Missing Persons: Towards A Victim Centred Approach


By Simon Robins

The conflicts over the last three decades in Northern Uganda have left many impacts, some better understood than others. The large-scale LRA abductions that have come to characterise the war in the Acholiland and beyond have produced a multi-faceted response targeting returnees, their families and communities. Returnees have benefitted from counselling in district-based reception centres, support on their return home and assistance packages. In some sense however these returnees and their families are the lucky ones: many families of those abducted have heard nothing about their loved ones and remain torn between the hope that they will return and the despair that they may be dead. The emphasis in the north on returnees, and the apparent neglect of those missing and their families is finally beginning to be addressed, and it is hoped that this special issue of Voices can be the catalyst for both an understanding and addressing of the many issues that the families of the missing face.

The issue of missing persons is one relevant to almost all contemporary conflict, with families globally facing the challenges of living with no knowledge of what has happened to loved ones. In the Balkan wars mass executions and unmarked graves left more than 20,000 missing, and conflicts ranging from those in the Caucasus, Libya, D.R. Congo and Nepal have left a legacy of thousands of families seeking information about relatives. In all these contexts families seek to know the fate of sons and husbands, and to retrieve remains where they are dead so that they can be honoured and dignified according to local traditions.   

The International Committee of the Red Cross

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has a mandate enshrined in international law to protect and assist victims of conflict. Integral to this work is maintaining family links torn apart by conflict, including through providing phone access to those separated from loved ones, and collecting Red Cross Messages from prisoners of war and detainees. In contexts where war is over and persons remain missing, ICRC reminds the authorities of their obligations to provide information to the families of those unaccounted for, and intervenes directly to support the families of the missing. ICRC has acted on the basis of its mandate in Uganda since 1979, and its tracing work continues today, notably with refugees arriving from the DRC and with unaccompanied Ugandan minors linked to the LRA who have been recovered in neighbouring states. Where possible such children are reunited with family members in Uganda.

ICRC has recently begun work with families of the missing in the north, aiming to understand their needs and explore action that can address them. Experience elsewhere allows an appreciation of the needs that disappearance creates, and how it is a novel experience that stands apart from other violations. Answers clearly lie at the heart of families’ demands: there is a need to know the truth of what has happened. Families seek closure above all else. Much of this is encompassed by the ‘right to know’, a demand that families not only have a need but a legal right to the truth, enshrined in both International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law.

Ambiguous loss

Ambiguous loss is the most stressful loss because it defies resolution and creates confused perceptions about who is in or out of a particular family. With a clear-cut loss, there is more clarity – a death certificate, mourning rituals, and the opportunity to honor and dispose remains. (Pauline Boss, Loss, Trauma and Resilience: Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006.)

Much of the work in the north with returnees and others impacted by the conflict has revolved around understandings of trauma, with an emphasis on addressing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Disappearance however is not the same as trauma, and having a missing relative is not a pathology: it is the absence of a loved one and not the event of abduction that characterises their experience. This phenomenon can be understood in terms of ambiguous loss.

Where a family member is absent in an unclear way, the lack of knowledge about the loved one gives rise to a challenge to transform the experience into one with which the family can live. Ambiguous loss occurs where a family member is psychologically present, but physically absent. Ambiguous loss is an explicitly relational perspective, which differs from individualised trauma approaches, such as that of PTSD, in that it characterises the stress as external and ongoing. The impact of ambiguous loss can be seen in the Acholiland: families seek to ensure that the dead are honoured in traditional ways, that the spirits of the dead of the conflict are called back to their homes. For the missing this is impossible as long as hope of return remains and death is unconfirmed. Families talk in indigenous Luo terms of the emotional and psychological impact of ambiguous loss, of the par (worries) and cwer cwiny (bleeding heart) that results.


Whilst the rhetoric of truth and the right to know confront ambiguity it is not clear that it does so in a way that can be constructive: even with political will on all sides it seems unlikely that most families in the Acholiland will ever receive answers about their missing loved ones. Driving work with families of the missing around ‘truth’ can reinforce the most negative coping mechanisms in which families become obsessed with achieving closure. In such a situation the challenge is not to promise families an end to ambiguity, but to aid them to live well despite it: the goal is to find meaning in the situation despite the absence of information and persisting ambiguity. Resilience means being able to live with unanswered questions. Instead of the usual question about truth, we ask how people manage to live well despite not knowing.

Families of the missing seek to make rituals for their dead, even where bodies have not been retrieved. Such ritual represents a process that constructs meaning in a socially understood way in society, allowing not just the family to move on from death but the broader community. Such ritual is possible in Acholi culture even without the body, since it is the return of the spirit to the home rather than the treatment of the body that is most important. However, even where death is known (or presumed), many families who lost loved ones in the war have not been able to make appropriate rituals because of a lack of resources to buy the animals that must be slaughtered and to feed the guests. This emphasises that livelihood issues are one of the greatest impacts on families of the missing, as they are on families of the dead. Where husbands and sons are missing, the productive capacity of agricultural families is massively reduced: where a woman heading a household is struggling to pay school fees or simply to feed her family this will be her biggest stressor. Widows who have lost all their sons and are aging and thus less able to work have lost the possibility of economic security.

As returnees have been stigmatised in their communities, so have families of the missing. One father told us when he complained about the family’s poverty, neighbours told him ‘to ask his son in the bush to send him money’: the assumption that those who have not returned are still with the LRA can distance such families from their communities. Where adult men are absent, and households headed by women or youth, they are seen as vulnerable in their community and have been taken advantage of, with land encroached upon or taken altogether. In the fraught environment of the north’s post-conflict land disputes, families of the missing – as other vulnerable families – are losing out.

The need for a victim-centred approach

A victim-centred approach has become a standard claim of approaches to addressing the impacts of conflict and in creating transitional justice mechanisms. It remains however something that, in Uganda as elsewhere, rarely translates into delivering what victims seek. To ensure that approaches to addressing the issue of the missing in northern Uganda are driven by the concerns of victims, abstract and prescriptive external discourses of ‘truth, justice and reparations’ must be challenged by an evidence base of what victims and their communities need to rebuild their lives. Any intervention that targets families of the missing should emerge from the everyday lives of the families themselves and be rooted not only in a universal culture of rights, but in the very local and particular culture of those affected. Wherever possible rather than being implemented solely on the terms of donors and agencies all efforts must be made to ensure that the families themselves have agency in that process. 

Simon Robins was Head of the Gulu sub-delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross from 2004 – 5 and is now working with ICRC on approaches to the missing issue in northern Uganda.  More information about his work can be found at: www.simonrobins.com