Part of the Steps Toward Reconciliation project that CPA is doing (more in “it is possible) is a survey. It takes a couple of weeks in each district, so I’ve just visited each place for one of the days to see how it’s going and hopefully give some useful guidance. Without all the data in and analyzed, I made some anecdotal observations. Like formerly abucted girls tended to be bitter with the government for their failure to protect them as well as with the LRA, whereas the returned boys mostly blame the government for what they’ve suffered. Something I want to interrogate further is the concept of “accountability” in population surveys. Talking with my CPA colleagues conducting the survey, I noted how especially in focus groups with kids, someone will say in one breath that the LRA and the government/UPDF should be held accountable for what they’ve done and that everything should be forgiven for the sake of peace and there should be amnesty. So I asked, what I thought were obvious questions, “are they confused? do they feel they are obliged to answer in one way but then say how they really feel? Why such contradictory answers by the same people?” But then I realized the contradiction may be a cultural construct of accountability in me (and I think probably many other western people involved in population surveys). Yes there should be accountability. Yes, there should be amnesty. My colleagues told me to listen closer to the explanations of accountability. What I heard--they want compensation and restitution. Exactly what form differed, some actually think 7 cows should be given for each life lost or to every family in northern Uganda, and others want the destroyed churches and schools to be rebuilt and free education. But accountability explanations that I heard from kids (again, anecdotal, I don't’ have all the data yet) didn’t include judicial processes. The adults varied more, some said, “take them all to court!” one woman threatened to cut off the ears of Musevini and Kony, and many had similar views as the children. Some said they were ready to forgive everything unconditionally as a moral and spiritual choice, and others said forgiveness will happen only when all those killed are brought back from the dead.
I listened to a lot of stories. Sometimes what I hear is just so broken—so out of the frame of reference of my own understanding for human interaction, that regardless of how many times I hear the stories and see the faces it doesn’t become normal-- it still shocks the conscience. One boy in a children’s focus group stood out to me even before we started talking. We had individual interviews afterwards with formerly abducted children so we talked with him more though he was very open even with the other children. He was tiny, with big thoughtful eyes, and a ready smile. In his brightly colored thread bare school uniform I would’ve guessed he was no older than 9 but he’s 12. He was abducted when he was 7 and in the LRA for a year. He’s doing well now, he has no nightmares and feels he’s been cleansed from the past but he wishes he could be forgiven by the people he killed. He wasn’t given a gun, but he said, “what I did was worse, I killed indirectly. They gave me a whistle and I had to blow it when I saw someone trying to escape. I always wondered, if I took the risk and didn’t blow the whistle, maybe I could’ve made them believe that I didn’t see the person and they would still be alive. But I was afraid they wouldn’t believe me and I’d be killed, but I know it was wrong to blow the whistle. I killed so many people.” When he talked of forgiveness from the families, he said, “Is it really possible? Wouldn’t they just be angry and kill me?” I want to find out. He has taken on so much guilt and it is too heavy a burden for this child to bear. He needs to hear that he is not blamed and he’s forgiven. Is it really possible? What if an elder in the community where he fearfully blew the whistle could meet him and release him from the guilt he’s carrying? Maybe it’s possible for him to grow up with a lighter load on his shoulders.
There are so many children like him. A travesty of the re-integration process is that talking about the past or remembering it is often discouraged which risks that the pain and guilt inspired by crimes they participated in (forced or with some level of real or perceived agency) is downplayed. Maybe a “way forward” is to make safe spaces for kids like this to tell their stories and be shown mercy.