A Bishop for Child Soldiers and Refugees (Part 2)

Interview With Bishop Giuseppe Franzelli of Lira, Uganda

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LIRA, Uganda, JULY 27, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Bishop Giuseppe Franzelli of Lira, a Comboni Missionary, admits that it is hard to know where to start when working with children who have been forcibly converted to soldiers and assassins.

But the Italian native, only the third bishop of Lira, begins with the basics. He takes the Bible, translated into the local language, and works to sow the Word of God.

And he asks the faithful of the universal Church to put the people of Uganda in their hearts, praying at least an Our Father for peace in their land.

The 68-year-old bishop explains in this interview, given to the television program “Where God Weeps” of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, that the priority is helping people restart their lives, and rebuilding people “from within.”

Part 1 of this interview was published Monday.

Q: Today, there is officially a peace agreement in place in Uganda?

Bishop Franzelli: The peace talks started in 2006 and that was the beginning of the change because part of the agreement as things were proceeding was that the rebels would stop attacking and the army would stop running after them. So little by little the rebels retreated to a forest area close to the Congo border. The attacks and abductions of children diminished and actually stopped, giving us a bit of a breather and people were able to get out.

Q: Now people are coming back to their homes.

Bishop Franzelli: Yes, but the problem is that all the points in the peace agreement were agreed upon between the representatives of the rebels and the government at a neutral area in Juba in southern Sudan, with the mediation provided by the civil society, the Church, particularly Archbishop [John Baptist] Odama of Gulu who played a very important role, and the other Protestant bishops as well the representatives from the highest level of the Muslims; there was the last thing that was missing and that was the signature on the document between President Museveni and the rebel leader Joseph Kony.

This was the day after Easter 2008. We went to Juba, waited a few days and we received the message that Joseph Kony was not coming to sign because there was a warrant for his arrest issued by the ICC — the International Criminal Court, from the Hague.

Q: So he is in the bush somewhere.

Bishop Franzelli: He is in the bush so we agreed that if he is not coming then we would go to him for him to sign the document. We went back to Uganda with all the parties but he did not appear. After that we gave more effort and agreed after a few more times on a date, but he never appeared.

Q: So today it is still tenuous.

Bishop Franzelli: No… no … after that there have been some new developments: While the chiefs from the different tribes and the religious leaders were insisting that if there is more time and patience maybe a peace agreement would be achieved, all of a sudden on Dec. 14, 2008, a combined military effort between the Ugandan army, Congo and southern Sudan occurred. They bombed the rebel stronghold and since then the rebels were weakened and were dispersed. The rebels’ fourth in command was taken prisoner. Since then, what was supposed to be a military strike — [Operation] Lightning and Thunder — is still going on and the sure result is that about 900 plus civilians were killed, in Congo this time, because that is where the rebels retreated and 130,000 people have been displaced in southern Sudan.

Q: But the root problem is still there?

Bishop Franzelli: The root problem is still there, and of course, we are, up to now, living in peace because the rebels are so far away from us that they cannot attack us any longer, but the problem is, even if the military operation is successful, will the government and those in authority remember that that does not end the problem and they have to face the problem, the causes which led to this bloodshed? The problem they have to address is the underdevelopment, and lack of opportunities in the northern part of Uganda and this is going to be difficult.

Q: Nevertheless the Church is in a situation now because you are confronting the remainders and the result of this bloody upheaval. You have 20,000 children, for example, that have been psychologically damaged, traumatized and you have displaced people. What can the Church now do in this period of restoration and rebuilding to help the people, particularly in your diocese?

Bishop Franzelli: The children who were abducted and conscripted to fight are no longer children and a few of them have died and were killed during the military operation. Some came back but the big concern is the issue of the displaced people. There has been a change since the beginning of the peace talks and after. People have started coming back to their homes particularly in my Diocese in Lira. In the Gulu Archdiocese among the Acholi people, half of them are still in the camps.

With us most have gone back home but there are no homes to go back to because, after all these years, these homes were damaged and have not been repaired.

So we are faced with the challenges of reconstruction and accompanying our people who are really alone and without any means to start all over again to rebuild churches, schools, health centers and so on and the cultivation of the land; this is a part of our mission but most of all even — although this is a big challenge because of financial and personnel constrains — probably the most difficult challenge is rebuilding people from within and also giving hope. While in the camps, there is a high rate of suicide not only among the old people, the elders who were desperate that they could no longer go back to their ancestral home, but also among the young people…

Q: What is the future?

Bishop Franzelli: So now people are going back and the young people who are back to school have for a very long time been internalizing this anger and have become very violent. Most of these young people were involved in violent acts themselves and with so much anger, they manifest these in their actions, for example, if there is a problem in the schools, the young people immediately respond with violence as opposed to using the traditional African method, which involves a peaceful resolution by coming and sitting together to discuss the issue. It will take time and years to heal this psychological and physical trauma.

Q: How do you heal these young children who have been traumatized? Where do you start? These children who at the age of 10 or 12 were given a gun and were obliged to kill relatives and so on?

Bishop Franzelli: This is my question as well. I’ve been talking to two of these “child soldiers” who came back. They were three brothers who were abducted. One of the brothers tried to escape but was caught. The two brothers were forced to kill him. So, where do you start? This would require a massive counseling; everybody is traumatized. We do not have the means and personnel for that.

So what we are trying to do is: We have translated the Bible in the local language. I go around to the different parishes, bringing with me the Bible and it’s like “sowing” once again the Word of God and the peace of reconciliation and I believe that this will bring results.

Q: After so much violence are the people open to the Word of God. Are they open to the Gospel? Are they open to the Holy Spirit as that which will heal them and their relationships?

Bishop Franzelli: They are, of course with resistance; there is nothing automatic. But I’ve seen changes and I see it happening. The Spirit is at work but of course it needs time. It needs also clergy, and religious people who are faithful to their vocation and are witnesses of their faith. It needs more unity and communion within the Churches, between the different dioceses within Uganda, north and south. The challenge is there and as that
mother of the three boys told me: “God is there.”

Q: What do you need from the universal Church?

Bishop Franzelli: I always ask people to pray, and faced with these problems, I see the frequent reaction from people: The problem is overwhelming. People say: “What can we do?” People feel so small and that they cannot do anything. They feel that they could just provide financial support and that isn’t it. No, no, no. You can do a lot. For instance, you let this reality touch you, if you welcome this and let it become part of your concern, you let this people, your brothers and sisters of northern Uganda be part of your prayer, just as you pray for your grandmother or the economic crisis that is affecting us today and so on. If you pray, I do believe in the communion of saints, and it does work.

The Uganda Episcopal Conference asked all Christians last year, at the end of every Mass and the Eucharist, to pray one “Our Father” asking God for the gift of peace. I do hear this in Europe and in any community and I will request it in any community that I will visit; I will ask them to do the same, at least to join us in this important effort to pray one “Our Father” to ask God for his kingdom to come, which is a kingdom of peace and brotherhood and that peace will happen there.

* * *

This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly TV & radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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On ZENIT’s Web page:

Part 1 of this interview: www.zenit.org/article-30000?l=english

On the Net:

For more information: www.WhereGodWeeps.org

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