Saturday, August 19, 2017

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. Ocheng Tonny

Transforming Historical Harms in Northern Uganda

Ocheng Tonny, to give him his full name was born in 1995 in Awach sub county, Abim District-Uganda. He attended his primary school studies in Abim District and afterwards joined St. Mary’s Minor Seminary Nadiket for Ordinary level and Advanced level certificate in Apostles of Jesus Seminary, both in Moroto District. With that seminary background in place, he felt an inner desire for missionary life and since then, he has been discerning his missionary vocation with the Missionaries of Africa presently in Lavigerie House Jinja where he is finalising his first stage in philosophy at the Queen of Apostles Philosophy Centre Jinja. Hailing from Awach Sub-county which for long experienced tragically the traumatising events of LRA invasion, he confesses that he has been a victim of the LRA insurgency.

For a better comprehension of Transforming Historical Harms Framework please read the following two documents:


Yago: Tonny welcome to this interview for the site “Breathing Forgiveness. Conflict Transformation in the Here and Now”. This interview deals with your remarkable work on Transforming Historical Harms in Northern Uganda, done in the course Conflict Transformation (Philosophical Center of Jinja, Uganda Martyrs University).

Tonny: Thanks a great deal for having taken your time to conduct this interesting interview which befits the life events I have lived to remember. 

Yago: First of all could you give us a brief introduction about the Lord Resistance Army? Its origin and current situation?

Tonny: The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency in Northern Uganda that started way back as a simple spiritual led movement called Holy Spirit Mobile Forces Movement (HSMF) in 1987 has had far reaching and long term serving atrocious impacts that cannot just be elaborated in a single piece of work. As a powerful movement that grew wings and caused much harms for long, even up to date, it continues existing especially in the Central African Republic though now with few members. Being a victim of the same circumstance, the dangers I witnessed still reign freshly in my life both in the bodily or physiological reactions and cognitive aspects. It has had an impact of power wounding where I have witnessed a lot of instances in which I felt inferior because the instances of power over us that the LRA exhibited in violent tortures have limited my potentiality and capacity for full actualisation and that of my local community members as well.

Yago: Historical harms are defined as the modern day negative impacts of historical trauma transmitted across generations through legacy and aftermath (THH framework, p.3). Could you share with us how “historical harms” applies to you and to your people in Northern Uganda?

Tonny: That is a very relevant question in as far as my case in point is concerned. I have had and witnessed a wide range of the historical harms and I am still experiencing both within me and in Northern Uganda in general. The first and most common and excruciating is the high level of psychological impairments leading to insanity among most people in Northern Uganda. It is very common to find that in most communities in Northern Uganda including mine, in a single village over 90 children are mentally unstable and some cannot rightly make clear connections with daily life and this is seen in the directly affected victims like some of my village friends and even the indirectly affected ones like those whose parents suffered overwhelming events of LRA attacks. In my case four of my closed neighbours are currently having virtually insane youths whose narratives are centred around the violent attacks and invasions of LRA, the deadly sound of the gunshots that they experienced right from their childhood has affected their internal capacity to make necessary connections to the extent that currently, even the mere sound of a vehicle can incite them to make alarms that the rebels have invaded a nearby village. This is an historical harm arising from flash backs being experienced and these mentally affected people cannot be left alone in my village, they are always accompanied by people who are upright because any slight misunderstanding can make them to cause physical harm in form of fights in the community.

Yago: Thanks for your sharing Tonny. Can we say that there are still inter-tribal conflicts in Northern Uganda as a result of the Historical Trauma produced by the LRA conflict?

