HROC participants during a workshop.


By Emmanuel Ocayotoo, HROC-Uganda and Peter Serete, TCSC

I wanted to kill myself and my four children. Listening to others’ loss in this training, I feel like giving myself another chance. South Sudanese refugee.

     Uganda is now sheltering over a million refugees and asylum seekers. More than 800,000 are South Sudanese and 572,000 of that number are new arrivals who last year escaped their country’s civil war and growing food crisis. The vast majority are housed in refugee settlements in northern Ugandan. There they are allocated plots of land and given materials to build a basic home as well as food aid and access to basic health and education services.

     Refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to work, have freedom of movement, and can access social services. But while in theory refugees don’t have to remain trapped in vast camps on the country’s borders, the reality is that many don’t have the skills or wherewithal to find work or set up businesses outside of sprawling refugee settlements.

     As a result the presence of refugees and the humanitarian aid which comes with it leads in a number of areas to serious tensions. Incidents have been reported in which refugees were attacked by the local population, for example, when collecting firewood. Locals have disguised themselves as refugees to access the relief aid; this is considered an “illegal and criminal” activity. Incidents have also been reported in which refugees were allowed to rent or use land for cultivation, but then forced to give it back to the host community when the yield was ready.

I have been blind since 1991. This is my first time attending a trauma healing training. HROC participant.

     The trauma healing training for South Sudanese urban refugees in Gulu was organized following the need of these people. They fled their country to take refuge in Uganda after war broke in South Sudan and were faced with many traumatic experiences. Face to face interviews with selected members of their community in Gulu were carried out in February 2018 that pointed out the desperate condition of these people. With funding from McMechan Family Trust, individuals, and African Great Lakes Initiative, together with selfless efforts from TCSC, David Zarembka, and HROC Uganda, HROC Uganda was able to train 91 participants from the refugee community.

     The South Sudanese community, unlike the perception and judgment others perceive about them, are people who value family, have a very effective culture where the natural trauma recovery in similar to HROC approaches —  they mourn for their lost loved ones as a family and support the bereaved family for the rest of their lives. When a person dies, a newly born baby is named after the deceased and their names live forever. As from the emotion seen during the workshops, the men are short tempered from small disagreements which incite a violence mode against all others. These were observed from the sharing and it confirms HROC Philosophy Principle #1 which says, “In every person, there is something that is good”.  Therefore workshops with the South Sudanese have a great impact on their social behavior and journey of healing.

Urban refugee sharing during the empty chair exercise.

     Four basic HROC workshops were held at Bar-dege sub-county headquarters, Gulu municipality in Gulu district. This was because the participants needed to be identified by door to door interviews with the South Sudanese at Kayagoga and Kasubi. Ninety-one participants attended the four three-day workshops.

     We met the targeted group and the required number, kept time. Participants made sure they completed all three days of the workshops. After each group finished, participants helped us change the perception of the community.

You taught us about loss and death. During the discussion of a loss that that has hurt me deeply, I was about to walk out of this training when you wanted us to remember and honor our loss. Little did I know this was one way to acceptance and readjustment. HROC participant. [Note by Dave Z: This is a common reaction in HROC workshops where a person has buried the trauma and grief and is reluctant to uncover it. But for proper healing the trauma must be unburied.]

     On 18th of June, we started the first basic workshop. This was with South Sudanese leaders. The groups were mostly elders. They asked lots of questions. With effort from the facilitators, the group picked up interest on the second day and started opening up on the third day.

     The second workshop went well with more elderly South Sudanese people. The third and fourth had more youths and a mixture of South Sudanese, northern Sudanese, and the host community. These groups were very active and lively.

I have been able to identify myself through JOHARI’s window and also understand the definition of trauma. During the exercise of symptoms of trauma I realize I have been experiencing the same. HROC participant.

     The Johari’s window exercise helped participants know why it has been hard for them to recovery from trauma and what can be done to work on it.

Your teachings are very important. I have learned that both old and young, Ugandans, Kenyans, and South Sudanese can experience trauma, but when they come together, they start their journey of healing. HROC participant.

     Participants understood trauma. “Whether caused by man or nature, it affects the way people think, reason, and act. It is long lasting. One can come out of it and live a normal life again.” They participated actively in every session, loved it and recommended for more workshops to take place. We met the objectives of this training and hope to be able to plan for follow up days in the next quarter of the year.

     Progressive awareness created by the participants before the workshops built trust in the South Sudanese community, making them turn up in large numbers and cleared the negative propaganda from some of the South Sudanese leaders who seemed to be money oriented.

     The workshops were held in a conducive location for self-devotion and focus which gave our participants room to look into their experiences and share them freely with the group.

Group picture after graduation.

      Meetings were held every after the daily workshop to evaluate and plan for the following day, monitor the finances, and evaluate the effectiveness of the training. The participants’ perceptions towards beginning their journey of healing and passing on what they were learned to their community was assessed. Openness, unity, hard work, understanding and love among the facilitators made it easy to connect with each group of the participants and build trust in the workshop.

     However translation became tedious when the third group needed translation into both Dinka and Acholi; that delayed the activities of the workshop. The South Sudanese community had community issues that could not allow some of them to continue with the workshop. First, a South Sudanese student died while in school in China and the news broke the hearts of many participants who had to leave the workshop and return at a later time. Second, some leaders were being sworn in that made the translator leave the workshop; a few of the participants volunteered to help with the translation.

     Despite these setbacks, this was the most effective workshop HROC Uganda has ever had. This shall be confirmed through follow ups that will be organized after three months to check on their progress in the journey of healing and rebuilding their community.

     Most of the participants began their journey of healing with the majority from the last three workshops. They shook their hands promising to consider themselves as one community despite being a Nuer or Dinka [the opposing tribes in the South Sudanese conflict] as well as the other small ethnic groups. The participants appreciated very much saying that since 1991 they had never heard something like trauma healing or even a peace program. Their request is for the training to be organized for the remaining population of South Sudanese in Uganda including in the refugee camps.

Testimonies from participants:

 I am going to face the person who killed my son and forgive him because he didn’t intend to kill him as it was an accident.

I am going to continue taking my medication. I am committed to live positively after accepting my situation.

I have seen how Ugandans love us. Since I came to Uganda in 1991, this is my first time to attend a trauma healing training. I feel I have come back to real life.


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