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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 11 | Dec. 2, 2004

UBC Program is Helping War Victims be Heard

By Michelle Cook

Erin Baines was walking with some of Uganda’s “night commuters” in the town of Kitgum when she got the call about the deadly ambush.

Night commuters are the estimated 40,000 children who stream into towns near the country’s northern border every evening at sunset seeking refuge from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group notorious for abducting young people and killing unarmed citizens in its brutal 18-year war against the Ugandan government.

Members of Baines’ research team told her they had been riding in a convoy on the outskirts of town when they came across a group of civilians who had been attacked by rebels while trying to transport food to market.

“This is the risk people take when they try to have a livelihood,” says Baines, the academic director of UBC’s conflict and development program at the Liu Institute for Global Issues. “One man -- a father with small children and the sole provider for his extended family -- was killed. Several others had been beaten by rebels. One 16-year-old girl was shot in the stomach.”

Baines rushed to the local hospital to meet the group, and sat with the wounded girl during her 24-hour wait for medical attention. Back in her office in Vancouver, Baines reflects on the incident that occurred in August this year.

“I held her hand for a long time and she just moaned and whimpered and you could see how much pain she was in. I still don’t know whether she lived or not,” Baines says.

All this was happening, she adds, at the same time the Ugandan government was saying it was close to defeating the LRA.

The anomaly between the official version of events and the actual experiences of the millions of people living in war-torn regions like northern Uganda lies at the heart of what Baines, 35, is trying to achieve with the conflict and development program.

Established in 2000, the program’s goal is to partner with civil society organizations (CSOs) worldwide to conduct hands-on research and advocacy work on how governments and the United Nations respond to violent internal state conflicts and their aftermath. CSOs are non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that include charities, trade unions, faith-based organizations, indigenous peoples’ movements and foundations.

“In any conflict situation, there are always many versions of the truth but the one that is always the most dominant is the government’s,” Baines explains. “So, if it’s possible to listen to those most affected by the conflict -- whether that’s the widow or orphan or human rights worker in the conflict zone -- what our program is doing is giving these people a space in which to reflect on their experiences, gathering that local knowledge and information together, and then working with them to write it down so that it can be used to document that they actually exist.

“For these people, just being able to say, ‘this happened on this day or that day’ is very important to counter the massive amount of information that’s out there that attracts attention away from what is really going on.”

The program, currently operating only in Africa, gathers and disseminates documentation in several ways. These include workshops like one held in Vancouver last month to honour the reconciliation and re-building work being done by survivors of Rwandan genocide. It also includes reports co-written by program researchers and CSO partners, advocacy work, visits to affected areas and even documentary films.

The information is then shared with other CSOs and Canadian and foreign governments with the goal of informing their policy decisions on humanitarian issues and approaches.

“In a way, we are bridging local-level knowledge from those most affected by conflicts with the international actors and hoping there’s a two-way exchange of information,” Baines says.

Although it’s too early to tell whether the work is influencing high-level decision makers, the program’s African partners are already seeing results.

Michael Otim is the program co-ordinator for the Gulu District NGO Forum, an umbrella organization supporting the work of several CSOs in northern Uganda. The Forum has partnered with the conflict and development program on several initiatives including a documentary film, two reports on the situation in the region and an international advocacy trip to several countries to increase awareness of Uganda’s internal conflict.

Otim says the program has helped to raise the Forum’s profile internationally and nationally, establish it as a resource for visitors and researchers to the region, and strengthen the network of northern Ugandan CSOs.

The result is an “increased awareness about the problems of the conflict in northern Uganda as well as increased humanitarian assistance by the international community,” Otim says. “In addition, it has strengthened the position of the CSOs as ‘watch dogs’ in the north by exposing certain ills that communities are faced with as a result of the ongoing conflict.”

Despite a history of tensions between countries in the region, Baines hopes to further develop regional networks of CSOs to share information and exchange experiences common to all.

One partner who welcomes the approach is Harriet N. Musoke, who works with ISIS-Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange in Kampala, Uganda. She attended the Rwanda genocide survivors workshop in Vancouver and found the lessons learned from another nation’s conflict very useful for her organization’s efforts.

“There was a lot to learn, especially of how people from one country can look at the same conflict or war differently,” Musoke says. “Creating space for people to heal, retell their stories and learn what others are doing in other countries to maintain peace was a useful forum.”

It was a trip to Rwanda that changed the course of Baines’ work.

Originally from Halifax, Baines’ doctorate at Dalhousie University focused on humanitarian emergencies and refugee populations in Central America and the Balkans. Then she was asked to go to Rwanda, post-genocide, to conduct a study.

“Everything I had learned up to that point wasn’t helpful in understanding what had happened in Rwanda and the aftermath and effects. It was a UN community that had failed miserably to protect these people and continued to fail 10 years after.”

On the trip, Baines met a group of women and orphans in a village hard hit by the genocide. During a discussion about their lives and the assistance they’d received from aid programs, Baines felt them becoming increasingly exasperated by her questions.

“Finally, a couple of older women just threw up their hands and said ‘what can we say to you? We’re poor. We’re hungry. We have AIDS. Our kids are never going to go to school. Not that they’re our kids. Our orphans will never go to school. There’s reprisals and violence. How can we move on?’”

The reality of the survivors’ living conditions sent Baines “into a little bit of shock” and had a profound effect on her academically and personally. She no longer wanted to do research that “sat on a shelf.” She made a shift to more hands-on academic work and took on a personal commitment to engage with and exchange ideas to support women and children like those she met in Rwanda.

Baines, who arrived at UBC in 2001, thinks solutions to humanitarian crises like the ones she witnessed in central Africa are possible but not without radical structural change at the international level. She is critical of the big UN agencies responsible for humanitarian work as well as national governments in Africa and abroad for approaches she says are reactive, ineffective and institutionalized. As a result, program designs often miss the most critical dynamics of the peace process at the local level.

She cites the current situation in northern Uganda as a classic example of the international community’s flawed approach. Ninety per cent of the population there lives in displacement camps without basic rights, but there is a movement by traditional leaders in the camps to re-introduce traditional justice, counselling and cleansing ceremonies for returning fighters. They feel this local response is effective, yet the International Criminal Court (ICC) recently indicated it wants to try LRA leader Joseph Kony and others for crimes according to its guidelines.

“The traditional leaders have very set ideas of what justice and reconciliation is that is very different from the international community’s ideas,” Baines explains. “In Uganda, they worked hard to get an amnesty agreement [that would allow re-introduction of traditional justice], they feel it’s working and feel it’s the only path to reconciliation but the ICC, if it doesn’t exercise sensitivity to these local initiatives, may very well undermine the peace process.

“Local leaders fear the timing of the ICC will scare away commanders from returning under the amnesty act. That’s why we need to listen more and do a major re-think about applying universal principles.”

What would work, Baines says, is listening to what people at the centre of conflict are saying. Based on findings from workshops and ground work done last year, Baines found that when the State or international community is unwilling or unable to protect citizens, they find ways to protect themselves.

“There’s all sorts of coping mechanisms and people are amazing in their will to survive, and not just survive but keep their culture and their dignity,” she says.

This was best summed up for her at the funeral for the man killed in the ambush outside Kitgum. The next day, the entire community was mobilized and well organized to hold it.

“People told us ‘this happens so much we’re ready for it. As a community we pull together, it’s the only way we can cope and pull through it,’” Baines recalls.

“We have to stop talking amongst each other and start listening vastly more to them, and design our programs and interventions around their existing coping mechanisms, encourage them to come up with their own solutions and carry them out.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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