Professor counsels ex-child soldiers, survives dangers in western Africa

Topic: College of Sciences and Humanities

January 17, 2008

During a recently concluded six-month stint working in refugee camps in Ghana, Ball State University's Lucinda Woodward believes she helped to improve the lives of hundreds of former child soldiers she counseled for post-traumatic stress disorder. 

And as she adjusts to life back on campus with running water, electricity and computers, Woodward confides the experience left her a changed person as well. 

In often horrifying interpersonal group therapy sessions from July until late December, Woodward worked with 130 former child soldiers living in squalor in the Budumbura Refugee Settlement in Ghana — home to about 25,000 to 30,000 people who fled war-torn Liberia — encouraging them to openly discuss their days as child soldiers.  

Thousands of youngsters who are now in their late 20s and early 30s were used by both sides in Liberia's three brutal civil wars that ended in 2003 with democratic elections. Nearly a million Liberians continue to live in adjoining nations more than a decade after the hostilities ended. 

Boys forced to kill
With her husband and family in tow, Woodward listened to horrendous accounts as former combatants emotionally recalled various atrocities. It wasn't uncommon for child soldiers – brandishing weapons made for much larger adults — to kill off whole families, butchering old men, women and children.

"We were trying interpersonal therapy, allowing these men to talk about what happened. The majority had been taken from their families when they were youngsters and cut off from any community for years," she said. "It left them unable to talk about what they were feeling, and therefore, they became highly susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"They have been ostracized because of the atrocities they committed. Some were forced to kill their family members in order to survive. For many, killing is the only life they've really known."

By the end of her stay, Woodward found the sessions helped many former soldiers better deal with their past.

"A few were even smiling, simply because they got all this off their chests," she said. "But they still face a long way to recovery. In fact, since most of them are refugees, they cannot participate in training or education. So, many return to their former lives as mercenaries for as little as $300." 

Over the months of intense therapy sessions with former child soldiers, Woodward and her husband, Peter Galvin, a geography professor at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Ind., videotaped interviews with survivors of the brutality. The pair plans to write a book about their experiences and possibly distribute the video.

Risks to safety
While Woodward believes that her mission to western Africa was successful, it also dramatically changed her life. She admits to suffering headaches and hyperarousal in response to loud noises or being startled.

"While Ghana is an advanced country, it is still relatively backward, extremely dangerous, and I sometimes still have nightmares about it," she said. "During my last week there, I made the mistake of getting into a cab with three men, who beat and robbed me of $14 and a broken cell phone. If I was a native, I would have had my throat slashed and left for dead on the side of the road.

"My husband upset a village elder by taking photos of an area considered to have religious significance, which we found out was considered a violation of the local culture. Because human sacrifices are still practiced, we had to basically leave town. In Ghana, you don't offend the village elders because they have a great deal of power."

Return trip planned
Despite the harrowing experiences — including bouts with malaria that plagued her family — Woodward plans to lead a team of 20 to 25 Ball State students next summer back to the refugee camps next summer in an effort to spearhead an HIV/AIDS prevention effort.

"To say the least, it may be Ball State's best example of an immersive learning experience," she said. "We will be preparing the students for a very different type of education."

The experience in western Africa was so transforming that Woodward almost considered dedicating her life to the helping refugees.

"On my husband's suggestion, I did seriously consider applying to the World Health Organization's (WHO) new psychological division to continue working with refugees in developing nations, but I realized that I could probably be of greater use to the Liberian people here in the U.S., raising funds and awareness for the plight of the former child soldiers and other Liberian war refugees," she said. "So, the reason I am returning is to publish the data we collected on treating war trauma using lay counselors so that this paradigm can be recreated with war victims on an international basis.  I also hope to write up my group therapy manual for distribution to NGOs and other non-profits like WHO and International Red Cross."

Woodward has been appointed director of International Relations for the War Affected Children's Rehabilitation Organization (WACRO) and invited to go to Liberia in the future to conduct a similar training program for lay counselors at the University of Liberia in Monrovia. 

"I believe I can continue to serve this war-torn country through such outreach much more effectively using the resources I have here in the U.S."

Woodward documented her trip with a blog that may be found on Ball State's psychological science department Web site at www.bsu.edu/psysc.

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