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A reflection on the Tafakari oral narrative tour

The oral history tour took transitional justice practitioners, activists and scholars out of the comfort zone into reality: To engage directly with survivors, hear their personal stories and appreciate their lived experiences as they pursue justice and reconstruction within complex social, economic and political infrastructures.

For over two decades transitional justice was mainly discussed within the precincts of comfort: In lecture rooms and conference halls by academicians, researchers and practitioners. Until recently, very little effort was made to confront the practical realities that transitional justice must address to resonate with local senses of justice. This was no more evident than during the recent oral history tour organised by the Refugee Law Project (RLP) and Fahamu Networks for Social Justice. As a follow up to the very successful 4th annual Institute for African Transitional Justice (IATJ) held in Kampala, RLP and the Fahamu Networks for Social Justice organized the first East African Tafakari (reflection) Forum, 5-9 October 2014 in Kampala under the theme “Towards a Self-Sustaining Transitional Justice in Africa”. The Tafakari Forum is a pan-African platform for critical dialogue and reflection by practitioners in the field of transitional justice within the continent.

The forum provides spaces for African voices to reflect on contemporary transitional justice discourses and mechanisms in light of Africa’s challenges. Specifically, the forum seeks to develop comprehensive analyses of the complexities of transitional justice policies and practices and their shortcomings in addressing the concerns of post-conflict societies in Africa. In the long term, the forum seeks to contribute to improved mechanisms for and approaches to accountability and transitional justice. According to George Mwai, a Programme Officer at Fahamu, “together, these activities seek to build a movement of pan-African thinking in a way that is able to model responses to the past that don’t trap us in the past, that don’t confine us into thinking only about the past, but look to the future in a way that is very transformative - transformative about power, about relationships, and transformative in a way that we address the root causes of conflict in this continent.” Indeed transitional justice should be about using our past as a resource for the future.

At this forum, RLP and Fahamu hosted 30 participants from Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, and South Sudan, including advocates who have represented victims of politically motivated violence, community activists, representatives of civil society organizations implementing transitional justice initiatives, and researchers who have explored traditional conflict resolution approaches and other forms of justice-seeking after violence. Starting off from the comfort of Uganda’s premium hotel, the Speke Resort Hotel Munyonyo in Kampala, participants were awakened with a thrilling exhibition by the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre (NMDPC) under the theme, “The Muted Dynamics of Collective Violence”, highlighting some of Africa’s turbulent past ridden with injustices ranging from experiences of slavery, exploitation, colonial, post-colonial atrocities, and a legacy of impunity. While reflecting on whether contemporary transitional justice narratives had fully appreciated the structural causes of conflicts in Africa and the continents underdevelopment by Europe and the injustices committed by multinational corporations, among others, Dr. Steve Ouma, Executive Director of Pamoja Trust in Kenya, argued how transitional justice remains an incompletely theorized argument, particularly with regard to the South African experience. According to Ouma, transitional justice is premised on optimism, a presumption that there is movement from “here to there”. While individuals struggle with their own particular experiences of war or violence, the society as a whole must also “find a way to move on to recreate liveable spaces of national peace, build some form of reconciliation between former enemies, and secure these events in the past,” he said. Stephen Oola, the Head of RLP’s Conflict, Transitional and Governance Programme, questioned, “How far back must transitional justice efforts go to get to the root causes especially within the African contexts?” Victor Ochen from AYINET added: “How can we face Africa’s traumatic past events in a way that does not strengthen perpetual victimhood?” Participants reflected on how to address Africa’s unfinished business including legacies of slavery, colonialism and neo-imperialism with its various mechanisms and manifestations perpetuating resource and other related conflicts within the continent.