Tonny: I would rightly and courageously agree that, there is first of all a harm of continuous inter-tribal conflicts especially among the Acholi, the Itesots and the Karimojongs. Consequently, it is causing divisions of all sorts with evidences advancing even to land border conflicts and waylaying each other on a journey. This is leading to continuous insecurity in the northern region. This is because during the insurgency, the rebels destroyed peoples’ lives and caused wanton destruction of property of the neighbouring tribes like the Itesots and Karimojongs, meanwhile the Karimojongs in turn took advantage of the conflict to raid and loot the cattle of the Itesots as they too had so many guns for defence against the rebels. During the disarmament in karamojong region, guns were taken away and they became powerless, the Itesots started creating hatred for the Karimojongs and the Acholi for all those violence inflicted on them. Since also the Acholi considered Itesots as inferior and the Karimojongs also regarded Itesots as weak, mistrust emerged among the Itesots and has continued up to now, so this is accountable for the current prevalence of insecurity along borders of these tribes. This is a serious historical harm.

Yago: Could you also show the existing condition especially about the current economic disparities?

Tonny: Indeed, there exist economic disparities between the Acholi and the other Bantu speakers in Central and Western Uganda. Currently the level of access to wealth for home ownership and entrepreneurial activities is low and very rare for northerners yet the southerners are getting more access to it since they have no much impact of the rebel activities. This is because for the northerners the rebels ravaged them so much that they could not get any moment to engage in productive economic activities. So in this case as the Transforming Historical Harms manual stipulates that economically harmed past generations of certain groups can lead to difference in economic activities (THH manual, current indicators of historical harm, p.54), it is very applicable and clear to the Acholi case in which they have been harmed by the insurgency that they cannot have any portion of generational wealth as compared to the southerners who since the onset of the war, have been in charge of economic activities and so they are the ones having generational wealth.

Yago: Thanks for that much so far! How can you describe the current political disparities?

Tonny: I wish to openly emphasise that there is a political disparity existing in Uganda. This is especially in the struggle between the northern tribes and the other Bantu tribes. As the LRA disorganised the Acholi and north in general, they could not participate in politics of the country and so up to now, they have not got any chance and they feel that they have no say in the affairs of the nation any more. Even in the post war situations, presidential candidates like Olara Otunnu and Norbert Mao who hailed from the north have not been considered by the Bantu speakers as appropriate and so they have lost seriously most probably on the ground that they cannot decide equally for the country since their minds have been affected by the violence.

Yago: Tonny, could you identify some other Historical Harms that you find existing in Northern Uganda?

Tonny: Well there are so many historical harms that I am very sure that we cannot even exhaust at this moment. Never the less I can just expose those that are vividly seen. Among the many historical harms present, mistrust and cohesion among the Acholi and other tribes is worth mentioning. In practice; the Acholi are considered by other tribes as hostile, rebellious and generally warlike. There is no engagement with them in social settings and currently it is rare to find an Acholi working peacefully and in harmony with the Bantu speakers for a long period. In instances where they work in the same place, there is no trust and no sharing of secrecy. Even back at home among my community members, it is at times common to find that we do not fully trust each other for example we cannot share our deep secrets with community members as it used to be in the past. This is because with the influence of war, we became suspicious of each other that sharing secrets was like telling a potential rebel all about yourself as they would turn against you. This has remained in my society and manifests itself as historical harm.

Yago: Could you enumerate for us the different actors affected currently by this conflict?

Tonny: There are so many groups or actors that are being affected by the above historical harms.

Primordially, the Acholi are the ones who are greatly being affected by those harms. In Acholi land, the number of handicapped people is very high. They are complete dependants as some do not have legs, nose, and mouths and hears. The mentally handicapped always have flash backs and nasty experiences.  The effects are still seen in the excruciatingly low levels of educations and so high illiteracy rate as school activities were interrupted for long. At the relational level with the neighbours, the Acholi are affected in a way that they are not trusted by the majority of Ugandans.

Joseph Kony, leader of LRA
The Lord’s Resistance Army who are perpetrators are being affected today much as they took themselves to be immune to violence. Most of them are reported to be ageing and getting weaker so they desire to come back but they are afraid of coming back since psychologically they feel guilty for the harms caused and yet also the Acholi traditional ways of welcoming a perpetrator of violence is so painful in what is commonly known as ‘matoput’, where the perpetrator is given bitter herbs to drink with a big calabash that is normally very difficult. Among the ex-rebels who have managed to come back home, they are psychologically unstable and cannot settle fully in the community. Even those in the bush now, are experiencing participation induced trauma as their acts towards others make them feel guilty. This is how they are being affected.

