Every August 30, the world commemorates the International Day of Missing Persons. In northern Uganda, thousands of people are still missing as a result of the conflict that ravaged the region between 1986 and 2006. These people went missing in various circumstances. Some were displaced as they fled their villages to seek refuge from marauding LRA rebels others were abducted by the rebels, while others simply went missing during combat.
The relatives of these missing people continue to live with suspense of not knowing whether their relatives are dead or alive. As long as their relatives have not been declared dead, they hang on to the slim hope that one day they will show up. In addition to relatives of the missing, thousands of victims in northern Uganda continue to live with painful memories of horrendous experiences they suffered during the conflict. Many of them were victims of torture. Many lost their relatives.
Many peace-building practitioners argue that memory is central to the recovery of victims of conflict. To heal and live a meaningful life, victims need to come to terms with their past experiences.
Peace-building practitioners, therefore, design programmes for psychosocial support and healing. They build museums and monuments in memory of people who died or went missing. They aocate for reparations and accountability of perpetrators. They opine themselves as champions for promoting recovery and healing for the victims.
The grim reality, however, is that many of these peace-building practitioners never understand what it truly takes for victims to live with painful memories. Having not gone through the horrendous experience of victims, the practitioners rely on their interface with victims to design their programmes. They simplify and ‘projectise’ memory. They design and implement quick projects that often have no sustainability measures. At the end of these projects, they say goodbye to the victims, write a report to donors in which they glorify their achievements in promoting memory.
As a researcher who has lived and worked in northern Uganda for many years, I have learnt a thing or two about memory. There are many glaring realities about memory that peace-builders do not take into consideration.
The first and most important is that victims will never forget what they went through no matter how many interventions are implemented for them. The second is that the ability to cope with memory is subjective and varies from one individual to another. It is also dependent on the individual experiences that each victim underwent. Thirdly, the ability of victims to cope with their memories is enhanced when their alleged tormentors face justice. Justice, however, must be holistic and not simply focus on punishing perpetrators, but also on repairing the harm done to victims for example through restoration of their livelihoods.
Finally, acknowledgment of victims’ experiences through symbolic gestures is also a sure avenue for promoting memory. This acknowledgement can take the form of museums, monuments, memorial projects, or official apologies from perpetrators.
Therefore, as peace-builders design memory projects, they must remember that the greatest determinant factor in healing and memory are the victims themselves. Victims must be empowered to take control of their destiny. Memory projects must not be theoretical and abstract but must improve the wellbeing and situations of victims.
Only then can victims hope to move on with their lives.
Mr Owor Ogora is a former head of the Justice and Reconciliation Project and an independent researcher and consultant.