Lessons Learned From Using Narratives to Reintegrate Child Soldiers Back Into Society

July 5, 2017

What do Stories do?


I have spent an extended amount of time in Central Africa working on psychosocial reintegration programs for former child soldiers where I witnessed the multiple benefits of using narratives to improve their reintegration back into society. Working with communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Somalia, I found sharing narratives or telling a story strategically through appropriate tools such as mobile cinema or dialogue exercises contributes to facilitating reintegration and fostering social cohesion. Here, I have identified four avenues through which narratives can support peacebuilding work, inform CVE strategies, and guide further research.



1. Contextual Awareness is key.


When it comes to narratives, or peacebuilding work in general, I have observed that it is crucial to rely heavily on local knowledge. Narratives can take many forms based on storytelling or on rituals from either traditional belief systems or from more contemporary sources. They are constructed though education, history lessons or cultural celebrations; incorporating these local approaches into your own narrative work can strengthen its reach. Although seemingly an obvious strategy, seldom do narrative campaigns or strategic communications work involve the targeted or beneficiary community in the process.


By looking at locally-led peacebuilding efforts in Central Africa however, one can draw useful lessons on ways to integrate local voices in narrative creation. In addition to the obvious asset of community buy-in and involvement, I found the community’s input only makes the narrative stronger. Indeed, countries I have called home have rich histories of traditional conflict resolution and transitional justice that represent potential starting points for one’s narratives programming. These practices take a variety of forms but evolve in the realm of oral history and religious rituals.


In southeastern CAR for example, I managed a reintegration project that aimed at fostering social cohesion through a participatory radio program bring together communities and former members of rebel groups. Through dialogue and media broadcast, the talk-show created a space to address grievances and foster reconciliation. This weekly Sunday radio talk show was identified as a key channel to reframe narratives around trauma and retribution. Although qualitative impact of media projects remains challenging to measure, peacebuilders will recognize how crucial community participation and buy-in is to effective programming. In other words, fostering a participatory approach to narrative creation is key for success.


2. Trauma awareness needs to be considered.


Through my interactions with former combatants from various conflicts, I have had the opportunity to witness the power of a story in building or deteriorating human relationships; and through many of the conflict transformation activities I spearheaded, I saw the contribution of storytelling in healing at both a personal and community level. Furthermore, I found that carving a space for narrative creation and narrative ownership represents an integral part of a successful reintegration process as it allows the individual the opportunity to address his experiences of traumatic events.


The evaluation of a reintegration project in the DRC demonstrated that the combination of narratives and traditional DDR models provided former child soldiers and vulnerable youth with the agency needed to evolve as peaceful and contributing members of their communities. On that aspect, research by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative outlines that ‘programming for the reintegration of former underage combatants should be holistic and include professional skills training, literacy and education opportunities, mental health and/or psychosocial support mechanisms and community engagement throughout the process’ (HHI, We Came back with Empty hands). Through an innovative leadership program conducted in Goma, DRC, participating youth found a space to address their experiences of war. Providing such opportunity through storytelling activities fostered creativity, dialogue and indirectly supported them in dealing with the traumatic events each individual experienced.


Trauma needs to be carefully considered. Trauma awareness also relies in assessing risk of deepening or worsening existing trauma. When working on narratives and storytelling programming one should consider the risk of inflicting new wounds in the teller or the listener, particularly in volatile and uncertain conflict settings. I have seen this happen in two ways: re-traumatization and vicarious trauma. Re-traumatization refers to a victim who re-lives a traumatic experience through sharing the traumatic events in a different space or time. Vicarious trauma on the other hand refers to harmful changes occurring in community members that occur views of themselves, others, and the world, as a result of exposure to the graphic and/or traumatic material of their peers. In the narrative context, this represents an obstacle in reaching the goals set for a narrative campaign.


I therefore argue here the need for a trauma-aware approach to narrative creation. In order to integrate the use of narrative in DDR, deradicalization work or peacebuilding activities more widely, framing your approach without directly addressing the issue at hand might be the better option to avoid creating further stigma. This for example can take the form of participatory theatre projects or narratives creation through art-making. On the later, I have found that exercises around the body-mapping methodology to be particularly successful with former child soldiers.


3. Promoting social cohesion as part of the process.


I have worked with youth affected by conflict for over six years and have used storytelling as a tool in different contexts such as the M23 movement in DRC, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and the LRA rebels menacing the CAR. I found that providing local communities and survivors with a safe space to share their story and create their own narratives fosters their ability to re-create their own agency as a human and as community members. This is particularly true in the case of former combatants during the first few days of their return. One youth in Eastern Congo once told me his participation in an individual storytelling portrait allowed him to feel he has some control for the first time since he had left the bush. This young man took ownership of his experiences and found again his once lost humanity.


