Where Roads Lead
Aside from a research visit to South Africa in 2015, this scoping visit to Uganda is my first time in Africa. What immediately fascinated me are the roads. In one of their famous songs, the Beatles sang about ‘The long and winding road’. In Uganda, many of the roads are long and straight; and in and around Kampala, they are horrendously congested. Yet they are not only about getting from point A to point B. They are also where daily life unfolds and takes place. There are stretches of road where there is nothing except spectacular scenery – marshlands and lush vegetation, tiny villages consisting of no more than a handful of mud huts with straw roofs. Then suddenly the road becomes alive, full of colour, activity and sounds. There are people selling clothes, eye-grabbing fabrics, chickens in cramped cages, sugarcane, enormous pineapples, smoked fish, plantain, watermelons. The roadside functions as a place of community where people exchange news, barter and trade, socialize.
On the long drive north from Kampala to Lira, the road similarly conveys a sense of community and community life. School children walk along together in small groups, dressed in brightly-coloured school uniforms. Women walk slowly, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs or groups, carrying various items on their heads, from bananas and wood to large jerry cans full of water. Motorbikes (known locally as bodaboda) whizz by, a crucial means of connecting people in rural areas.
If roads are an important part of community life, the men and women who participated in the piloting of the CSRS questionnaire – and who were constantly ‘on the road’ in the sense of moving from place to place during their time in captivity – did not feel any real sense of belonging within their communities. All of them had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when they were children. Some of the girls had returned from the bush with children of their own, born in the context of forced marriages to LRA commanders. Today, these former abductees suffer stigma within their communities. One respondent was abducted in 1999 when she was 12 years old. When she escaped from the rebels in 2002, she was pregnant. Members of the community frequently refer to her as ‘LRA’. She hates it when they taunt her. It makes her feel mentally confused. She thinks it should be a criminal offence for people to verbally abuse those like her who were forced to join Joseph Kony’s army. A male respondent was abducted by the LRA in 2003 and returned in 2005. He explained that if he annoys someone in his community or has an argument, his time in the LRA is immediately brought up and used to belittle him. Community members also regularly remind him that he is HIV positive (after having been forced to have sex with a female abductee), a fact which exposes him to further stigmatization and ridicule.
Uganda’s Transitional Justice Policy, which is currently before the Cabinet, places a strong emphasis on reparations, underlining that reparative justice is ‘integral to victims’ re-integration in society’. Reparations include rehabilitation, and the rehabilitation of war victims encompasses, inter alia, ‘medical, legal and psychosocial initiatives’. Rehabilitation, however, must also include serious and concerted efforts to tackle the problem of social stigma. Addressing negative and harmful social attitudes that exacerbate individual suffering is, in turn, a fundamental component of reconciliation. The Transitional Justice Policy underscores a nexus between truth-telling and reconciliation, highlighting that ‘…truth telling mechanisms are known to promote invaluable aspects of peace, restoration and healing of communities affected by conflict’. Yet truth-telling alone is not sufficient to rebuild communities. Reconciliation is also about creating intra-community understanding and solidarity which extend to the men and women who suffered sexual violence. The accent that the Transitional Justice Policy places on traditional justice is itself problematic as in some areas the clan system – the critical glue that holds communities together – has broken down. The war in the north, including the mass displacement of communities from their lands and livelihoods, significantly contributed to depriving clan leaders of their traditional roles. More recently, the clan system has been further weakened due to politicization and in-fighting.
In terms of transitional justice, therefore, it is clear that Uganda has a long road ahead. As the song goes:
‘The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Leads me to your door’.
It is imperative that transitional justice in Uganda leads to the door of communities. It should not just be about broad concepts – ‘accountability’, ‘public participation’, ‘inclusiveness’, etc. – but, more concretely, about enabling communities to rebuild. As part of this, it must help to rehabilitate those who have suffered sexual violence, not simply in an individual sense but also in the more contextual sense of rehabilitating them within their own communities.