Thoughts on conflict and forgiveness in Northern Uganda

9 October 2014

“You have killed me for no reason, I even knew you.” – Ugandan youth describing his flashbacks (Veale, A., Stavrou A. 2003, p46)

Last week’s public appeal by NGOs and Ugandan leaders for better funded reintegration programmes for returning Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) soldiers made me think about what it is like to live in a deeply conflict-affected society, such as Uganda. How can people live at peace with each other in a society with such a strong legacy of fear and mistrust – after a dreadful war in which not even your mother was supposed to know your hiding place? (UN OCHA/IRIN publication, p39)

“This is a funny war.” – an internally displaced primary school teacher explained it – “I cannot even describe it. The rebels are killing their own brothers and mothers. We are killing ourselves. We are confused.” (UN OCHA/IRIN publication, p7)

I believe it is not necessary to explain what a great deal of suffering comes with any war. However, the case of Uganda is unique in one of the worst possible ways: the volume and frequency of abductions by rebels and horrible atrocities against the civilian population in the last 20-30 years, resulting in mass internal displacements and a general feeling of fear and mistrust, which affected an entire society. However, despite the great deal of suffering they endured, the people of Uganda are keen to forgive and to ensure a lasting peace.

Resistance and Amnesty

The root of the deadly conflict lies in unresolved regional and socio-economic conflicts that gave rise to political tensions. The horrible abuses committed by government armed forces since 1986 generated support for resistance movements, especially in Northern regions. The most permanent and brutal was perhaps Joseph Kony’s infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) aimed at establishing a new rule based on the biblical 10 commandments. The LRA did not aim to win hearts and minds: countless tortures, mutilations and abductions kept the whole civilian population in constant fear and forced 1.6 million people to live in IDP camps and an estimated 44,000 people to commute daily back and forth between their homes and safe shelters for the night. Tensions within Uganda and with neighbouring countries kept the war going until recently, when the LRA was finally pushed out of Uganda (HART 2013 Annual Report).

In 2000 the government proposed granting formal amnesty and a reinsertion package of some cash and household essentials for returning LRA fighters in the belief that this was the only way out of conflict and having realised that most LRA soldiers were forcibly recruited by abduction, and thus were victims themselves too. Living in the bushes with LRA groups was a constant nightmare, accounts reveal (UN OCHA/IRIN publication; Chrobok, V., Akutu A. S. 2008): people were starved, tortured, beaten or simply killed; forced and trained to fight, loot, torture, mutilate and murder even their own family members or each other on pain of death. The LRA would not let any soldiers leave the army – returning home meant either escaping by putting their lives at serious risk or being captured by government forces.

“My parents ran away when they saw me.” – girl, 15

In this context, reintegration is not easy for either party. The most fundamental problem lies in the tension between being keen to forgive and not being able to forget: seeking peace and security, while still living in fear and mistrust. Abductions have torn entire communities apart with more than 25,000 people being estimated to have been captured this way. Abductors, many themselves former abductees, are not only aggressors but victims too: it is hard to distinguish who is to forgive and who to punish.

It is not surprising that a general amnesty act is bound to create serious tensions within society. In many eyes returners were still associated with looting, killing and violence; many feared that this would happen again. Being afraid of living in the same village with someone who used to be the enemy, let alone in the same house with a murderer, is an understandable feeling. Returners have reported various forms of hostility they experienced, including stigmatisation, isolation, abuse, especially in the case of visible wounds. Years of living in an environment lacking primary infrastructure and any humanity leaves a permanent toll on people.

“You cannot be completely happy with all these wounds – both in your body and in your mind” – a 15 year old boy summarises. (Chrobok, V., Akutu A. S. 2008, p13)

They return to their societies with serious health issues hampering them in school or at work, and stigmatising them for a lifetime. But psychological and social challenges are perhaps the most painful: nightmares, flashbacks, trauma, fear, suicidal thoughts and aggression are everyday phenomena deeply affecting a great many of the returnees.

Children are more likely to be welcomed back into society and be forgiven, however, this by no means makes it any easier for them to fully reintegrate. Children, both abducted and not, despite their significantly different experiences and lifelines, were all victims:

“If you are under 20 and living here, you have known virtually nothing else in your whole life but what it is like to live in a community enduring armed conflict – conflict in which you are a prime target.” (Veale, A., Stavrou A. 2003, p40)

“I simply know how to bear the hardship, so I can forgive” – abducted teacher

At first no official reintegration programmes offered anything more than an amnesty certificate and material help, but soon NGOs such as World Vision and GUSCO realised the need for and established reception centres for soldiers leaving the LRA. These centres aimed both to provide in-centre services for returnees such as education, basic skills trainings, counselling and family tracing; and to prepare communities and families for the arrival of former fighters. (Chrobok, V., Akutu A. S. 2008)

Critics have argued against the amnesty act itself, let alone financial help, claiming that people should be held accountable for all what they have done. And indeed there have been several modifications: besides ICC issued warrants against Joseph Kony and 4 of his commanders, accountability is now investigated on a case by case basis before amnesty is granted. But reintegration is not only the question of guilt and punishment.

With not only houses and roads having been destroyed, but also communities, hopes and future as well, it is important to realise what an immense change the social landscape and the lives of both those abducted and the community members have gone through. This change is irreversible and therefore it is impossible for life to just go on as normal. (Nordstrom 1997) It is not just society having to forgive LRA soldiers for all they have done, but abductees having to forgive their abductors. In this context, forgiveness for the unforgettable cannot be expected, only hoped for. However, this hope is very much alive in Northern Uganda! There is a consistent sense of tiredness of violence and a strong desire for peace:

“I can’t simply just forgive…as I’ve passed all these stages, I simply know how to bear the hardship, so I can forgive” – an abducted teacher explains. (Veale, A., Stavrou A. 2003, p43)

I believe it is not a sound of apathy, but the manifestation of the ability to let go of mutual wounds. It is of exceptional importance to provide support beyond formal amnesty for people to be able to uphold this critical but extremely fragile culture of forgiveness.

Photo credit: IRIN,

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