Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Complexicated: Lessons from Gulu

From August 27-30, I was in Gulu, in Northern Uganda, attending a 'Consultative Forum on the Future of Amnesty in Uganda: Listening to Victims'. That's a mouthful, but hey, we're lawyers working at NGOs, and we like using tons of words to express ourselves. In this case, though, I think they managed to actually achieve the title of the event. It was an extremely informative event, and there was great discussion between members of the local government, religious and cultural leaders, CSOs, community members, and especially victims. The Army, Police, and Prison officials were present too, but they were noticeably silent.

The discussions and opinions from this diverse group radically shifted my perspective of the issues in Gulu. So much so, that I felt the urge to think up a new word. The title might sound a bit irreverent, or even a bit silly, but that's not my intention. It's the best I could do, using one word, in an attempt to describe what the situation is like in Northern Uganda. It's not trivial. It is confusing. It is multi-faceted.  It is deep-seated. It seems intractable. The lines between 'right' and 'wrong' are not very clear. Yes, it's complex. And yes, it is very, very complicated.

I had previously written about Invisible Children's KONY2012 movie, but interacting with the issues first-hand made my rebuttal of their work too simplistic. That movie, and the Stop Kony initiative, is so narrow and misses the major issue of the conflict in Northern Uganda. My question was "what happens after?"

But the real question is - "what now?" What now for the victims, the ex-combatants, the children, and the communities? What to do about the physical harm, the mental suffering, the stigmatization, and the deep distrust?

Certainly, Kony is a wanted criminal, responsible for human rights violations, atrocities and most likely international crimes. He is an evil, bad man. He needs to answer for his crimes surely. But there are other, more pressing stories that need to be addressed.

There are women, who were abducted and taken to the bush when they were young. They were used as sex slaves, or simply as cooks, cleaners, and childcare. Some were combatants, some never touched a weapon. But Ugandan law, and to an extent, community perspectives, view them as 'ex-rebel combatants', regardless of their role, when they leave the bush. If they aren't simply chased away from their own communities, they face stigmatization. If they manage to resettle, their 'bush babies' are shunned. And even if they reintegrate, they face crippling poverty. Stopping Kony doesn't address this.

There are stories of atrocities, human rights violations, and possible international crimes committed by the Ugandan government forces. This is not just against the rebels, but also the communities as well. To date, no investigations, either domestic or international, have looked into the conduct of the UPDF. Invisible Children says that despite this, they are still a 'necessary part' of stopping Kony. But, this leads to an interesting situation - northern Ugandan communities hate the rebels, yet they also deeply distrust the Ugandan government. They have been victimized by both sides. By proxy, they also distrust international interventions, especially those that work with the government. Not to mention that it is all too often the case that international actors come in to 'survey', research, or implement activities. Often these activities show no tangible or long-term benefits to the affected individuals or communities. There is a tangible sense of fatigue towards 'outside interventions'.

Instead, the communities and victims advocate for 'homegrown' solutions. But it's unclear what that means. It is equally unclear whether the Ugandan government or the international community will ever treat them with enough respect to let them come up with their own forms of reconciliation.

But these are all words, and they are all arranged in a way that seems to suggest that the situation can make sense. It takes on another flavour to hear these stories from a 19 year-old girl with mutilated hands and burns all over her arms from rebel torture, who recounts her torture with a straight face, but breaks down when she explains that she can't go to school.

Complexicated. But, with the level of discussions and passion I saw, still room for hope.

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