How Long It Takes a Tree to Heal
Dr Yoana Fernanda Nieto Valdivieso
Eunice points at the trees and says ‘the trees have started to heal, they still have the bullets in their trunks but their wounds are closing’. We are in the place that marks the common grave guarding the remains of the more than 300 people massacred on 21 February 2004 by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Barlonyo. Eunice’s words have been lingering in my head ever since. I think of the trees every time we meet with men and women survivors of conflict- related sexual violence in Uganda (most of them former abductees of the LRA and child-soldiers). When I look at the ancient landscape of the African Savannah, I think of the wounded trees, their cortex encasing the bullets, standing under the sun providing shelter to the villagers. How long it takes a tree to heal, I wonder.
In The Hidden Lives of Trees, Peter Wolleben (2016) tells us that beeches and oaks experience pain. As soon as an insect such a caterpillar starts nibbling a leaf, the tissue around it changes and sends electrical signals, ‘just as human tissue does when it is hurt’. However, while human signals are transmitted in milliseconds, the tree signal travels at a low speed ‘a third of an inch per minute’. I wonder if the trees in Barlonyo still feel the pain inflected on them 14 years ago.
Trees are also used as a metaphor for endurance – this is the ability to undergo a painful, difficult or unpleasant process or situation patiently without giving way. According to Elizabeth Behnke (2012), ‘enduring’ is an inner bodily gesture that has a dual meaning. It ‘allows us to endure (withstand, survive) difficult experiences while we are undergoing them, yet may continue to endure (in the temporal sense) long after these experiences are over’. Thus, in Behnke’s words, ‘to endure something requires that one become firm and strong enough to last it out standing up to it and surviving it rather than succumbing to it, by offering sustained and solid resistance to it’ (Behnke, 2012: 3). For me, ‘endurance’, as conceptualized by Behnke, defines northern Uganda, its people, its trees and its landscape.
Ugandan people and trees such as the Tugu, the To’o (known in English as desert date), the jackfruit, are linked together. They have endured colonialism, war and different post-independence internal armed conflicts, political repression, poverty, state abandonment, and climate changes that each year threaten the livelihoods of rural communities. The pain signals of the wounds inflected on the trees, the people and their communities are still traveling in slow waves across the north of the country. In transitional justice terms, this endurance is captured by AYINET’s report entitled The Long Wait (2015). It shows how long affected communities and people have been waiting and continue to wait for redress, reparation, accountability, truth telling, justice and even basic medical attention to ease the pain caused by the wounds inflected in their bodies and souls during the war with the LRA.
Trees, like human beings, are social beings, and thus they can teach us about the possibilities of working together and healing each other. In his book Wolleben (2016) states that ‘A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it’. He suggests that a single tree is vulnerable to the wind and the weather. But together many trees can create an ecosystem that regulates heat and cold, stores water, and generates humidity, creating a protected environment. If the community remains intact, all its members will live until very old. If the trees do not look after each other, only a few of them will reach old age. Regular loses will create gaps in the tree canopy, ‘which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover’ (Wolleben, 2016).
War and armed conflict break the canopy that enables reciprocity in human communities and allows them to prosper. Some collective exercises on restorative justice have understood this and are aimed at rebuilding the social fabric of war-affected societies. However as Rita Segato (2016) points out, not every collective is a community. A community needs two conditions. The first is symbolic density, which is provided by a community having its own cosmos or religious system. And secondly, its members need to perceive themselves as having a common history and sharing a common future. This is why community recovery and community support for survivors of sexual violence and other war-related crimes is central in transitional justice processes. As Janine has several times pointed out during our meetings with key organizations in the three countries we have visited, transitional justice needs to pay more attention to the communities and the whole ecologies that surround the survivors of sexual violence and war/conflict-related crimes. This will entail not only truth telling and accountability but rebuilding the sense of belonging to a common past and sharing a common future.
Behnke, E (2012) ‘Enduring. A phenomenological investigation’. In Koch, S; Fuchs, T., Summa, M & Muller, C. Body Memory, Metaphor and Movement, John Benjamin Publishing Company: Amsterdam.
Segato, R (2016) La guerra contra las mujeres, Traficantes de sueños: Madrid.
Wolleben, P (2016) The hidden lives of trees, Greystone Books.