Uganda:Staying close to every landmine survivor and supporting each other within the community

The support project that AAR Japan conducts in the East African country of Uganda helps landmine survivors wear their prosthetic legs. This support plan makes a difference for those people whose lives were changed when they lost their limbs due to landmines.

What more did AAR Japan do to support landmine survivors in the community? Aya FUJITA, AAR Japan staff member in Uganda, reports.

A new life starts today

Ms. Jetress Biira, feeling nervous, but showing us a smile at the moment when she puts on her prosthetic leg for the first time (March, 21, 2019 in Kasese District, Uganda)

“A new life starts today” muttered Ms. Jetress Biira who just put on her prosthetic leg for the first time with the help of AAR Japan. I saw a little spark of hope in her eyes. Ms. Biira is a 40 year old woman who lives with her 22 year old and 20 year old daughters in Kasese, Uganda.
5 years ago, in 2014, when she was working in her vegetable garden, she suffered injuries from a landmine. This accident completely changed her life., On this day when she wore her prosthesis for the first time, however, she told us, ”After the landmine accident, I became unable to live independently and my husband ran away from me. My daughters are, without getting married, taking care of me and helping with the farm, which is our family business. Since losing my left leg, I had given up my job and life. But now, with this prosthesis, I will be able to begin something new by myself and set my daughters free. I hope to go to a dressmaking school and learn fashion design.”

Kasese District with beautiful nature and a dark history

The map of Kasese District, Uganda
Kasese District is located at the west end of Uganda, is 370 km and approximately an 8 hour drive from the capital city,Kampala. It is a region rich in nature and where one can see the Rwenzori Mountains situated at the border with Congo. Rwenzori Mountains National Park consists of six mountains and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It includes Margherita Peak, Africa's third highest peak with a height of 5,109 m and attracts mountaineers from all over the world.

Between 1996 to around 2000, however, the beautiful Kasese District suffered numerous attacks and occupations by the Allied Democratic Forces of anti-government organizations. It was also affected by search-and-destroy missions from the Ugandan army. According to the Kasese Landmine Survivors Association, the regional branch of the broader Uganda Landmine Survivors Association (ULSA), 136 people are registered as landmine victims in the Kasese District. Even though the country has become peaceful in the intervening years, people who were affected by the conflicts are still facing a harsh life. This might be because many years have already passed since the conflicts ended, and Kasese doesn’t have easy access to the capital city or any other large cities. Thus, the victims cannot get enough aid from the Ugandan government and international community.

 Therefore, AAR Japan is providing support with the provision of prosthetic legs in Kasese. If recipients get a prosthesis without the knowledge of how to maintain and use it, they won’t be able to use it properly over a long period of time. For that reason, AAR Japan instructs them on how to maintain and care for their prosthetic legs. At the same time, we are creating a larger network to support landmine survivors in the community. Ms. Biira whom I talked about earlier is one of the people who received our support.

We are building the foundation of a support network to assist survivors in the community, especially because it is hard for aid to reach them.

On March 23rd, 2019, as part of our prosthetic leg wearing support project, AAR Japan held “A community workshop for Kasese landmine survivors” with the Uganda Landmine Survivors Association and the Kasese Landmine Survivors Association. This aimed to give support for 16 eligible people, their families and their care givers.

We distributed “a prosthetic leg care guide” to the workshop participants. Prosthetic leg’smanagement methods and care methods for their limbs are written with illustrations. (March 23rd, 2019)

First in this workshop, a staff member from the regional development bureau which is in charge of the welfare department at the local government gave a presentation. Having “Community-based rehabilitation” as a theme, they presented the efforts that local officials have been making in the district so far and talked about the importance of helping landmine survivors in the community from now on. Secondly, we had a session on “how to deal with a prosthetic leg”.

