By Sylvia Opinia
To commemorate the internationally recognised day against enforced disappearances, the Justice and Reconciliation Project in collaboration with Children/Youth as Peace Builders (CAP) Uganda organised a dialogue on the 30th of August 2012 between stakeholders, victims groups and civil society organisations in Northern Uganda to generate debate on addressing the issue of people who are still missing or unaccounted for as a result of conflict. Guided by the theme “the right to truth”, this was part of a series of week long of activities organised by JRP in West Nile, Teso, Lango and Acholi sub-regions aimed at engaging with communities on the issue.
THE ‘DIALOGUE ON DISAPPEARANCES’ served to launch a campaign by the Justice and Reconciliation Project known as ‘The Right to Know’ which is aimed at drawing the attention to the views, struggles and initiatives of the family members of missing persons that continue to search for their loved ones. The campaign arose from the realisation that despite the fact that the guns have fallen silent in Northern Uganda, many are still struggling to come to terms with its effects. Statistics published by CAP in 2012 show that in Gulu District alone up to 30 per cent of all people abducted by the LRA are still unaccounted for and 1036 alone are still missing as a result of the conflict in Northern Uganda.
Over 1,000 community members across the region participated in the series of week long activities where they shared stories about their missing relatives/family members and their tireless efforts in search for answers. The main dialogue in Gulu District on 30th of August 2012 was attended by representatives of relatives/family members of the missing from each of the sub-regions, key stakeholders, cultural as well as religious leaders, and civil society organisations, the academia, government representatives and the Guest of Honour, the Paramount Chief of Acholi Rwot David Acana II. During this dialogue, the participants lit candles and held a prayer for their loved ones who are still missing and unaccounted for.
The dialogue was centred around the presentation of a documentary produced by JRP entitled “The Right to Truth and Justice” which presented the point of view of four families of persons that are missing and/or unaccounted for as a result of conflict in the greater North of Uganda (copies of the documentary can be requested from JRP offices or accessed from JRP’s Youtube account) The documentary screening was followed by a public debate with the guests sharing their views on the issue of missing persons, disappearances and the way forward for the ‘Right to Know’ campaign.
The right to know: Today many people do not know where their relatives are and continue to be held in suspense. The “right to know” however, in this context is not limited to people who are missing, but rather stretches to those who have not been able to conduct proper burials and properly lay their loved ones to rest. The “right to know” also stretches to people who want to know the causes of the conflict in Uganda and to know why certain people treated them “like beasts”. Hence the need for closure in the form of proper burials and knowing how a person’s loved ones were killed. An example was given of Petra’s husband in Amuria District who served as part of the ‘Arrow Boys’ defence militia and was killed by the LRA. Petra’s husband’s body was mutilated with the head cut off of his remains. For Petra, her “right to know” involves having the right to locate her husband’s body parts so she could give him an adequate burial.
Effects on the families: As discussed by participants, the effects and needs of a family member/relative of the missing are immense ranging from economic, psychosocial, medical, legal, and physical among others. When a family member goes missing, the pain of loss is made worse by the agony of uncertainty. Indeed not knowing the fate of their relatives is a harsh reality for countless families, no matter how many years have gone by, as parents, siblings, spouses and children are desperately trying to find lost relatives. Dr. Andrew from Medical Cares Mission thus summarised this situation as follows; “If a surgical wound is not healing well the surgeon will re-open it and perform a procedure called secondary repair to aid in faster healing, however this is done in the theatre. In this case, wounds are memories, reopening of the wounds are the “right to know”, getting answers are secondary repair and the theatre are experts”.
The issue of persons still missing has not made it to the national agenda: The Government through the Justice Law and Order Sector (JLOS) established a Transitional Justice Working Group to bring justice and accountability in the North and the country as a whole in line with the Juba Peace Agreement. As a result, some progress has been registered such the establishment of the International Crimes Division of the High Court of Uganda (ICD), consultations on other processes such as truth-telling, reparations. However, the issue of persons missing as a result of conflict has not been mentioned or tackled and thus not been acknowledge by government. As Christopher Alebo, a victim from West Nile put it “the ‘battle’ has been left to the parents of missing persons”.