Yago: Would it be right to say that the Ugandan Government has been also affected in one way or another by this insurgency in question?

Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda
Tonny: Yes, the government of Uganda has been and is still being affected by the harms. First of all the image of the incumbent government officials has been tarnished like for president-Museveni who has been considered segregative and inefficient, incompetent president due to impacts of the war in Northern Uganda. Financially, the government is spending a lot of money to combat the post war negative impacts on the livelihood of the people in the north for example the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF) has been the initiative of the government. However, dishonest people who have been employed in distributing this fund to the affected people have frustrated government efforts by corrupting a huge sum of it. This is making the government to even suffer more in form of criticisms from other countries. The government is still affected in a way that they have been compelled to recruit so many soldiers and to deploy them in the north and this has a strain on the national budget.

Yago: Let us move now to Historical Trauma. Amy Potter Czajkowski says that historical trauma is conceived to be an event or complex set of events that have had negative impacts on a significant segment of the society. Could you share with us how historical trauma applies to you?

Tonny's village: Awach, Abim District
Tonny: let me answer that question by comprehensively dealing with some of the touching events that in turn will suit the needs of the above question. There are cumulative events that I personally experienced that up to now remain reminders of trauma or technically traumagenic for me. In my village and the neighbouring districts, I witnessed the painful event of the 2004 LRA invasion into my village at 2 am in the night when everyone was deeply asleep and suddenly some people saw huts burning, granaries and in the same event, over 100 people were killed and 200 and above were abducted and the worst experience for me in this particular event, was the untimely abduction of my best friend Jimmy. Still in this event, as I was running in escape from the rebels, I knocked a big trunk of tree and I fell down. This caused a big injury on my leg that has had impacts on me till now on my left leg. The experience of spending sleepless cold nights in the bush coupled with tragic gunshots and inhuman killings of my close relatives have all had menacing impacts on my relational life especially when I remember how they were killed, I tend to be aloof thinking about it and this separates me from the public sometimes.

Another extremely mournful historical trauma I consider in LRA was the event in which in a place called Pajule, few Kilometres away from my home village, 400 people were cooked in big drums of boiling cooking oil and were cooked like normal food. Some of the abducted people were forced to eat their bodies. This event has remained a trauma that affects the society around there (cultural trauma) whose emotional and psychological injury remains a disturbing trauma reawakening instances (traumagenic) event that the whole Acholi society and neighbours consider as the most inhuman form of acts they faced in their community. Those who witnessed have vowed never to forgive or forget Kony and the LRA in general.

Yago: Horrible indeed! Thanks Tonny for your openness to share with us these terrible events. Now let us move to the legacy in this conflict. Again Amy Potter Czajkowski defines legacy as the collection of beliefs, ideas, myths, prejudices, biases and behaviors that are disseminated and then inherited by and/or about differing groups. Could you share with us how this applies to this conflict?

Tonny: At the level of legacy I can say that beliefs, ideas, myths, prejudice and biases are inherited for example by the Acholi and other differing groups. In this case the biases that other tribes have had on the Acholi as only being aggressive and murderers since LRA days has been inherited by young generation from those tribes to the extent that even those who have never had any physical contact with any Acholi, conclude that the Acholi are always aggressive and even on meeting them, they still impatiently conclude that they are murderers. These biases have made have the Acholi to face difficulties in acquiring quality education, descent jobs as they are considered aggressive, they are only given security posts and this has lowered the level of acquiring wealth among the Acholi.