On the question of agency of victims in transitional justice discourse, Sarah Kihika, from the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) urged a shift in the discourse from one of victimhood to one that strengthens reconstruction of societies. She argued that the victim-perpetrator binary is a strong feature of the dominant transitional justice discourse, and has the result of reducing the complex identities and experiences of survivors of violence to victimhood. Victimhood comes with entitlement to benefits such as reparations, acknowledgment, and memorialization of experience, but it can also lead to disempowerment and exclusion, she noted. A sustainable transitional justice discourse for Africa must recognise that the experience of violence creates resilience and rights entitlement that must be understood and engaged with from a survivor’s perspective. Transitional justice should focus on victims’ agency and resilience, rather than their perceived vulnerability. Practically, victims’ perspectives should be central to the design and implementation of transitional justice processes, Kihika concluded.

Speaking on international justice processes in Africa Dismas Nkunda, an independent consultant, observed that international justice processes in Africa should be open for discussion. He noted that transitional justice is currently a popular project with funders; so many people are discussing and working on it from an academic and financial point of view but will this end the atrocities we’re trying to prevent on this continent? He criticized the ICC for intervening in African conflicts without understanding the cultural and historical contexts of the violence, citing the recent Kenyan cases as an example.

Norbert Mao, President General of Uganda’s Democratic Party, called upon transitional justice practitioners and scholars on the continent to rekindle the pan-African spirit in a truly transformative way if the continent is to confront the myriad challenges of injustice pervasive today. Defining pan-Africanism as “a consciousness, a desire to craft a new identity, to realize a sense of oneness among people of African stock, between the isolated, uprooted diaspora, first with each other, and then with the African homeland”, Mao argued that pan-Africanism is a movement of both ideas and emotion, based originally in the experiences of people in the diaspora, searching for their roots and the homeland they had lost to colonialism and slavery. Mao traced the intellectual history of pan-Africanism, which he described as a movement that “emerged to replace submissiveness with pride and resistance.” The same dynamics of exploitation and dispossession that originally gave rise to the pan-African movement are happening today in different forms, with regard to Africa’s governance, new colonialism, and resources: “We now have presidents who control armies and policemen who dispossess us of our land, and they force us to be slaves in our own country.” Mao called for a political union of Africa, “in which the economic, military, and cultural activities of our continent will be coordinated for the collective security of our continent,” but suggested that the biggest challenge through the history of pan-Africanism has been to determine how to achieve that unity. He challenged transitional justice activists and the young people to read the texts that provide the foundation for pan-Africanist thinking. He further argued that the task of pan-Africanists is to connect the “points of light on the African continent.” “We don’t have Kwame Nkrumah, we don’t have any of those old prophets of pan Africanism, but we have you,” Mao concluded. With all those many questions in mind, participants embarked on an oral history tour unlike any before.

The oral history tour was organised by RLP to take transitional justice practitioners, activists and scholars out of the comfort zone into reality: To engage directly with survivors, hear their personal stories and appreciate their daily-lived experiences as they navigate their pursuit of justice and reconstruction of liveable spaces within complex social, economic and political infrastructures. From RLPs experiences, each time one moves out of their comfort zones and engages with reality it catalyses more reflection. RLP’s Traveling Testimonies Exhibition across the country had inspired its visitors and exhibitors to a thoughtful dialogue about the opportunities, tensions, and practical issues related to justice and memorialization, including: transience and permanence in memorialization, domino effects of memorialization, timing and linking memorialization to other transitional justice processes. However, the oral history tour was cathartic and humbling in very many respects as many participants later explained.

The Travelling Testimonies exhibition displayed collections of artefacts, photographs, and information about conflicts in Uganda and was designed as an interactive space, in which people created the exhibition in the process of visiting it. For example, people brought images to be added to the exhibit; those photos were then scanned and returned to them in digital form. They wrote their own labels for the photos and artefacts that connected to their experience. As Kara Blackmore, a consultant curator explained, there was “kind of a truth and reconciliation initiative happening within the process of creating conflict narrative in the artwork even though there was no direct relationship between the same victim and perpetrator.” According to Blackmore, in every place where the Traveling Testimonies exhibition was displayed, “People saw that and said, ‘Wait, I have a story, too’. They would look at an image and elaborate their own testimony in that space.” The exhibit also created opportunities for people to “point fingers,” to name “heroes and perpetrators” whose images they believed needed to be on display. Blackmore observed the value they placed on “the justice of pointing fingers at a photo.”

