What is it like now for Northern Uganda, a mass crime scene for over two decades during the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebellion? This is a region that was once considered a field of landmines, a “no-go zone”, a habitat for combatants where the bushes were all claimed by the rebels as their homes and lodges. No single civilian was allowed to hide, spend a night or take refuge there unless s/he was capable of paying for lodging there. Payment was by way of torture, rape, abduction, forceful conscription, or killing. The cry for protection, peace and healing were a daily rhetoric.
This is the place where normative traditional settlement patterns were altered forcefully and changed to generalized Internally Displaced Persons Camps (IDPs) under the disguise of “protection”.
Over a decade into relative calm, a significant number of former IDPs and conflict survivors are still crying for peace and healing in ways that echo how the population cried and prayed for protection and the return of peace during the conflict and volatility in the region. A 25-year-old former war casualty from Omoro district is among the many victims for whom peace and healing have thus far proven elusive. He remarked;
“[It is] as if I am still in Bobi IDP camp; I am still stuck in between war and death. The war has left me in a one-man battle, where you find me battling with everyday life-threatening wars with armed soldiers strangling me at night, while others are abducting and brutally torturing innocent people I know; these bad dreams (nightmare) are real wars.
Once the sun is going down in the evening, my heartbeat increases rapidly and I develop extreme fear of confronting the fighters who are ruthless and determined to kill me. For me a single night is like a year of fierce crossfire, and life begins to come back to me when I hear the cock crowing and [this brings] eventual temporary rescue by morning sunrise.
As if that is not enough, I am also battling a life of surviving with retained bullet stuck tight in my skull near the brain. The doctors told me to my face that there is a high degree of possible life threatening implications if they try to surgically remove it, yet I feel the pricks and pain as if there is a fresh war where I am being repeatedly shot in the head.’’
It is unfortunate that such sufferers still exist, particularly in an era where the politics and practices that dominate the post-conflict agenda rotate majorly around development. The wave of challenges emanating from the deep-seated dichotomization and phasing of “conflict” and “post-conflict”, and what intervention should dominate which phase, is generating a situation that demonstrates the idiomatic expression of being stuck “between a rock and a hard place”. This expression speaks directly to numerous significant real-life situations such as the phenomenon of war-affected people living in prolonged internal exile in northern Uganda for over two decades (the “rock”) before their transitional return from Internally Displaced Persons Camps (IDP) to satellite camps, and later to their various ancestral homelands (the “hard place”).
Although returnees exhibited some resilience that helped them move through different life transitions to the present day, the nexus between their ability to come to terms with their violent past and the drivers to spring them over to posterity seems to be in a vulnerable fix. Numerous sufferers report that they are either living with or surrounded by conflict-related stressors and multiple trauma triggers that keep on wounding their resilience further, even as we know that building strong individual and social resilience for healing strongly ride on internal and external/environmental stability and safety.
After over a decade of relative peace in northern Uganda, affected communities are being forced by unbearable factors to believe that they have been left to struggle with numerous battles that often make them feel like they are fighting more real wars. Such feelings are indicators of vulnerability and decaying resilience which, left unattended to, may have a huge bearing on broader dynamics of post-conflict recovery, and create a fragility to healing and vicious cycles of violence.
If conflict changes shapes and twists like an amoeba by way of shifting battlefields, dynamics, and fronts, then “post-conflict” is capable of becoming elusive with a huge ambiguity in determining, defining or layering analytically what “post-conflict” is/looks like. The affected communities are then prone to suffer further from feeling unheard, confused and stuck in a state of perpetual profound suffering.
Recounting episodes of mass violence and armed rebellions and their unaddressed legacies in Uganda as a whole, it is arguable that unaddressed war-time spells are major conflict drivers and a predictor of unanswered questions of justice and healing that flicker red lights that warn of vicious cycles of suffering. Therefore, it is not surprising that the complexities involved in defining conflict and post-conflict among the communities is labeled with claims of “fighting wars of wars”. Refugee Law Project’s 2014 Compendium of Conflicts in Uganda revealed 125 different conflicts experienced in Uganda; it is not surprising that the victims are still stained with the agony of the aftermath. It is a rough legacy of suffering that validates the relevance of transitional justice as a roadmap for strengthening human resilience for recovery, and nation-building for harmonious cohesion. The mechanisms must be responsive to addressing environmental and human rehabilitation and conflict transformation agendas.
Between 2012-2015, the rate of completed and attempted suicide among war victims was at a peak in Acholi sub-region in northern Uganda especially in Koro, Koch, Paicho, Awach and Wol sub-counties in Omoro, Nwoya, Gulu and Agago districts. At that time there were daily reports. Although the number of incidents has reduced now, I think these were early signs of a collapsing resilience in the wake of daunting unresolved traumas, untreated war injuries/ailments, poverty, land conflicts, improper reintegration, unpurified return environment and collapsing social support systems, especially for people whose social relationships, productivity and functioning had been impaired by the war.
Post conflict environment and collapsing resilience
At the time of return from the IDP camps, many places in Acholi sub-region were heavily populated with the skeletons of people killed during the conflict. This impeded return for many IDPs before the Northern Uganda Transition Initiative (NUTI), in collaboration with the Acholi Cultural Institution (Ker Kwaro Acholi), cleansed the affected areas after supporting the collection and reburial of the bones that were causing mass fear and trauma.