The cultural narratives that have been passed on to the young have increased the level of historical harms. In my case, my cultural leaders have always narrated to me how my birth was very much affected by this war especially how my mother had to escape with me in the womb for long distances, how some powerful community members were executed by the LRA and other events, these have influenced me to have prejudice against the Acholi and the langi who actively participated as rebels in oppressing us. Among my community members, narratives connected to these events have perpetrated more hatred and biases for the Acholi in general. This is transmitting historical harm to the new born people as they grow up knowing that the Acholi long ago oppressed their parents. This causes more historical harm in terms of hatred and prejudice in society.

Yago: Thanks again for your witness. Now let us explore the aftermath, this refers to the institutions, laws, political and economic structures and the official narrative conveyed and enforced by a society’s supporting systems (education, religion, social services, criminal justice, etc.) that were formed to enforce or reinforce particular aspects of a legacy. How do you see the aftermath in this conflict? How have you experienced it?

Tonny: In this case some adjustments were made by the government to economically empower the affected people in the north for example by securing some funds for constructing roads, houses and compensations like that which was directed to Acholi war debt claimants, and still some NGOs were sent to the north for economic empowerments. In all these efforts of the aftermath, some positive changes took place like some Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) put in place projects for supporting the affected youths like WAR CHILD Holland that was in my village and I too benefited from the scholastic materials that they supplied to us. However, some political and economic programs failed and instead transmitted the harms to others for example the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF) that the political figures provided through parliament to distribute money for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in camps failed in effecting this aim. The management of this fund who were still politicians and worse of all non-Acholi, instead of distributing the resources provided by parliament to the people, corrupted much of the fund thus leading to low level of development in the region and this fact reminds the northerners of the long enmity that has existed between the southerners and the northerners. This is still causing a lot of mistrust as a historical harm being manifested today.

Yago: Could you tell us the on-going traumas being transmitted through the legacy and the aftermath?

Tonny: From the side of on-going traumas and from the lens of legacy, the history of this insurgency has not been sufficiently availed to all the parties involved for example the rebels consider themselves as real Christians and they maintain that they were formed to defend the commandments of God, this historical perspective is not widely known to the majority of the population in Uganda. At the level of connecting, there has been separation for example the government keeps terming the LRA as confused and are terrorists and at the same time Kony and his rebels maintain that Museveni is a dictator and should not be trusted. There are a lot of harms left and there is a lot of shame among the people whose nose, ears and mouths have been cut by Kony, so their stress and hopelessness is continuing rapturously leading to generational patterns today. There has been even the inability to act in the post war Acholi land as everyone is vulnerable. The rebels still continue to deny that they are not murderers and say that they are not ready to pay for what has been done either by them or by other people. So no serious action is being taken to collaborate to address the legacies of stereotypes created between the government, the LRA and Acholi people. Even the NGOs that came for actions have failed to establish avenues for actions and they have been sent away due to their failures. These are continuous manifestations of harms and are thereby blocks to the transformation.

On the side of aftermath, the on-going harms and potential blocks at the level of history is still the insufficient information shared now about the history related to LRA and instead a lot of information is being channelled to the ICC, there is even segregation and conflicts in the neighbourhood of the Acholi land that is to say the Itesots against the Acholi and the karamojong. At the level of healing, the focus is now on the physically handicapped who have been affected and the mentally affected and are not given much attention, their issues are treated with silence as there are no many trauma healing centres in the north. At the level of the inability, there is a tendency of forming NGOs on the pretext that they will help to act on the conditions in place, instead these bodies are taking advantage of the horrible conditions to accumulate a lot of personal wealth as they take pictures of the desperate people to lobby for huge funds yet there is nothing in the ground being effectuated to transform the historical harms. These are some of the on-going harms and potential blocks to transforming this conflict.

Yago: Now, let us shift to the application of the Transforming Historical harms framework to the LRA conflict. Let us start by the need of facing history. How do you see it?

Tonny: As I try to apply the THH approach, I see the connection in attempting to transform the historical harms above with the fact that it is very necessary to face history, to know what happened to solve current problems and bring healing. In this case an understanding of this LRA conflict entails identifying the root causes like ethnic differences between the Nilotics and the Bantu speakers or power imbalance or even the spiritual dimension of this conflict. 