The Oral History Tour took participants across the countryside. Sixteeen participants travelled over 500km navigating extremely difficult terrain and bad roads to the eastern side of Uganda into Teso, Lango and Acholi to visit massacre sites, engage with communities and meet with victims and survivors of past collective violence. After a sobering long drive, the first stop was the Mukura Massacre Site, found in Kumi, Teso sub-region where the Tafakari Forum participants met with more than 60 members (49 males and 11 females) of the Mukura Memorial Development Initiative (MMDI). The MMDI members included widows, orphans, and survivors of the July 11th 1989 National Resistance Army (NRA) massacre that took place at Mukura. Three MMDI members—two survivors and a widow—shared their testimonies, providing first-hand accounts of the Mukura massacre. According to the survivors, in the few days leading up to July 11th 1989, NRA/UPDF soldiers in villages nearby rounded up men. During this process, many women were beaten and raped. Over the course of two to three days, the men were forced to march to the Mukura railway station, where the army barracks was located. They were given no food to eat. When they reached the station, they were tortured, including being forced to sing and dance. The army divided out men who they suspected to be rebels from the men they deemed unthreatening. They marched the suspected rebels to Kumi, and moved 189 of the men to a metallic goods wagon on the railroad tracks at midday. An additional 90 men remained in the goods shed, where they had been tortured so badly they could not move. Sixty-nine men suffocated in the goods wagon before the people in town were able to release and feed the remaining 120 men some of whom survived.

The MMDI led a tour around the memorial site, which includes a chapel for yearly memorial prayers, a room that is intended to become a community library, a mass grave and monument, the railroad station, and a nearby memorial secondary school. During the tour, the visiting transitional justice scholars, activists and practitioners were visibly challenged as community leaders and survivors narrated their locally conceived transitional justice activities that they had engaged in. Twice President Yoweri Museveni has visited the community, and at one point he offered an apology, placing responsibility for the massacre on “young, inexperienced soldiers.” He announced that a court martial would be conducted to hold the perpetrators accountable, but no further news has been relayed to the community. On one of President Museveni’s visits during an election year, he donated 200 million UGX, which was arbitrarily dispersed to victims. He also directed the UPDF to build the chapel and library, which they took many years to complete, and was poorly constructed and is already falling apart. The library remains an empty room, without books, tables, or the Internet connection promised. The government also established the memorial secondary school, although the group did not visit it. The survivor group is participating in a lawsuit against the government demanding full reparations. They will attend a sub-region-wide victims’ conference to coordinate activities later this month. In addition, the survivor group administers a savings cooperative among themselves, conducts yearly memorial prayers and athletics tournament, provides peer counselling, and engages in advocacy through music, dance, and drama.

From Lango sub-region, Moses Ongwang shared the infamous Barlonyo massacre that took place in his community. In his narrative, a total of 11,643 people were staying in the Barlonyo internally displaced persons’ camp with only 65 government soldiers stationed there to protect the camp. On February 21, 2004, around 5:30 pm, rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attacked the camp. They killed 18 of the government soldiers, and the rest fled, leaving the civilians unprotected. The rebels shot people as they tried to run, cut others with pangas, beat some to death, tied some and burned them to death inside their own homes, and tore the bodies of young children to pieces before burning them in the fire. It is believed that they attacked the camp in order to abduct children for fighting, to loot properties, and to punish the community for a recent government victory over the LRA in a battle at nearby Abiya Internally Displaced People’s camp.

In that Abiya attack, Ongwang hid with 27 other people in one of the homes in the camp; as night fell, they escaped one by one and spent the night in the bush. In the morning, they returned to the camp, and found a military commander burying the bodies of the dead. The survivors demanded to count the bodies before they were buried. Along with teams of doctors sent by the government, they counted 301 bodies, although more were killed. In 2006, when community members returned to Barlonyo, they counted 580 people missing in total, including those who were abducted and killed in the bush, those who died later in the hospital, and others whose bodies had been destroyed beyond recognition. A total of 470 were orphaned and the people of Barlonyo divided the orphans among the remaining households.

