When asked what drew him to study abroad in Uganda, University of Colorado at Boulder student Zachary Gross couldn't pinpoint a specific reason, but the decision to go has changed his life forever.
"I've always had a passion for Africa, but I didn't really know what that meant, I just knew I had to go there," said Gross, 21, an anthropology major who will graduate on May 9. "Now I think I was supposed to go to Uganda all along because it is like home, and I know a lot of my future will be in Uganda."
While in Lira, Uganda, Gross spent three months in the Freidis Rehabilitation and Disabled Center where he met about 30 former "child soldiers." As children, they had been abducted and forced to serve in what is called the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group that has terrorized the small eastern African nation since the 1980s, killing thousands of Ugandans in a war against the government.
One of the group's main tactics was kidnapping children -- at least 40,000 of them, some as young as 8 -- and making them serve in their army where they were forced to carry out terrible acts such as plundering their communities and sometimes even killing their own families, according to Gross.
As he got to know the former child soldiers and heard more of their stories, Gross came up with an idea for a conference to bring together a large group of child soldiers to talk about and share their experiences. After receiving the green light from the rehabilitation center last summer, he began planning the conference and meeting with community and religious leaders to come up with a plan.
"What began as a small idea has turned into the Hope Again Conference," Gross said. "The kids I talked to all spoke about how they wanted a support system and a network where they could connect with each other and see what other former child soldiers are doing to cope, because they didn't know how to return to their lives. We also wanted the forum to be fun because these kids missed so much of their childhood."
Shortly after graduation, Gross will return to Uganda to continue preparing for the conference, which will be held in Lira Aug. 28-31. One of the first things he will do is invite about 150 former child soldiers to the conference to participate in community-building and leadership workshops and discuss their experiences and what worked and didn't work in their rehabilitation. He also has a special treat for participants.
"We contacted one of northern Uganda's biggest pop artists, Otim Bosmic, who sings about the troubles in the north and the war, and he agreed to come and do a private show for the kids one evening," Gross said. "These kids who were abducted basically had no childhood, they were either taken from their school or their homes and brainwashed not to go back to their families, so we wanted to give them an opportunity to just have a good time, while learning about leadership and empowerment."
Gross plans to document the whole event and create a DVD to send to all the rehabilitation centers in Uganda.
"What this will do is say, 'This isn't us telling you what works, this is the kids who went through your programs telling you what they need,' " Gross said. "When more kids escape from being child soldiers, here are some experiences these centers can use to re-adapt the rehabilitation process."
Gross wants to help as many of the former child soldiers return to their communities as possible because he knows it's an essential part of the country's healing.
"Their communities look at them as rebels, as killers and murderers, so they really don't know how they fit back into society," Gross said. "The sustainable peace in Uganda really relies on how well they transition back into their communities."
Gross traveled to Uganda during the spring semester in 2007 as part of CU-Boulder's Study Abroad program. He grew up in Los Angeles, where his family still lives.
"My family is a little confused about my passion with Africa, and why I have this obsession," Gross said. "What was really cool was my parents came to Uganda to visit toward the end of my six-month stay, and when they saw that I was in my environment they completely understood and have supported me 100 percent."
Gross is currently working to raise money for the conference. For more information about the Hope Again Conference, or to make a donation, visit hopeagainuganda.com/.