So as Sankofa says that looking back helps to understand the future, I find it relevant in this case in the fact that it helps me to acknowledge the root causes of the conflict and when I incorporate many individuals in trying to transform the conflict, we shall be able to uncover the history of the present harms, to also identify some inaccuracies, myths and lies which have been spreading wrong propaganda.

Yago: Another key strategy is to promote all kind of initiatives that will make the parties to connect. How do you envision it in this conflict?

Tonny: In making connections, I agree with the view that it is important to connect one’s own story or group’s story with history. Just as my community and I have been affected by this conflict, as part of connection, I see the need to move beyond the way traumatic events that led to the formation of LRA were like for me and my community. In reality, I would consider coming together as northerners and later with the southerners represented by Museveni and the LRA in peace talks to acknowledge what happened in the past as history and to find common sense of humanity among all the three parties as the manual suggests. This connection will help to build a relationship of trust.

Yago: Healing wounds is primordial in any process of conflict transformation. How do you envision it happening in this conflict?

Tonny: From the lens of healing wounds as remarked that unhealed trauma impacts on emotional, cognitive, behavioural, physical and spiritual levels, these have been the same things in this conflict as in the historical harms in Northern Uganda which are all acting in both of the above levels. It is still possible from my view that as we are experiencing on-going trauma reactions, we are likely to harm ourselves and other innocent people especially if the cycle of this violence begins to act out like if it is to start acting out in me, I can become an aggressor causing harm to my neighbours. So I need the healing of my wounds and of my community too and this can be done through intentional spaces like initiating dialogue, reconciliatory processes and Acholi cultural rituals of peace building and reconciliation called ‘Mato Oput.’ When these harms are recognised by both parties and accepted in society, healing is enhanced and this can even be mediated through the use of media where some wounded healers from Acholi are given chance to talk to the public on how he left LRA and became healed of all the traumas.

Yago: In the end concrete action needs to be taken. How can this be done?

Tonny: From the view of taking actions a stage where things are made right and justice is established to acknowledge harms and change behaviour to avoid the continuation of the harm, I see that conflict transformation practitioners in the North and well-wishers should be able to consider this aspect in transforming the harms.  After understanding the history and impact of the historical trauma and identifying current manifestations of the harms, for example I as a conflict transformation practitioner will consider facing history and listening to myself and others who have been affected and I will relate my hurts with theirs so as to take actions through participation with some instrumental people like various leaders from NGOs, civil society leaders, religious leaders and other stakeholders to build trust and see possible barriers that can hamper working together. So in the end, the historical harms like psychological problems, mistrust and economic disparities will gradually be transformed when serious actions are taken.

Yago: The THH approach is value based and adopts values used to define reconciliation like truth, justice, mercy and peace. How do you see these values fuelling the reconciliation process?

Tonny: I see that this transformative process will be influenced by those qualities so as to restore Acholi, neighbouring communities, individuals so as to bring unity and wholeness.

As truth establishes a correct account of the past, present and builds trust, it is my task to face history and truly dig out from credible sources some of the root causes of the harms and to seek healthier ways of correcting them. In this way, the transformative process would have already been successful if the truth in this true root causes, are considered as very fundamental to the transformation.

Similarly with mercy which allows for empathy and gives ability to see others as humans, the transformative process will also consider mercy as making connections enables us to build authentic relationships in this I find it possible in my attempt through listening to LRA, Acholi and the government. Through this, we can develop the bond thereby reaching steps of acknowledgment and forgiveness. As we reach a point of forgiveness, we are able to consider all the parties as having the same essence as humans.

Justice too influences this process. As it is a commitment to righting the wrongs of the past, I see that in this case, a commitment to healing the wounds created by the LRA war brings justice. Making connections allows for the creation of authentic right relationships which is an influence of justice to avoid the past wrongs.