The magnitude of the problem is not known: While interaction with communities during the regional activities indicate that many families across the region are dealing with the agony of not knowing where their relatives are, no comprehensive statistics exists to indicate the numbers of those still missing or unaccounted for apart from the survey done by CAP Uganda in Gulu District alone.
It’s a national issue: Sub regions such as West Nile and Teso felt neglected by most of the post conflict initiatives in the country. They urged for a national strategy on missing persons which would bring all the regions to work together.
Questions of justice: Participants noted with deep concern that both government and rebel forces should be held accountable for the different circumstances that led family members to go missing. Enforced disappearances are now considered crimes against humanity meaning they are considered a very heinous crime that affects the entire international community. Where crimes like these are committed, thorough investigations must take place and if found guilty the perpetrators have to be brought to justice in order for international commitment to be made to ensure that such crimes are not committed again. Therefore, both traditional and international mechanisms are essential and the ICC should be perceived as an ally in the struggle.
The relationship between victims’ groups and (local) government agencies is poor: At the local level, participants expressed frustration about how victims groups often receive a lot of resistance from government bodies especially at the district level with LCVs and RDCs when generating information like the list of missing persons which was being displayed at the event. In some instances, this was also true for sub-county and parish-level interactions. Oftentimes, the local leaders did not fully understand the needs of the victims and further stigmatized them.
Recommendations and Suggested Strategies
Following the issues identified the following recommendations and strategies were given to address the issue of missing persons as well as the way forward for the ‘right to know’ campaign;
To the Government of Uganda
Through the Justice Law and Order Sector and the Ministry of Justice and constitutional affairs’ appreciate the magnitude of the problem of missing persons by putting it on the agenda for discussion. When this is done, then discussions on how to address the issue should kick off with practical strategies with constant consultations of the relatives and families of the missing.
Conduct comprehensive documentation of missing and unaccounted for persons with lists produced for every region. This would serve as an acknowledgement, a way of remembrance as well as a common hub for information gathering to help families who are in search for answers. An independent commission on missing persons should be instituted to with technical/funding support from civil society organisations and international agencies.
Avenues for peaceful resolution of the conflict
To draw lessons of the 2006 to 2008 Juba peace talks in order to resume further talks and to finding other peaceful forms of ending the conflict, because as it has been acknowledged without ending the war it will be difficult to know the truth about disappeared persons.
To reverse their decision on amnesty to extend its application on a case by case basis not only to motivate those still in captivity to return home and for them to confirm information about those still in the bush and those who have died.
A comprehensive transitional justice strategy
Through the Justice Law and Order sector needs carefully incorporate how the different TJ mechanism can suitably address the issue of missing or unaccounted for persons. The mechanisms that were most cited by participants include truth-telling, memorilisation and reparations among others.
For the ‘Right to Know’ campaign
The ‘right to know’ campaign requires strategic partnerships and collaboration between victims and other key stakeholder at different levels is required. Civil society organisations that are working on the issue of missing persons were urged to come up with a joint strategy to tackle this issue, coordinate with like-minded organisations in Southern Sudan, DRC and CAR. Even though the campaign involves a complex idea, there are some international institutions such as the ICRC who have worked in this area and have expertise should join in with support from donor agencies.
Support groups for relatives/families of the missing
To further support the families and relatives of the missing to form association where they could benefit from peer support and together use it as a platform advocate for government to acknowledge and appreciate the magnitude of the issue of missing person. This could also be an avenue for these families to receive expert help to deal with such ambiguous loss.
Role of the traditional leaders
As part of their role to reconcile communities, the Acholi Paramount Chief was urged to Rwot Davis Acana II was urged to meet with other traditional leaders in Northern Uganda to encourage greater involvement is such initiatives as dialogues and meetings. The cultural institutions to further facilitate children born in captivity to trace their families and unite them with their relatives. ▪