Boy Soldier

By Norman Okello and Theo Hollander

A memoir of innocence lost and humanity regained in northern Uganda

Saturday, 22 September 2018

On the International Day of Peace my crowdfunding campaign was finalized. Here an important peace day message from the book.

Yesterday was #InternationalDayofPeace. Yesterday was also the day that I managed to finalize my crowdfunding campaign to publish a book about the life story of a former child soldier in Uganda, thanks to all your generous contributions. Today, I have started to do some final work on the manuscript to get it ready for publication. To provide Norman's story with context, I wrote five interlude chapters that provide background. The last of these, which I wrote in 2014 just before I left Uganda to live in Myanmar, another country torn by war, is about the long term impacts of the war in northern Uganda and the difficulties in achieving peace, which I think is a very relevant international peace-day message. The next bit is lengthy, but if you are interested in peace and conflict, worth a read.

"Peace is more than the absence of armed violence. Peace is personal and public at the same time, located both in the realm of perception, within societal structures, social networks and within real-time events. Peace needs recovery, healing, reconciliation and justice. This takes time and effort. While some individuals say that they experience peace, others state that they continue to live in the war, even though the guns have fallen silent. Norman and many other survivors of this brutal war (between the Lord's Resistance Army and Ugandan government) can attest to this.

In 2007, one year after the ceasefire agreement and ten years after his escape, Norman was most definitely not at peace. Every night he was haunted by the nightmares of what he experienced in the bush, the toll of death weighing heavily upon him, causing severe insomnia and occasional rage attacks. In 2014, however, 17 years after his escape from the LRA, Norman genuinely says that he has healed and that he now lives in peace. Norman’s story, no matter how horrific, is a success story. However, more than eight years after the conflict ended on Uganda’s soil, there are others who continue to deal with the consequences of war on a daily basis.

Norman returned in 1997, and was received by his dumbstruck but intensely happy parents who had been told that Norman had died in the bush. Many parents weren’t so lucky. The parents, siblings, friends and relatives of the hundreds of abductees who didn’t return and whose deaths Norman witnessed, continue to live in a chronic state of suspended grief, ambiguity and powerlessness. While the exact number of missing persons remains unknown, there are indicators that this number might well surpass the figure of 12,000. While in some occasions the relatives receive news that their child has died, most parents of the missing continue to be ambiguous about the status of their children, never finding rest, never finding peace of mind. Esther, the mother of Akello who was abducted in the mid-nineties, quite possibly by Norman’s battalion, graphically explained the daily cycle of hope and despair:

“Every single morning [for the past 17 years] I wake up hopeful that this might be the day that Akello will return, only to go to bed in the evening depressed and disappointed that it didn’t happen.”

Academic James Quesada said that wars produce a continuum of duress long after they end. This is most certainly the case for the thousands of people who continue to be in ambiguity about the fates of their children, spouses, siblings, parents or friends. While most relatives of the deceased can eventually get to terms with their tragic loss and learn to pick up their lives, guided by burials and culturally defined periods of mourning in which they receive sympathy and guidance, the stress of not knowing prevents such closure. Individuals whose direct relatives and close friends are missing are in a state of chronic grievance, with no rituals to guide them, no support groups and counsellors to help them. For them, the war did not end with a cease-fire agreement in 2006.

Another group of victims who feels the continuum of duress are those people who were badly injured during the conflict. Disregarding political discourse on the purpose and outcomes of war, academic Elaine Scarry argues that ‘[T]he main purpose and outcome of war is injuring.’ As was clearly narrated by Norman Okello, the tactics of the LRA were indeed intended to inflict bodily harm in order to communicate messages, and the government of Uganda did pretty much the same, for example through the act of raping men and women.

During the course of the war, tens if not hundreds of thousands of people were badly injured, both mentally and physically. In a context of very poor service delivery and no medical care, many injured people have not been able to access medical care. For others, for example some of the mutilation victims, the wounds are so grave that they are beyond medical care, at least the type that is accessible in Uganda.

For most people that suffer from grave injuries inflicted during the war, their untreated wounds symbolize more than just a handicap. The wounds are the embodiment of war and the bodies of the wounded, disabled and disfigured are physiological canvasses on which war is portrayed. For some wounded people, simple daily activities such as working the land, going to the toilet, having sexual intercourse or going to church are nightmarish because of the excruciating pain caused by their injuries.

In an agricultural and largely autarkic society where prosperity largely depends on one’s physical strength, mobility and ability to tilt the land, wounds and physical injury negatively affect a person’s ability to interact with their environment. Wounded men can no longer live up to their traditional masculine roles of providers and protectors. Injured women, already at a disadvantage because of the patriarchal nature of the society, risk divorce and isolation as they fail to fulfil the hallmarks of their femininity. Severe physical and mental trauma impinges upon perceptions of self and creates friction between gender expectations and daily-lived realities of one’s gender. At the same time, limited mobility generates greater dependency on caretakers, family and community networks. In a sense, the wounds cause ripple effects that create disturbances within families, clans and other social capital networks, leaving long lasting inter-generational traces within the community as a whole. As one of the respondents of a research done by Theo Hollander and Bani Gill said: ‘Every day, the war continues in my body.’

So, while northern Uganda is experiencing a general process of healing and post-conflict recovery, there are some wounds that heal faster than others, there are those that remain stagnant, and there are those that deteriorate and fester over time. Many issues remain. There are problems regarding reburials of both mass graves and the graves of those who died in the IDP camps far away from their ancestral lands; there are land conflicts, partially a result of the long period of displacement and resulting unclarity about clan and family borders; there are a high level of suicides because of depressions, mental problems and hopelessness; there are occasional outbreaks of a rare disease called nodding syndrome which some scientist relate to armed conflict and extreme marginalization. These are just a small selection of the post-conflict challenges that Uganda is facing, and before they are addressed, the label peace is contentious to say the least.

Nonetheless, there are also many positive changes that are taking place. In 2010, the last Internally Displaced Person’s camp was dismantled and people have returned to their homesteads to farm and rebuild their shattered lives. Villages destroyed by the LRA and the government are being restored to places of comfort and security. Cattle, which was nowhere to be seen by the end of the conflict, is once more dominating the landscape of northern Uganda and traditional ox ploughs are tilting land that was fallow during the conflict. A whole generation of children have been born who know of the conflict only through stories rather than personal experience. Gulu, the largest city in the region, is clearly thriving and also the rural areas are developing.

Maybe trivial to some but significant to others; when one travels through northern Uganda today, you see people in beautiful cloths and very clean and well-kept homesteads that are sometimes decorated with flowers and neatly trimmed bush. While a traveller who is new to the region might never take notice of this or see it as something normal, for those who witnessed the horrors of the IDP camps simple flowers in front of one’s house signifies the restoration of human dignity that was all but lost during the course of the conflict. So while many war-affected people continue to deal with the legacies of the conflict, it is clear that in general, the Acholi people and other affected ethnic groups have begun their long road towards recovery and there is much to be positive and hopeful about, which can unfortunately not be said about the greater Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region, of which Uganda is part." (END)

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