During the time that I have spent in Uganda, I have been struck by the frequency of references to the heart. Men and women who were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and subjected to various forms of sexual violence spoke about the ongoing stigmatization and problems that they face within their communities. They sought understanding, not recriminations, and frequently underlined the need for a ‘cooling of hearts’.[1] Abducted by the LRA when she was 12 years old, an Acholi woman explained that when she compares herself to her peers who were not forced to join the rebels and when she sees how they have completed their education and secured good jobs, ‘my heart bleeds’. An official from Ker Kwaro Acholi – a traditional cultural institution of the Acholi people in northern Uganda – reflected on the concept of forgiveness. He stressed that while many people have forgiven, as part of the country’s amnesty process,[2] they have done so with a ‘heavy heart’ because they still do not have the full truth. Further highlighting the long-term implications of this, he explained that: ‘I can only take you off my heart when I know the truth’. Truth, thus, is crucial for unburdening the heart and ensuring that the past does not haunt the present and future.

Through conversations with Acholi and Langi survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, what has also emerged strongly is the thematic of the brave and generous heart. In this regard, the person who made the biggest impression on me was Grace Acan, one of the 139 Aboke Girls who were abducted from their school on 10 October 1996. Grace spent eight years in the LRA and gave birth to two children, born in the context of her forced marriage to a LRA commander. Reflecting on the death of one of her children, who was killed by a bomb during Operation Iron Fist,[3] she stressed that ‘In life, what is important is that no matter what you have gone through, you can get anything you want. Life is very positive and whatever you have gone through, it can change’.  Through her work in the Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN),[4] she is committed to helping other war-affected women to re-build their lives, find hope and move forward.[5]

As I write this piece from my hotel in Entebbe, before returning to the UK tonight, northern Uganda seems so far away, so remote and detached from the rest of the country. Kampala, the capital city, is Uganda’s beating heart that distributes life blood to the rest of the country. However, it pumps only limited oxygen and nutrients to northern Uganda, which in many ways feels like a different country. South of the Karuma river – the ‘gateway to the north’ – there is a sense of ‘normalcy’, of development, of progress. The north, in contrast, feels neglected and forgotten. Poverty, emptiness, struggle – these are the words that immediately spring to mind when I think about my time in the north. In Kampala, we passed vibrant and bustling markets where street vendors sell piles of shoes. In the north, children frequently walk along the road to school without shoes or anything to protect their feet. 

Shoes denote the idea of a journey, and Uganda has a long journey ahead in terms of transitional justice and reconciliation. Transitional justice, however, is not only about dealing with the past. In Uganda, there is also a crucial developmental dimension. Fundamentally, concepts such as ‘peace’, ‘justice’ and ‘reconciliation’ will ring hollow as long as the Ugandan ‘heart’ remains defective and fails to sufficiently sustain the north.

A village in Uganda with a lone child standing outside a dwelling

[1] According to research conducted by the Gulu-based Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) – one of the CSRS partner organizations – ‘Other respondents warned that unless there is a mechanism to “cool hearts”, then reminding people of the past may lead to renewed tensions and violent aggression within the camps’. See 'The Cooling of Hearts'

[2] See UN Position on Uganda's Amnesty Act 

[3] This was a military operation by the Ugandan army, which started in 2002, aimed at crushing the LRA.

[4] See Women's Advocacy Network 

[5] Grace has written a book about her time in the LRA. See Grace Acan, Not Yet Sunset: A Story of Survival and Perseverance in LRA Captivity(Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 2017).