Acholi Finally Bury Their Dead

Returnees bury the bones of war victims – but concern remains that evidence is being lost.

Acholi Finally Bury Their Dead

Returnees bury the bones of war victims – but concern remains that evidence is being lost.

Friday, 25 September, 2009
As a semblance of peace has settled over northern Uganda, following the havoc wreaked by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, local communities have moved to wash away the unhappy memories of the past by burying the remains of loved ones that have been killed during the 20 years of rebel insurgency.

But such sweeping away of the past has provoked fears that valuable forensic evidence could be lost, which could help to bring perpetrators of war crimes in the region to justice.

Although the International Criminal Court, ICC, has indicted five LRA rebels – Kony, Vincent Otti, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odiambo, and Dominic Ongwen – no arrests have yet been made.

Two of the rebels, Lukwiya and Otti, have since been killed in the fighting. The other three indictees are believed to be hiding in remote regions of the Central African Republic, according to Freddie Ruhindi, Uganda's state minister for justice.

The ICC's Office of The Prosecutor, OTP, has moved to assuage fears that burying the bones risks damaging important evidence.

“Our investigations relating to crimes under our jurisdiction committed in the period before the warrants were issued are well advanced,” the OTP said in a statement to IWPR. ”The OTP is confident of the strength of the case it has presented, and currently has no need of further physical evidence relating to this period. It is very much a matter for bereaved families to decide how they wish to act in relation to the burial of their dead."

But some local human rights activists have expressed frustration at the speed with which ICC investigations are progressing, and say that communities should be careful to preserve evidence that may be needed in future trials.

“We need action, not statements,” said Livinstone Ojara, who works for a local NGO in Kitgum, north Uganda. “There were many terrible atrocities committed by the LRA rebels during the insurgency and safeguarding evidence, such as the bones of people killed in the war, will help to bring about justice.”

A few local leaders – such as the district speaker of Gulu, Mapenduji Ojok – share Ojara's concerns.

However, many others feel that the bones must be burried in order for the local communities to rebuild their lives after the suffering of the past, and that the presence of human remains in the area could upset the initiative to help refugees return home.

“We have received a number of complaints from returnees about the presence of human remains on their land, which give them bad spirits, fear and nightmares,” said Kenneth Oketa, the prime minister of the Acholi Cultural Institute. “We had to come in and help the people settle peacefully by burying any skeletons that they come across. If people continue to see remains in their fields or garden, they will continue to experience trauma.”

According to Oketa, human remains from almost five hundred people have been buried in the Acholi districts of Gulu, Kitgum, Pader and Amuru.

More body parts are being recovered all the time, as people return home to start working their farms again, he added.

The remains are buried directly in the earth, without the use of a coffin, and the top of the grave is smeared with mud.

“We mark the graves with the sign of a cross, since most of these bodies are never identified,” said Oketa. “We record everything, including the village where the remains were found and were they are buried.”

Oketa says that the remains are buried where they are found: villagers willingly give up their land for burial without asking for compensation as most people are eager to get rid of the remains, which they believe bring them bad spirits.

He says there are a few cases where families have been able to identify the remains of their relatives, and in these cases they are allowed to take them.

For those refugees who are returning home, discovering human remains on their land can be very traumatic.

When Victoria Lawil, a widow and mother of three, went back to her village in Koch Ongako sub-county in Gulu district, in order to rebuild her life, she was unable to spend even a single night there after finding a human skeleton in the compound, lying beneathe a mango tree.

“It was horrifying,” recalled Lawil. “I had to move and live with my neighbour for three months because of fear. Even then, I continued having bad dreams at night.”

In the end, Lawil decided to establish another home away from the original one to try to forget the memory of the skeleton.

Two years ago, Wilson Ojerakali, a farmer in Labongo in Kitgum district, returned home to find a human skeleton next to his well.

“It was painful sight,” he said. “I had to abandon the well and dig a new one, which is far away from where I found the remains.”

Gloria Aciro Laker is an IWPR-trained reporter.
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