Similarly, in Odramachako in West Nile - situated on the Arua-Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) border - the population raised serious alarm during community information sessions on post-conflict rehabilitation. They spoke passionately of their environment being polluted with multiple mass graves and infestation of human bones of civilians and unknown combatants killed during past violent conflicts. They have lived with the situation for decades in the hope that something will be done about it in terms of decent burials, reparation, supporting commemoration, and helping the affected people heal from the trauma of post Idi Amin conflicts and experiences of different guerilla groupings.
A 45-year-old woman who was a victim of grave violation during one of the conflicts in Odramachako could not hide her trauma and that of other community members during a session on victim support group formation; she narrated;
“Some people built houses over mass graves in the Odramachako trading center and some of us have been forced to dig in our own land possessed with undissolved human skeletons and bones. Few years back, things were not easy for us all. The people who built over mass graves cannot now sleep in those houses because of the hauntings and they have rented out their buildings to born again Christians – but even they are finding the same challenge. Some farmers are experiencing serious nightmares after regular interface with the human bones and skulls during farming seasons. One of our community members was seriously pricked by a sharp human-bone when he was digging on his land, and the wound never healed up to now and the trauma the person is going through is unspeakable. I think the Government should establish war memorial cemeteries across conflict-affected communities in Uganda to help bury unknown human bones and the massacred. The people who were killed during wars should be commemorated periodically, and the Government should set one day for general commemoration of war horrors in Uganda (National Victims’ Day). For us the local people, we can organize our memorial prayers on appropriate dates for those massacres in our own communities.”
When effects of horror and tragedy are compounded like this it can be disastrous to human immunity to resist or deal with such phenomena. Human esteem and resilience can be torn apart, leaving affected people with numerous vulnerabilities. If war memories and remnants are sources of perpetual trauma, then negating and transforming them should form a key agenda in policies, programs, practices and funding for conflict-affected communities.
Such experiences also present a huge challenge to the current debate on environment and climate change in the so-called “post-war northern Uganda” that also doubles as a refugee-hosting community since the focus on environment tends to primarily lean towards the daunting mass charcoal production, alternative gas and tree planting.
Living in an environment where at any moment you can see faces and people seriously deformed or disabled by war, and where you can still spot those still living with unrepaired war ailments, causes many people goose pimples. Yet the slogan of “war is over let’s focus on development” still dominates the speeches and funding proprieties and opportunities of so many politicians and other key stakeholders.
Can environment contribute to strengthening resilience in the North?
Culturally, the calmness of the land relied heavily on environmental indicators such as; the aroma and ambiance from trees and plants; birds singing and nesting around trees surrounding homesteads; beer parties and ceremonies conducted under cool trees after communal work; availability and proximity of medicinal trees/plants and forests for healing; hunting expeditions in communal forested hunting grounds reserved strictly for hunting and wildlife preservation.
However, during the past wars, forests were burnt down by mass bombing, fighting and establishment of army detaches/barracks. This is being compounded by ongoing mass tree cutting and commercial charcoal production across northern Uganda. As the grounds/land are left increasingly bare, the people who were able to hold their lives together, in part thanks to the supportive environment created by trees, are equally suffering.
For instance, the Beyo tree (Afzelia Afrikana) that used to contribute enormously by producing seeds used for playing omweso board game, is facing extinction. Board games are very therapeutic since they can occupy those with psychosocial issues, and this breaks down their isolation and loneliness for positive psychosocial outcomes. Many trauma survivors report symptoms of psycho-somatization: Having quiet and or productive time under cool trees, or attending community or therapy sessions under shade-giving trees can offer wealth of opportunity for cooling down and healing.
We need to reclaim the lost opportunity and embark on preserving our environment for multiple therapeutic purposes and social bonding, and also deal with environmental impediments to human resilience through deliberate actions. Stakeholders’ information session and collaboration with police, army, cultural institutions, religious institutions, civil society organizations, leaders, grassroots community and the different governmental bodies and ministries are handy opportunities for building momentum against environmental destruction and pollution while also creating spaces in which people can recover from the past.
In addition to the establishment of the International Crimes Division of the High Court (ICD) of Uganda, the recent passing of the National Transitional Justice Policy of Uganda by Cabinet in June 2019 to me indicates a renewed commitment by the Government of the Republic of Uganda and its partners to acknowledge past atrocities and ensure accountability for conflict injustices. The policy should also acknowledge and deal with environmental crimes since the effects of conflicts on the surroundings have been immense but have never been brought into the limelight in Uganda.
Environmental rehabilitation should feature strongly in the holistic rehabilitation frameworks entailing soft and hardware components. The use of weapons and chemicals within the warfare environment needs urgent forensic studies to enforce appropriate environmental rehabilitation of damaged ecological systems. Comprehensive rehabilitation of victims should consider provision of artificial body parts lost to the war, plastic surgeries, medical treatment, mental and psychological/psychosocial assessment and treatment. War memorial rehabilitation hospitals need to be established to provide specialized services to the thousands of war casualties and victims in Uganda. Immediate efforts to comprehensively survey landmine and other unexploded ordinances in war-affected communities for demining/detonation is urgently needed to address fears and actual damages to human lives and properties.
Discussion on climate change and environment should not only revolve around the refugee influx and the destructive activities of the host communities and business community. It must also strategically acknowledge and involve combat related devastations, and resultant consequences so as to realistically strive towards creating safer, cool and peaceful environments that are appropriate and justifiable for mutual human co-existence. By broadening the discussion, we might potentially mitigate or reduce forced migration and other conflicts resulting from unaddressed environmental challenges, and the “court of public opinion” and that of the generation to come will judge us fairly.
By Okot Benard Kasozi
Senior Research & Advocacy Officer-psychosocial –