In CAR, I witnessed that creating support networks for armed group returnees allowed both the former child soldiers and the community to address their differences in perception and construct a new narrative by taking part in seemingly basic daily activities. The lesson I took away was that ‘the teller/listener may come to see themselves as authors of their own stories capable of writing conclusions that are more than the tragic, ‘inescapable’, cycle of victimhood and violence’ (Bush, 2012). We often forget that creating a narrative both impacts the storyteller and the audience, therefore potentially impacting their relationship to one another.


With this in mind, I would attest that by integrating storytelling in DDR strategies, one can foster dialogue and reconciliation and encourage mutual learning and breaking stereotypes. If not carefully considered however, storytelling can indirectly fuel the transmission of stigma and grievances through affected individuals and their communities.


An approach I have often taken has been to create humanity through valuing one’s agency and the complexity of the human experience. This led to creating opportunities for former combatants to redefine their role in communities through vocational training or advocacy work in Eastern Congo and Somalia. In the Central African Republic, I worked with former LRA members on the rebuilding of their relationship to their communities. With my colleagues, I did so by encouraging these former combatants to participate in a volunteer program, the goals of which was to both reframe the community’s perception of the individual and allow him or her to safely reclaim his or her humanity. Such initiative can be useful in the wider community context with projects like mobile cinema and participatory theater – once again following a strategy of safe space create and narrative transformation.


4. Make violence prevention as the end goal.


Building on my previous point around social cohesion, my fourth lessons learned highlights the key role of violence prevention as the end goal of the narrative project. If the goal of a narrative-based project is to bring a change in perception, attitudes and behaviours; then long-term change should be the ideal to work towards.


In my years of experience in conflict-affected areas, I have determined that successful peacebuilding initiatives look at peaceful coexistence as their end result and therefore to behaviour change as the goal. Looking at long-term goals has been a priority of the peacebuilding for many years and a lesson to not be taken lightly. Working mostly with youth, I found that fostering peaceful relationships within communities allows for the creation of positive narratives. Changing narratives at the community level when a somewhat peaceful period arises allows working with youth and community members on their grievance prior to the return in violence.

Specifically, it is incredibly relevant to look at strategic storytelling as radicalization prevention mechanisms. It is however, important to note that these should not target ‘at-risk’ groups alone, as it would risk furthering stigmatizing and isolating at risk groups rather than cultivating collaborative community relationships.


It is equally true for storytelling and DDR work but needs to be further addressed. HHI noted, despite increasing attention to the scope and importance of child soldiering globally, there is still limited systematic research on the successes and challenges of reintegration programming for former underage combatants. While the importance of undertaking reintegration programming has been recognized as an important step for both reintegrating individuals into communities and promoting peace and security at a societal level, significant gaps in understanding how to implement sustainable and successful reintegration programming remain.


I have earlier addressed the importance of careful consideration of the context in which we operate. Part of this minutia lies in setting realistic expectations of intractable conflict situations such as Somalia or Nigeria. Working with challenging issues faced by potentially at-risk groups, I found building project’s approaches on strong strategy aiming at long-term solutions is identically important.


What it means for CVE and PVE?


The reintegration of former radicalized youth is an international – and immensely challenging - issue that global societies should urgently address. This post aims to highlight potential avenues to do so. Furthermore, it presents ways in which narrative work can go beyond the realm of counter-narratives.


This by no means provides an exhaustive or definite list of strategies but lessons drawn from several years of field experience in conflict-affected areas, working with former child soldiers in particular. It aims to open a discussion on the links between narratives and DDR and their role in peacebuilding; a field CVE can learn an enormous amount from. There are four main ways in which these lessons can apply to CVE work:


  1. When considering reintegration, do not underestimate the role narratives played in the conflict; the reintegration process should address those narratives.

  2. A goal of CVE should be rebuilding social relationships through addressing the psychosocial impact of violence for both perpetrators and communities.

  3. Don’t underestimate the relevance of storytelling as an effective tool beyond the production of counter narratives.

  4. The peacebuilding filed has extensively studied reintegration; use it as a resource rather than reinventing the wheel.  More research on storytelling however is needed.




Pauline Zerla is a conflict transformation and peacebuilding professional who focuses on Storytelling and Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration.

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