Professor Bemak’s Work Sheds Light on “Invisible Children”
By Catherine Probst Ferraro
As Joseph Kony, Ugandan warlord and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), wreaks havoc across the Central African Republic, most attention is focused on his capture.
Mason researcher Fred Bemak, however, has turned his attention to the many victims who have suffered at the hands of Kony and his army. For the past three years, Bemak has traveled to Uganda to work directly with former child soldiers and sexually abused women who escaped from the LRA.
Bemak assists Invisible Children, a nonprofit organization founded in 2004 whose mission includes bringing awareness of the activities of Kony and the LRA in central Africa. Specifically, the group works to end the army’s practices, which include abducting and abusing thousands of children and forcing them to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. Invisible Children also serves the many children in northern Uganda affected by the LRA. The nonprofit predominantly uses film, creativity, and social action to spread its message.
“I’ve worked with many kinds of clients—from disaster survivors to rape victims to prisoners—and, by far, the most horrific stories I’ve heard are from child soldiers,” says Bemak, professor of counseling and development in Mason’s College of Education and Human Development. “Very often, I am the first person who has ever heard their secrets, and that is the beginning of the healing process for them.”
Mentors Making a Difference
Bemak began working with Invisible Children after meeting key administrators from the organization at a showing of one of their films. Having counseled vulnerable youth all over the world, Bemak was immediately drawn to the group, and he made his first trip to the city of Gulu in northern Uganda in 2009.
Since then, each summer he has returned to the region, where he spends three weeks working with the organization and training staff on how to rehabilitate LRA victims.
In the early 1990s, the LRA was very active in the villages surrounding Gulu. In fact, an estimated 15,000 children, called “night commuters,” fled into the city each night to avoid being abducted from their villages. Invisible Children was one of the few organizations to set up a base in the area when Kony and the LRA were still in Uganda. The nonprofit further expanded its rehabilitation efforts in the mid-2000s when Kony and the LRA were pushed out of Uganda.
While Invisible Children provides assistance through a variety of programs, Bemak specifically works with Ugandan staff, called mentors, to help provide mental health and psychosocial adjustment support to traumatized youth who are struggling in school, in large part as a result of their disturbing experiences with the LRA.
Bemak works with a group of about 25 mentors who have each been assigned to work with youth ranging in age from 15 to 21. Many of them were abducted by the LRA and managed to escape. The youth, who were between the ages of 8 and 16 when they were abducted, come from schools in the remote villages that surround Gulu.
Many of the victims were able to enroll in school but not without help from Invisible Children. While the organization provides basic funding for each student, as well as mentoring and counseling support, the students and their families still struggle with expenses for uniforms, schoolbooks, and other necessary materials.
Returning to the Scene of the Crime
As the only counselor doing this kind of work for Invisible Children, Bemak developed a special way of training counselors and treating victims of severe trauma. In what he calls “abduction tours,” Bemak and a mentor walk side-by-side with former LRA child soldiers through the villages and homes where they were first abducted.
“This type of counseling intervention helps young people face their horrible memories and feelings head-on, reliving the experience and starting the healing process,” says Bemak. “It’s the fastest way to heal trauma that I have ever done, and almost every time, the youth express how relieved they are to be able to talk about their experiences after keeping it inside for so long.”
Bemak has heard many vivid, first-person accounts from child soldiers who had been terrorized by Kony and his army. According to Bemak, some of these stories are about how children were tortured, how girls were forced into marriages or to be sex slaves, and youngsters seeing family members raped, tortured, and murdered. Some of the child soldiers are orphans, and some suffer with diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
These accounts often reveal different descriptions of Kony himself. Bemak notes that some youth who had been sent to live with Kony describe him as a father figure; others describe the magical powers he is believed to have when he brutalizes, kills, or tortures others.
“The media just can’t capture the graphic details of this kind of information. Kony is a very scary human being,” says Bemak.
To ensure the mentors are consistently developing their counseling skills, Bemak holds training and supervision sessions before and after each counseling session with former LRA abductees. During the mentor sessions, Bemak and the mentors discuss counseling techniques, different methods of healing, the depth of each victim’s pain, effective counseling interventions, and special skills for working with trauma victims. The mentors also share their experiences working with the youth and the effectiveness of their counseling methods.
The next time he returns to Uganda, Bemak hopes to have secured grant funding to officially incorporate a psychosocial training element into the Invisible Children program and establish a global model for working with former child soldiers and abducted youth. He also hopes to bring with him Mason graduate students from the Counseling and Development Program.
This article originally appeared on the university’s News site.
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