This article examines the social dynamics among survivors and amnestied Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) ex-combatants living together in Acholiland, asking how and if Acholi survivors have forgiven Acholi LRA returnees, forgotten past violence and moved on. Ex-combatants interviewed stated that they wanted and needed to reintegrate among survivors as stated in northern Uganda’s amnesty framework. Yet, after two decades of amnesty, the magnitude of the brutality of the war remains etched in survivors’ minds. My ethnographic findings suggest feigned compliance as well as resistance to amnesty by-laws. Many practise what I call survivors’ acts of resistance, which includes name calling, attributing misfortune to the presence of ex-combatants, stigmatization and stealing. In short, survivors make returnees’ lives un- bearable. My analysis is framed in reference to and critique of conventional transitional justice mechanisms and I underscore the importance of memory in the cessation of war violence and the restoration of peace.
In sum, survivors’ acts of resistance encompassed acts of ‘revenge,’ false compliance with amnesty by-laws, feigned ignorance and remorse, verbal abuse and public enactment of sorrow and wailing in settings characterized by silencing and repression. Survivors set a high moral standard for returnees by finding other ways to express, remember and remind them of their past violence, so critiquing their very being and making returnees simultaneously uncomfortable, remorseful, accountable and able to reflect on their past. The resistance acts were annoying, indirect and repetitive, sometimes culminating in major psychiatric and psychological distress for ex-combatants
Although the Amnesty By-laws facilitated a cessation of war-violence in northern Uganda, it created long-term impacts, including a neglect on mechanisms to offer justice to survivors.
- Amnestied ex-combatants could not reintegrate among survivors due to survivors’ acts of resistance.
- Survivors memory about past violence acts ignited acts of revenge and revengeful acts against ex-combatants.
- Since the amnesty approach neglected survivors, the State needs to engage them, inquiring into and addressing their needs. Key questions include how to reintegrate amnestied ex-combatants: Is it through compensating survivors? Is it through promoting dialogue between survivors and ex-combatants in order to arrive at genuine forgiveness? Is it through resettling LRA ex-combatants in different locations?
- Some LRA ex-combatants mentioned that since having been ‘subjected to a lot by survivors,’it would be better for them to be punished once and for all. The state could order them to renovate schools and hospitals, repair water sources and dig feeder roads. What is not clear is whether survivors would see these as ‘sufficient’acts of punishment for the atrocities committed.
- My ethnographic observations indicate that survivors re-enacted and re-experienced anger over the past and the loss of property. The state could attempt to compensate affected survivors, if only to facilitate social, economic and political development in Acholiland.
- Although difficult, and many LRA ex-combatants would be apprehensive about such an approach, community initiatives in Acholiland could link LRA returnees with survivors in constant dialogue and forgiveness seeking. This is a low-cost and practical approach which would enable ex-combatants and survivors to live in harmony.
Image: A former child soldier inside the Unicef tent (boy dormitory) of Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO) Rehabilitation Center, Gulu, northern Uganda, Dec. 2005. (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED) .