Values of peace and justice are evidenced in taking actions which have already been discussed. As taking actions involves making things right and acknowledging harm and change behaviours so that harm does not continue, to me this is providing assurance for protection of dignity and rights as stakeholders participate in effective actions the Acholi use matoput as a ritual act to enable perpetrators to realise their wrongs and swear oath never to continue with such acts, I will include this traditional aspect in my attempt to transform the conflict.

Yago: Thanks Tonny! Very enriching! We are moving towards the end of this interview. The THH approach applies the multifaceted tool of narrative. How would you apply it in the transformation of this conflict?

Tonny: The following are the ways in which I am going to apply the multifaceted tool of narrative.

As narrative for history helps to bring attention to the previously untold and undervalued stories which offer alternative explanations for current situations, I will apply the practices of taking and giving oral histories which have been in my community about LRA and to avail them to the public like narratives about LRA being a spiritually eternal sent spirit movement. I will try to research on some of the under exposed narratives among the Acholi who joined the rebel group. In my capacity as a student of conflict transformation, I will write ad perform plays with my age mates at home. Through these, I see that I will be able to empower the illiterate population in my village to participate through those plays in defining their own lives, to allow them establish some norms and new values as they learn from the plays.

Under narratives for connection, I will try to create a network of connection among people who have experienced trauma differently. As I was traumatised by these events, I will try to engage in self reflection to think about my narratives, my present harms to share with others. I will try to reach out to others who are still affected to try to listen actively to them so as to understand and relate their experiences with my experiences. This will help us to recognise our shared humanity in this context of the insurgency.

In the narrative for healing, as my family and community have been affected by this conflict to the extent that we lost the capacity to make decisions and to properly plan for our future, when I apply this narrative, I will be able to talk about our history in line with the LRA to allow me and my community to reflect on it. This will further help us to find meaning and significance in traumatic events we have lived through with. As it is stated that stories give cognitive and emotional significance to experience and unlock the mysteries of psychological sufferings, I will allow myself and my community to narrate our story to make meanings as we have lost sense of safety and the purpose and order of life for the past years. So I will consider the fact that once this meaning is made, my healings and community’s healing will begin to take place gradually. This is the healing power of the narrative that I see I will be able to use.

Under narrative for action, I will consider the fact that stories inspire us to act, communicate our values, hopes and emotions. I will be able to tell my story and listen to the stories of others that I believe will inspire me to act on their behalf as I am considered educated in my village. So I will apply the public narrative where narratives for history and connection will lead to narrative for action. I will use the story-telling skills to motivate my community to organise themselves to take collective actions to reach our shared values, hopes and concerns.  Through this, I will encourage community leaders to establish new ways of forgiving one another, ways of eradicating the poverty caused by LRA as we will put collective effort into savings and credit cooperatives to empower us economically.

Yago: Finally, could you share with us how this Transforming Historical Harms framework has helped you for a better understanding of the LRA conflict?

Tonny: This process that I have been able to critically engage in immersing myself in to the context of the war condition in Northern Uganda has effectively enabled me to fully understand the conflict that affected me and my entire community in general. It has also equipped with some lenses of viewing this conflict different from the way I knew as I witnessed a section of the conflict manifesting in violence and above all the process has given me the challenge to attempt a transformation of the conflict as I was able to apply the approach required. I appreciate the methodology of this sort that allows a student to take a wider scope of analysing, understanding conflict while identifying root causes and historical harms and traumas. I also applaud the lecturer for his dynamic and relevant approach towards the course in general.

Yago: Thanks Tonny for your wonderful work. I believe this is a relevant contribution towards the transformation of this conflict. Thanks also to Amy for the THH framework proposed.

Tonny: I am humbled to have had this moment to share with you my real life event in as far as the LRA insurgency affects me. Transforming historical harm has been a very relevant tool for me and hopefully for my entire community that I intend to apply this tool in. The information I have given is true to the best of my knowledge and real situations that I experienced.