Every 30th August is commemorated as the International Day of the Disappeared. In the wake of conflict or other situation of human rights violations the fate of many remains a mystery; thousands of individuals and families are unaware of the fate of their loved ones; are they still alive or have they died as a result of war or conflicts?
Uganda is not without its fair share of enforced disappearances of people from Independence to date. Indeed, nearly every part of Uganda has suffered conflicts which have led to thousands of missing persons.
Surely this should now be taken as a national issue? Having consistently engaged with victims and survivors of war over many years in post-conflict Uganda, it’s just and right for me to bring their plight of the families of those missing as a result of war or conflicts to the attention of the relevant authorities.
In an effort to address various war harms in Uganda, I am happy that in June this year the Uganda Government through the cabinet adopted the Transitional Justice Policy as a framework to address the various war harms in Uganda.
But how will this be operationalized when the exact number of the Missing Persons in Uganda following the numerous conflicts, have remained unknown? The lack of attention to this issue and limited platforms from which to speak up have left the families of the missing silenced and disempowered, thus raising the lingering question of "Are the missing persons conflict forgotten victims"? Some families have to persevere with the pain of not knowing exactly what happened to their missing children, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters and or relatives.
It’s therefore my humble appeal for this policy to be enacted into the law by the Parliament of Uganda. However, for this policy to effectively address the plight of the missing persons and families, there is need to establish a data base for the missing persons through effective documentation to accurately know the numbers of people missing as a result of war and conflicts in Uganda.
On the 16th August 2019, I attended a memorial prayer supported by the Refugee Law Project at St John Evangelist Minor Seminary, Kiburara, Kasese district in memory of the students who were abducted by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels in 1997, an incident in which some students lost their lives in captivity.
The event was organized by former abductees. I had the opportunity to talk with an elderly lady and she narrated to me the story of her son who was abducted by the ADF rebels in 1998, more than twenty years ago. To date they have not heard anything about his fate; whether he is alive or has died. She, like thousands of others in this country, therefore has no closure.
These are some of the challenging situations parents and families have with their missing children and relatives. “Parenting the missing” is a painful reality for many in post conflict Uganda, even as they hope that one day they may still see their missing sons, daughters or relatives come back alive. Back home, the pain is often too much for the parents and they urgently need support, not just medical, moral but material ones as well since some of the disappeared could have been sole breadwinners.
In the absence of a policy framework to support families of the missing in post conflict Uganda, I have been impressed by some local initiatives by conflict-affected communities in some parts of the country.
One such initiative that stands out for me is located at Dure along the Gulu-Kitgum highway in Pader district. This is spearheaded by the clan chief of Paibwore with support from the Refugee Law Project. The community built a “missing person’s hut” in which the names and details of missing persons are stored. Various traditional rituals are performed by calling the names of the missing persons, an act traditionally performed to instigate closure to the families of the missing and as a healing therapy for those in pain.
On top of that, the families have formed various income generating activities to empower them economically since some of the missing were bread winners in their respective homes. Further, within the group they have counselors to offer psychosocial support to those families needing a shoulder to lean on.
While many organizations have created platforms to speak about the plight of the missing persons and their families with full support from various local government structures, there has been little support or will from the central government over time and this has been frustrating to a number of organizations.
As Uganda joins the rest of the world in commemorating the International Day of the Disappeared, my prayer is that the day should serve to remind us of the plight of the Missing Persons and their families, including the numerous problems and challenges these groups face on a daily basis.