President Museveni in one of his regional tours promised that all orphans would be given free access to education, but no assistance has been received to date. Every year, memorial prayers are held at Barlonyo memorial site, where the 301 bodies were buried. Notably, the memorial erected by the government lists 121 dead, for which the community is demanding an explanation. In 2015, the survivors plan to invite other survivor groups to participate in the memorial prayer.

In the discussion that followed, participants made observations about critical transitional justice issues facing the community. The government’s failure to protect the camp and to follow through on the promise to care for orphans was noted. It was noted that both the government and LRA committed serious violations against the community, so it was questioned which entity are they focusing their efforts to hold accountable? Ongwang replied that the focus is on securing two things from government—acknowledgement for its failure to protect the community, and reparations. The Chief of Patiko noted that the community feels like it is “still in conflict,” in part because the government structures for help are fragmented.

In Gulu Rwot Jeremiah Muttu Bongojane, the Chief of Patiko, offered insightful reflections on the film “Let’s Save the Future” a short documentary on the reburial ceremony that was performed in Lukodi, the site of a massacre by the LRA, and the historical significance of Fort Patiko, a key site in the fight against slave trade. In response to the film, Chief Jeremiah explained the significance of individual burials in Acholi culture. In order to preserve the strong connections between past, present, and future generations, individuals are buried within the family compound, so that their graves can be maintained. When the people of Lukodi returned home, the 59 massacre victims had been buried in a mass grave. Despite struggling with severe poverty, the people of Lukodi gathered 10 percent of the money necessary to properly rebury the bodies of their beloved ones. They then worked with a local organization, the Justice and Reconciliation Project, to raise the rest of the funding for the ceremony. They exhumed the bodies, performed rituals for cleansing the area and the new burial sites, and reburied the bodies in each family’s compound. Chief Jeremiah explained, “They now feel that they have settled the matter, the dead have been decently buried, and they can now move on with their lives.” Furthermore, community members in Lukodi have preserved their memories through drawings, poems, and stories. When the former ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, visited them earlier this year the community requested that he finds funding to build a museum to house their memories. Furthermore, Rwot Jeremiah observed that RLP’s documentation efforts are critically important, and provide communities with an important source of power. In his narrative Jeremiah explained the history of Fort Patiko, also called Samuel Baker’s Fort.

Sir Samuel Baker was a missionary and explorer looking for the source of the Nile. He arrived in Patiko in 1864 and learned from the Chief of Patiko at that time, Kikwiya Kawer, that Arab traders were raiding his people for slaves. Baker returned to England and came back to Patiko in 1872, armed with soldiers from Egypt (the region was under Egyptian rule in the “Equatorial Region” at that time). Baker’s soldiers cooperated with people from Patiko and neighbouring clans to fight off the Arab traders and seize the fort. While the slave traders were active, the region suffered from famine and sickness, because people were not able to go to their gardens, due to fear of abduction. The chief at the time took the elderly, children, mothers, and young boys to a rock known as, “Ajulu” (in English, “nurturing”), where he kept them alive in order to keep his people from total extermination. Today, Fort Patiko is a historical site registered with the Ministry of Tourism. Chief Jeremiah claims the fort as his property, which he can contract to the Ministry of Tourism to administer; however, the government has classified the fort as state property. The cultural institution in Patiko is currently negotiating with the government to find a mutually beneficial solution.

In closing, Chief Jeremiah issued a strong challenge to the participants: “I want to appeal to you in this room. You have come from different countries. I want to say that as much as now we are documenting these things and trying to understand what happened, I want to urge you to do everything within your power to see that your children do not go through what is going on in Africa today. For the few years I’ll remain alive, I don’t want to see another Lukodi massacre, Barlonyo massacre,” he concluded.

