The anatomy of absence

by Emma Pomfret, Christian Aid | Christian Aid - UK
Wednesday, 12 February 2014 13:44 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One of the most challenging issues is the unknown whereabouts of many thousands of people, particularly child soldiers, who were abducted and have never returned from the bush

Video credit: Christian Aid/Tom Pietrasik

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.

On International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, it’s vital to remember that one of the most challenging issues is the unknown whereabouts of many thousands of people, particularly child soldiers, who were abducted and have never returned from the bush.

The exact number of missing people in Acholiland has never been collated, but a 2012 survey conducted by a 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.

Not only do the parents and siblings of the missing have to live with the enormous emotional and 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 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. With their state of mind in limbo, these families are condemned to live in bitterness, in pain, and in emotional distress,’ Theo Hollander, NMPDC’s senior researcher and key report contributor, told me.

Indeed, 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 kin.  

‘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,’ Hollander says, adding 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.

Magdelena Lamunu, 70, who never saw her son again after he was abducted by LRA rebels, agrees.

‘I was completely broken down emotionally,’ she says quietly. ‘I will never know how he suffered.

‘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.’

Hollander explains that, as well as obvious emotional difficulties, some parents also experience stress-related illnesses and depression.

‘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.

‘The lack of financial support commonly provided by grown up children, as well as the absence of physical help on the land or looking after younger children, means that making ends meet becomes a daily struggle.’

The stigmatisation of families of missing people is also 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,’ Hollander says.

NMPDC 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,’ Hollander adds.

To find out more about the work of the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre visit Christian Aid’s new online exhibition about survivors of the LRA.