12 February 2014 | by Emma Pomfret, Christian Aid
On International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers (also known as Red Hand Day, 12 February), it’s important to remember that one of the most challenging issues still facing communities devastated by the Ugandan civil war is the unknown whereabouts of many thousands of people, particularly child soldiers, who were abducted by the LRA and have never returned from the bush.
Meet Norman Okello, former child soldier
The anatomy of absence
During a recent trip to Northern Uganda, it soon became clear that the region continues to struggle with the many legacies of conflict stemming from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency, as well as during Idi Amin’s rule, which stretched the social fabric of the region to breaking point and beyond.
The exact number of missing people from Acholiland has never been collated, but one local group, Children/Youth as Peacebuilders (CAP) found that in Gulu District alone, 774 men and 262 women are still missing, with children aged 12 to 14 at the time of abduction comprising the majority.
In addition, a 2012 survey conducted by another local group, the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP), across the Acholi sub region found that more than half the 2,573 respondents reported at least one missing family member.
Healing emotional scars
Not only do the parents and siblings of the missing have to live with the enormous emotional – and even economic gaps left in their lives - but the issue has also been identified by the Advisory Consortium to Conflict Sensitivity (ACCS) as a potential trigger of new conflict if left unresolved.
With this in mind, a handful of organisations working in the northern region of Uganda, including the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre (NMPDC), supported by Christian Aid, are working to highlight the issue with a new report 'Living with Ambiguous Loss'.
‘The concern about the issue of missing persons is that most parents and family members still live in the state of chronic uncertainty about the whereabouts and fate of their children.'
Bob Acaye, assistant researcher at NMPDC
‘In traditional Acholi culture there is a ritual "calling of the spirit" that is performed to bring back the dead person’s soul for a memory of service or funeral rites, but these families cannot do that because there is no body, and somehow they still have the distant hope that their loved ones will still come home.
‘With their state of mind in limbo, they are condemned to live in bitterness, in pain, and in emotional distress,' explains Bob.
Since the LRA were driven out of Uganda in 2006, there has been little official recognition of the suffering faced by relatives of the missing. Although some mass graves have been exhumed, many people are unaware that is an option they can ask for in wanting to establish the truth about what happened to their families.
‘The absence of attention to this issue and the lack of a platform from which to speak up have left families of missing people silenced and disempowered,’ Theo Hollander, NMPDC’s senior researcher and key contributor to the report, told me.
‘For these families, the notion of peace is relative because every single day they are confronted with the war again through the absence of their loved one; the ambiguity over their fate freezes the grief process.’
Theo says that every person who was interviewed for the report showed clear signs of ambiguous loss, with all of them referring to their emotional state as ‘cwer cwiny’, literally meaning a bleeding heart in Acholi.
'I will never know how he suffered'
Magdelena Lamunu, 70, who watched her son abducted by LRA rebels as she hid in the hills near her village, agrees.
‘I was completely broken down emotionally,’ she says quietly. ‘I will never know how he suffered. He never, ever surfaced again, up to now.
‘His name is on the memorial because he is presumed dead of course, but I don’t know for sure. I will never know and that is not easy for my heart to understand.’
As well as obvious emotional difficulties, some parents also experience the development of physical complications due to sorrow and worries. The distress is said to be too large for the body to handle and many suffer stress-related illnesses and depression.
Hollander explains: ‘A missing child causes relational problems to develop within families. Parents have split up due to intense misery and blame over the responsibility of the abduction of their child.
‘There is also an economic impact, in terms of the lack of financial support, particularly in old age, which is commonly provided by grown up children, as well as the absence of physical support for the family by doing chores such as digging in the garden, fetching water and firewood, and providing a helping hand in raising the other children.
‘Losing a child can have disastrous financial consequences for a family, with making ends meet becoming a daily struggle.’
Labelled 'rebel collaborators'
In post-conflict northern Uganda, the stigmatisation of families of missing people is surprisingly prolific, and they often experience hatred and ridicule because they’re assumed to be rebel collaborators.
‘Parents are repeatedly told that it is their children who were fighting the community, looting their belongings and abducting their children, and they also experience a lack of respect for not having any offspring,’ Hollander says.
Hollander is campaigning for the atrocities of the past to be recognised through formal apologies, memorial sites and services and, where possible, families should be helped to obtain the truth about the fate of their relative through processes such as exhumation of mass graves and identification of bodies.
‘The Ugandan government should also continue its efforts to retrieve LRA abductees from the bush, and the Amnesty Act should remain active so to ensure a safe return without prosecution for those still missing.’
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The Refugee Law Project in Uganda, which received Christian Aid funding, is helping survivors of the conflict record their stories in order to document the true scale of the atrocities so that future generations might learn from the past.