From their testimonies, the survivors and affected communities were visibly frustrated by the arbitrary dispersal of funds from the President in the absence of a comprehensive reparation policy. They argued that the money created divisions among survivors, and did not address their need for comprehensive reparations and that this experience reveals the need for a formal reparations policy. Furthermore, it was observed that communities sometimes perceive demands for reparations as “attacking the government in power now,” which can discourage victims and survivors from mobilizing and making demands. It was observed that it should be made clear “that the obligation that people are talking about is actually an obligation of the state.” The right to reparation places the obligation on the government itself; it is not restricted to any individual, even the president. While the Mukura massacre is the most pronounced in Teso, with the tour it was revealed that Teso sub-region alone has hundreds of massacre sites and unmarked mass graves, where soldiers killed people and left their bodies in caves, latrines, and other secret places. In each burial place, dozens, even hundreds of bodies can be found. The people of Ngora District are mobilizing to designate a piece of land for a memorial site, where those bodies may be properly buried one day. According to them, this process of unearthing/exhuming secretly buried bodies may be part of a larger truth-telling process in Uganda that exposes the extent of violations committed.

The survivors reiterated the need to listen to victims’ voices. The former LCIII and founder of the Mukura victim/survivors’ organization highlighted the importance of listening to victims “talk for themselves.” He noted that unaddressed trauma is often a barrier to victims’ raising their voices. Peer counselling has helped many to bring out their issues, but many continue to “have something to talk” without the ability to bring it out.

A discussion emerged about the challenges of mixing politics and advocacy for survivors’ plights. Many politicians have visited Mukura with promises during campaign season, which are not followed through. One person observed that victims and survivors will not trust someone who they suspect is collecting information from them for “personal gains” in the political sphere. However, another participant argued that political parties, civil society organizations, and even development partners are all playing politics; so all-transitional justice work is therefore politically engaged in some way. The issue is not to separate work with survivors and victims from politics, but to ensure that all leaders commit to addressing “the reality on the ground” as their top priority.

Following the tour, Wachira Wachere, an activist survivor from Kenya addressed the survivor group, sharing his experience working in a victims’ movement in Kenya. He urged the survivors to always organize themselves to conduct advocacy, confrontation, and negotiations with the government. He described cooperative societies as a resource for building sustainable support structures for victims. Finally, he argued that memorialization is critically important for shaping a future without a repetition of the violence undergone in these communities.

The survivors mentioned the challenges of reintegrating men and women who were formerly abducted back into their communities. Chief Jeremiah listed several challenges to reintegration. One being the failure to sensitize communities about the reintegration packages given to returnees which led communities to reject the returnees on the basis that they were being rewarded for “doing the wrong thing.” A second one is that the families of women returning with children born in the bush welcome their daughters and sisters back, but reject those women’s children, arguing that they should be supported by their fathers’ families, even though men used fake names in the bush, making them difficult to trace.

He also observed that most people receiving amnesty were abducted; they did not choose to rebel against the government. For that reason, one woman refused to apply for amnesty claiming that she was not a rebel but was abducted; instead, she wants to take the government to court for failing to protect her. In conclusion, he stated, “There have been challenges with those returning home at the family level, community level, and government level.”

When Tafakari Forum participants reflected on their visit to Mukura, Lira and Gulu many commended the unity, hope, and dedication to achieving redress that they saw among the survivors. Participants also mentioned seeing evidence of continued effects of trauma on many community members and fear about the present-day political ramifications of sharing the truth of their experiences. Nevertheless, they observed a “yearning for national reconciliation from members of the community,” referencing several statements by community members in Mukura that future generation should not endure what they had. Many of the Tafakari Forum participants reflected on the fraught relationship between politics and of transitional justice processes in Mukura. On that point, it was argued that, “Most important for us is to know, How do we support this community as they’re going through this? It’s not a straight line; it’s not a smooth journey. It’s going to be hijacked and captured by many other dynamics, how do we as communities make sure we are aware of that?” In short, by getting out of their comfort zone at Munyonyo to Mukura to Gulu via Soroti-Lira, participants at the first East African Tafakari Forum had their own understanding of transitional justice challenged.

* Ouko Eunice Wambui is Programme Assistant, Conflict Transitional Justice & Governance, Refugee Law Project.



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