By Kamilla Hasager Jensen and Mia Jess
It is early morning and we have just arrived at a family compound in the outskirts of Gulu. We are greeted by the father of the family who is apologizing for being very busy that particular morning. It has been raining heavily all night and now he has to fix the latrine, which has been damaged by the rain. The father is weak and recovering from an illness, so the heavy work is hard for him to manage. He takes time out of his busy schedule to show us around his compound. While we are walking around we are talking about his family. He tells us about his eldest son who was abducted and is still missing. It pains the family not to know what has happened to the son, if he is still alive or dead. The mother of the family is especially distressed because of the loss of their son and the uncertainty of the situation. But the disappearance of the son not only affects the family emotionally, but also practically, in their everyday life. The father needs the eldest son to assist the family economically as well as in household chores, for example with digging the land and building the latrine this very morning. But since the eldest son is not there, the father has to manage all this alone or depend on the help of others.
We had arrived in Gulu in the end of August 2012 as anthropology students from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark to do research for our Masters thesis. Our preparation included reading books and articles about Northern Uganda, the war and current reconciliation processes. When we came to Gulu, we were fixed on the subject of reintegration of formerly abducted children who have returned to Gulu. We wanted to examine how religion and faith contribute to reintegration processes and the establishment of reconciliation and forgiveness. But when we faced the current situation and reality in Gulu, it made us change our minds. The decisive factor that made us change our project entirely was the “Dialogue on Disappearances” held on August 30th, at Hotel Free Zone arranged by the Justice and Reconciliation Project. Hearing the personal testimonies and experiences of families that are still missing a relative after the war had a deep impact on us and it made us realize that this was a crucial issue in the aftermath of the war in Gulu and the surrounding communities, though it has only received little attention from the public, NGOs and the government.
The opening example, concerning the father of a missing son, exemplifies how the absence and uncertainty of a missing relative has a great influence on the remaining family. Other families with missing relatives whom we have visited have expressed some of the same problems of family structures being changed and how the prospects of the family are narrowed down. The missing relative is needed as a contributor to the family, and now that he/she is gone his or her hands are missing in the daily chores of the family, which leaves the family with a much larger workload. At the same time several of the families we are in touch with, are now taking care of the children of the missing relative, which is an economic burden on the entire family. As a result children are often denuded of the possibility of education.
The mentioned issues concerning families with missing relatives are forming the framework of our research, which we have just started. In the next three months we will spend more time with these families, both participating in their daily activities as well as conducting in-depth interviews with them in order to achieve an understanding of the situation they are in. The analytical focus of our research will be on how the missing relatives are influencing the daily life of the families, which hopes the families have for the future and the families’ perceptions of guilt and evil. Through this focus, we hope to gain an understanding of how relations between families and non-present family members are formed and sustained.
Our research constitutes the foundation for our Masters’ thesis, which we are writing together in the spring of 2013 . Besides this, we hope, trough our research, to create awareness on families with missing relatives and the problems they are facing. We are very occupied by this issue, and we are glad to have changed our research focus. In the years after the war has moved out of Uganda, there have been a lot of research and initiatives on reintegration and forgiveness of the people who have returned from the bush but those who are still missing and the problems of their families have largely been ignored. Thus, there is a need to acknowledge those families as victims too and to let their voices be heard.
We hope to contribute our further findings in a later issue of Voices magazine.
Kamilla Hasager Jensen and Mia Jess are Masters students of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.