survive during the war and in a collective effort to keep on going after the war. In addition, via the cases of two former LRA commanders followed closely over 4 years, the thesis explores how their appetitive aggression responses and under-researched bodily urges to kill complicate reintegration processes more than one decade after returning home from war - and how this is experienced among other homecoming soldiers around the world (Contribution 5).

Through interdisciplinary analysis and an analytical movement between the empirical data and related theories, the thesis fleshes out how the lived experience of war and its aftermath challenges persistent consensus that speak back to psychotraumatology and resilience theory and research: For instance, the avoidant coping responses displayed in the ethnographic data problematizes the widely held perception that avoidant coping is a symptom of trauma-related psychopathology, and that the verbalization of trauma promotes well-being and rehabilitation. Furthermore, the point of how killing and aggression become adaptive responses that enable seven-year-old Genesis, and several like him, to survive and stay sane through a long war, does not resonate with widely held consensus about what resilience, i.e. positive adaptation, is, and poses paramount questions of whether resilience is defined based on an individualistic or a collective perspective, and how such definitions are situated (Contribution 5). The thesis emphasizes our responsibility to transparently and critically reflect on how our assessments and offered interventions resonate with emic notions of suffering and ways of coping that are rendered locally appropriate. I introduce the concept ’Forced Resilience’ (Contribution 1) to help situate trauma and resilience studies concerned with children and youth associated with armed forces and the lethal environments they experience and navigate in. With ’Forced Resilience’ I wish to underline how the experiences of an extremely violent war-affected childhood do not hinder resilience, but severely limits the chances of survival and thus the variety of survival and coping responses available in the lethal environments of armed forces: Such environments force children and youth into imaginative and creative escapes to survive and become more than what their past, whether additional or integrated, and many present analyses in academia, offer children, youth and communities in finding ways out of war. The research has been well-received and evaluated as groundbreaking, disturbing in content and of great relevance to DDR processes and research on children and youth associated with armed forces.

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