 Its host was Ms. Margaret Arach Orech, the representative of the Uganda Landmine Survivors Association, who is also a landmine survivor. While listening to the participants’ opinions, questions and their experiences, she discussed about how to manage a prosthetic’s hygiene and how to deal with defects. And lastly, everyone discussed freely on the subject of “Sharing opportunities and experiences”. They actively asked us questions such as what kind of programs there are for persons with disabilities in this district, or the people who received livelihood improvement support from AAR Japan, and in what kind of business they succeeded.

Ms. Margaret Arach Orech, the representative of the Uganda Landmine Survivors Association, hosted the session about “How to deal with a prosthetic leg”.

Looking back at these workshops, I think that there were three merits to the meeting. First, by being invited to this meeting, the landmine survivors living deep in the mountains or in a remote area appeared in public for the first time. The others who live in town were in an environment where they can exchange information openly with the Kasese Landmine Survivors Association and neighboring survivors. However, due to geographical constraints, the people in a remote area are isolated from information and opportunities of various social engagements.

That is why they have never received any support and they tend to isolate themselves from interacting with people around them. For this meeting, many participants wore traditional African dresses or business casual clothing thought to be for a special occasion. They talked to us, “I am very grateful for participating in this gathering for the first time and meeting other landmine survivors from my neighborhood”.

Ms. Silvia Biira (left) who started her business with livelihood improvement support from AAR Japan in 2010. She worked as a central role of the Kasese Landmine Survivors Association and was involved in running this workshop. After her hair salon business became stable, she started studying and was able to finish university. (March 23rd, 2019)
The participants, sitting in circle and looking at each other, shared their experiences and thoughts. (March 23rd, 2019)

Secondly, we were able to create the first network of peer support among landmine survivors in this community (peer support is to get people together who have similar situations and challenges, by supporting each other and trying to solve their problems). For landmine survivors who are doing their best to survive another day, it is financially difficult to participate in a meeting which lasts for half a day. Moreover, for the Kasese Landmine Survivors Association who only receive aid from AAR Japan, it was financially and logistically difficult to organize a half-day long meeting by themselves.

On the other hand, only among landmine survivors, is it possible to share the use and care of a prosthetic leg and their psychological trauma, while supporting each other with empathy because they are in the same boat. The discussion and the break time in this workshop became a place for them to open up their experiences and thoughts more than we intended.

We received a thoughtful message from the Kasese Landmine Survivors Association saying, “Until now, we were not able to have these much-needed exchanges among landmine survivors. We appreciate AAR Japan for helping us make this happen at last.” And, at the end of the workshop, it was confirmed that the Kasese Landmine Survivors Association will continue to be central to gathering information, and increase future exchanges, for example, facilitating landmine survivors consulting with each other on the phone.

Thirdly, the meeting involved the local government and National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda, which has branches across the country. The current welfare for persons with disabilities in Uganda has policies and law, but we can see that many parts of the system are still developing.
As a country, a very essential process for Uganda to promote welfare for persons with disabilities is that the local government and the national level union participate in local meetings of landmine survivors. This will allow them to see the survivors’ living conditions and their needs directly, and to revise the current measures and consider ways to improve them.
Photo shooting with the participants. Aya FUJITA, AAR Japan staff (2nd from right, center row). (March 23rd, 2019)

With this activity, we were able to see many people’s smiles and make progress to create a network to support landmine survivors within the community. A lot of donations made this support program happen and we are grateful from the bottom of our hearts. There are still more landmine survivors who live in these conditions every day. We wish for your continued support for them.

 Aya FUJITA(Uganda office)

She has been stationed at Uganda office since 2018. She studied development economics in university. After graduating, she worked at a development consulting company. She was involved in managing a vocational training school in Pakistan, then, she started working for AAR Japan. She is from Chiba Prefecture.

Japanese-English translation by Ms. Yukari Onda
English editing by Mr. Allan Richarz
This article has been translated by volunteers as part of the AAR Japan's Volunteer Programme. Their generous contributions allow us to spread our activities and ideas globally, through an ever-growing selection of our reports from the field.