Processes of Healing

by Dr Janine Natalya Clark

A photograph of an old gnarled tree trunk.According to the Christian author Joyce Meyer,

"As beautiful as trees are to look at, we don’t see what goes on underground – as they grow roots. Trees must develop deep roots in order to grow strong and produce their beauty. But we don’t see the roots. We just see and enjoy the beauty."[1]

Yet what happens to trees does not only happen underground, in their roots. And if we look hard enough, we do not only see the beauty of trees. We can also see their imperfections, the scars that tell their own story.

Barlonyo is a small community in northern Uganda, 26 kilometres from the town of Lira. On 21 February 2004, rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) entered Barlonyo – which at the time was a camp for civilians who had been displaced by the conflict – and massacred over 300 people. According to the Justice and Reconciliation Project, ‘Camp residents were burned alive inside their huts, hacked to death with machetes, stabbed with bayonets, clubbed with sticks and shot as they fled’.[2]

In the centre of Barlonyo, a modest memorial has been erected in the name of the victims. Their bodies were so badly burned and disfigured that they could never be identified. A nearby tree is similarly disfigured, its bark bearing the marks of LRA firepower. These wounds, however, are no longer gaping; nature has itself sutured them. When a tree is ‘injured’, a natural process of protection sets in; ‘Externally, the tree grows new wood and bark around the wounded area to form a callus’.[3]  Looking at the tree, I wondered about the survivors of Barlonyo – and about war victims more generally. What about their wounds, emotional and physical? What about their own healing processes?

The men and women who participated in the piloting of the CSRS questionnaire – child abductees who had suffered various acts of physical, emotional and sexual violence at the hands of the LRA – frequently described themselves as survivors rather than victims. Despite everything that they had gone through, they had survived and had not given up. Yet like the tree in Barlonyo, their pasts were a visible part of them. Their faces frequently expressed extreme sadness; their gaze was often distant, focused on something that only they themselves could see; some of them looked thin and gaunt, their bodies infected with the HIV virus. A process of time helped to heal the tree’s ‘wounds’. As a report by the African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET) underlines, however, ‘whatever we do, we cannot tell victims to wait as time does not heal wounds. Assistance heals wounds’.[4] Powerfully underlining this point, one respondent stressed her need for psychosocial assistance, for someone to ‘press her heart with a warm sponge’ and thereby soothe her pain.

A photograph of a road in Uganda, and a sign stating welcome to barlonyo memorial ground.


[1] See http://www.wiseoldsayings.com/authors/joyce-meyer-quotes/

[2] Justice and Reconciliation Project, ‘Kill Every Living Thing: The Barlonyo Massacre’ (28 February 2009), available at: http://www.justiceandreconciliation.org/publications/field-notes/2009/kill-every-living-thing-the-barlonyo-massacre-fn-ix/

[3] Jackie Carroll, ‘What is Tree Wound Dressing: Is It Ok to Put Wound Dressing on Trees’ (25 March 2015), available at:  https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/trees/tgen/wound-dressing-on-trees.htm

[4] Victor Ochen, ‘Foreword’, in African Youth Initiative Network, The Long Wait: Victims’ Voices on Transitional Justice (Lira: AYINET, 2015), xii.