Against all odds – family members continue to search for answers about the missing

"We leave our doors open at night." - Families of the missing march on the International Day Against Enforced Disappearances in Gulu, 30 August 2013

“We leave our doors open at night.” – Families of the missing march on the International Day Against Enforced Disappearances in Gulu, 30 August 2013

As a new intern for the Community Mobilisation department of JRP, one of my first activities was to visit the Pece Missing Persons Group (MPG). I was ready to watch and give feedback to a theatre performance, having no clue as to what I would become witness to. It soon became clear to me that there was much more than preparation for performance taking place. The rehearsals acted as a space for mourning, a space for exploration, a space for bonding & relating to one another. Rehearsals provided a supportive space where the family members of the missing were able to claim their suffering and set aside time to honor this suffering. In an environment where their anguish is belittled, or even denied, this space meant much more than I had originally understood.

The Pece Missing Persons Group (MPG) was formed in March 2013, with around 50 affected family members within Gulu Municipality courageously coming together to break the silence around the MPs issue. In line with the ‘Right to Know’ campaign, JRP’s Community Mobilisation department and the MPG conducted three community outreach events in the month of August, which were attended by local government officials and the general public. The purpose of these outreaches was to use creative performance as an advocacy tool to raise awareness and to generate community dialogue. The three outreaches culminated on August 30th, the International Day Against Disappearances.

The passionate performances of the MPG brought a personal touch to all of these events. In watching the drama, one was taken on a journey of the tireless search for missing children abducted during the war. In listening to the songs, one was invited to feel the intense pain and uncertainty of parents waiting for their missing children. In experiencing the recitation of poems, one was further enveloped by the overwhelming anxiety and grief shared by affected family members and awakened by the pleas ‘for someone to listen, for someone to help’.

There were moments given to those MPG members overcome with emotions to openly grieve during performances. Some members would join in with high-pitched calls, while others buried their faces in their hands. One could not help but hear the wails, see the tears, and, consequently, feel this outward expression of grief. The shared pain among these affected family members was so palpable in these spontaneous outbursts that it spread from performers to audience members, creating an emotional interchange that is so rarely seen in a public space.

Many audience members spoke of being ‘transported’ back to the horrific experiences during the insurgency. The performance also seemed to grant permission for those watching to share their own personal stories and struggles as discussion ensued. The devastating effects of the MPs issue poured out; trauma, suicide, school dropouts, forced family separations, social abuses, loss of rights, etc.  

Closely following a desire to know whether loved ones are dead or alive, marked by repeated requests for the creation of a reliable database on the status of the missing, many people demanded compensation from the government to account for the high economic costs of losing family members. The failure of the state to fulfill its duty in protecting its citizens was often cited to justify this demand for compensation. Continued peace talks, the active pursuit of foreign assistance, official recognition of the MPs issue, and a public apology were all presented as government obligations.  

Reflecting on the month’s events, I can’t help but feel deeply moved by the MPG. They not only invested their time and energy, both physical and emotional, but also risked immense vulnerability in front of friends and strangers alike. The lengthy and passionate post-performance discussions were a testament to the group’s unyielding dedication to the project.

Against all odds, these affected family members maintain and act on their belief that justice can and will be served. This enduring hope stands as a lesson for us all.