What the ‘Right to Know’ means for victims in Northern Uganda
By Lino Owor Ogora
Despite experiencing close to four years of relative peace, Northern Uganda continues to grapple with several recovery challenges. Among these challenges are answered questions regarding the plight of people who continue to be missing. Many of these people were either abducted by the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) or simply went missing due to other causes such as displacement. It is not known if many of them are still alive.
A survey conducted by an NGO called Children and Youth as Peace Builders (CAP) indicates that 1,036 people are missing in Gulu alone. A 2012 survey by JRP in Acholi sub-region covering 2,573 respondents indicates that 55.5% of respondents still have a family member missing from the conflict. Of those respondents, 60% have one family member missing; 24% have two family members missing; the remaining 16% have three or more family members missing, their whereabouts still unknown. The families, friends and relatives of these people continue to be held in suspense as a result of not knowing whether their loved ones are still alive or dead.
When JRP conducted research in a place called Corner Kilak in Pader District, we came across an old man whose son had been abducted. This old man said to us, “I am an old man. I need to see my son before I die.” I have never forgotten the words of this old man, and since I heard these words several years ago, I am not certain if this old man had his wish granted.
In another place called Obalanga in Amuria district, I came across a woman whose husband – the headmaster of a local primary school – had been abducted by the LRA and had never returned. This woman has since been kept in the dark about the whereabouts of her husband regarding whether he is dead or alive, and as a result she is not sure whether she is a widow or a wife.
In a village located in Gulu District, we came across parents of girls who were abducted in the early 1990s by soldiers of the National Resistance Army (NRA) as they conducted an operation. These girls were presumable taken to serve the soldiers as wives, but were never heard of again. Their families continue to be held in suspense regarding their whereabouts.
The quest for answers is not only limited to missing people who are assumed to still be alive. It also stretches to people relatives of people who lost their loved ones but have not had the opportunity to conduct proper burials simply because they do not have the remains or bones of their loved ones with which they can conduct the burials. In Obalanga for example, I came across a distressed young lady called Petra whose husband was not only killed by the LRA in a most gruesome manner, but after killing her husband the LRA cut off his head and went with it. Petra’s husband had to be buried headless. To date, Petra still hopes to discover the head of her husband in order to make his burial complete.
In Acholi culture, just like in many other cultures in Northern Uganda, proper burials are called for, as it is not only a sign of respect for the dead, but also as a means of avoiding reprisals from the spirits of the dead. People who have not received the spirits of their loved ones will therefore continue to long for closure about how they died, and also to get back their remains so that they can conduct proper burials.
The right to know also stretches to people who simply want to know the causes of the conflict, and why horrendous atrocities were committed against them. Many survivors of massacres continue to ask why they were subjected to inhumane treatment by fellow human beings who behaved like beasts towards them. In one village, (name withheld) we came across male and female survivors of rape perpetrated by NRA soldiers in the early 1990s. A woman narrated how she had been raped almost seventeen times by different soldiers. An old man narrated how he had been sodomized by two soldiers. Almost twenty years later, this village has a high incidence of HIV/AIDs as a result of this mass rape and sodomy. Such victims seek answers to why fellow human beings had to behave like beasts towards them.
As Northern Uganda continues to recover from the impacts of the conflict, the time is overdue for the implementation of transitional justice post-conflict recovery programs. With every day that passes, the need to engage in reparative programs for victims grows more urgent. Among these is the need to set up a truth recovery program aimed at providing answers for families of the missing and survivors of conflict. ▪
Lino Owor Ogora is the team Leader for the Community Documentation Department of JRP.