Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Night Peace Came

by Holly
A couple of weeks ago Ben and I got a text message from someone in Kampala who’d seen a news report celebrating the end to war in northern Uganda and guessing that there was some serious jubilation where we were. There was indeed jubilation, but it was because of the annual Lira NGO volleyball tournament, a beautiful starry evening, good music and good company. We started asking friends if they’d heard the news—most hadn’t and the few that had shrugged indifferently. They commented about how divorced the peace talks were to life of grassroots people, or about what a farce the entire process had become since the link between the LRA negotiators and the LRA fighters seems increasingly dubious. Could it be, I asked with a mix of incredulity and hope, that we will remember tonight as the night peace came?

No. Partly, because what was signed that night was an agenda item of the ongoing peace talks and not the comprehensive peace agreement, and partly, because peace doesn’t come all at once. It’s an agonizingly slow process that is benchmarked with agreements but must extend beyond signed pieces of paper. We might remember it as an event, a day, a night, but it will be a long journey.

The formal peace process in Juba is moving forward right now with ambitious momentum. The final peace agreement was scheduled to be signed this Friday (March 29), but this morning’s papers (New Vision & Monitor) say it’s been postponed until next week, April 3rd. Before the signing, the negotiating teams from government and LRA together with a delegation of about 100 civil society leaders including Angelina, CPA’s Chair, should agree on an implementation schedule and framework. They intend to travel to present it to the LRA leadership in Ri-Kwangba, and return with either Kony or his delegate to sign on his behalf in Juba next Friday. Easter Monday, before Angelina went to Juba, she told us her goal would be to push for the two ‘big men” to sign the agreement with their own hands. I admire her determined optimism, but it’s hard to imagine that either of them will be holding pens in the same room in the near future.

Most of my colleagues don’t believe Kony will ever come out. Perhaps he won’t block the peace accord, but he won’t be part of it. He realizes that many of his ranks and the affected community want peace, but he and a few others have no intention to ever return. That idea somehow is not unsettling to many I’ve talked with. They believe that Kony and company will either become mercenaries for the highest bidder in DRC, CAR, Sudan or Chad or that there are already plans of apprehending them as soon as the agreement is signed (no one says this outright, they just hint around it as if speaking plainly might jeopardize some covert operation). Someone put it this way, “this peace agreement affects almost everyone and we all want it. The ICC is just for three people, the peace agreement doesn’t need to be for those three people too.”

I’ve been surprised by how little concern has been raised over the implications of the reports in the past couple of weeks of 100 new LRA abductions in the Central African Republic and 70 more in south Sudan. Maybe that’s due to the amount of unreliable information we get. Though many people seem to have an as-long-as-it’s-not-in-Uganda attitude. Of course there have always been and will continue to be doomsayers. They have warned the delegation of 100 civil society leaders of the risk of going to Ri-Kwangba this week. They fear that some apocalyptic fate may await them, or they will be captured and held ransom with expected demands to be made to the ICC.

From the beginning LRA top command has made it clear that the ICC issue is a deal breaker. Yet few people I talk to here think that the issue will have any bearing on the outcome of this week’s discussions. It’s not clear to me yet if this is a hope that international law will suddenly become “flexible,” wishful thinking about the trust that’s been built between the government and LRA leadership or something else. One friend suggested, “make it as easy as possible for him (Kony) to sign the agreement and then just disappear." Perhaps that's what the organizers have in mind. Maybe we are boldly moving forward ignoring the impending collapse of the process. Or, could there be some quiet plan to take 3 people out of the equation all the while making public statements that make impunity-conscious human rights folks squirm?

What is actually happening is hard to say. In any case, notwithstanding further postponements, the next 7 days of events may determine which night we will remember as the night peace came to northern Uganda.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Exported Ideals

On a recent field visit to an IDP camp near the border of Sudan, I came by a clinic. I was interested in knowing the services available in this remote location so I greeted the nurse and was invited in.

The majority of the nurses and patients were gathered under mango trees as the clinic building was very small. As I walked into the building I saw a room titled "Group Counseling Room". I was delighted to see that the patients were receiving both medical treatment and psychological care. As I approached the room I noticed that room was stacked from floor to ceiling with food aid.

I imagined the expatriate staff writing a proposal for this clinic. The donor wanted to see something to do with "psychosocial support" or "counseling" fitted into the clinic proposal. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for international actors to recognize the importance of psychological wellbeing in sustainable development, yet most have no idea how to implement healing interventions. Exporting the concept of group counseling and allotting a space is not enough. Real psychosocial healing takes a massive investment from the local community and trained healers with long-term commitment. Many mental health professionals are contented with short-term consultancies or establishing a system of care. However, psychological healing takes imagination and creativity; fostering this cannot be accomplished through a one-off input. There must be a commitment to the individual and his or her process. This commitment is not "cost-effective" and may not yield immediate results but underpins the entire process of restoration in the individual and wider community.

The World Health Organization has a motto that says "There can be no health without mental health". While we can agree to this truth, the investment in mental health remains lacking in many developing countries.

While I was saddened at the missed opportunity for psychological healing through group counseling, I applauded the community members for their utilization of space. I turned to Holly and said, "Hunger always wins out over half-baked ideas of emotional support"

Is psychological wellbeing a luxury or a necessity?

Can we expect the community to value psychological healing when current interventions are superficial and material aid has been fine-tuned?