By Rosebell Kagumire
He was such a huge man, was the first reaction from the cultural leaders after spotting a skull at one of the burial sites. He must have been an LRA fighter, said another Acholi elder on the team. The leaders had trekked through the shrubs and thickets for about two kilometers, searching for remains of the many victims of Uganda’s long war against the Lords Resistance Army.
The burial ceremony here held a particular significance. We were in Odek Sub County, birthplace of the LRA leader Joseph Kony, in the village of Puranga, about 70km from Gulu town. Puranga had been a hideout for the LRA for many years, we were told, and the UPDF fought one of their fiercest battles against the rebels here in 2003.
As we walked through the freshly burnt bushes, the many abandoned homesteads springing up out of nowhere revealed the tragic effect of this war on ordinary people.
The group was led by the chairman of cultural institutions in Puranga, Mr Layor Cilio Owiny, walking with a chicken in one hand. Owiny, 82, said the ceremony was not only an important part of Acholi culture, but was central to the rehabilitation of the area.
Owiny said the rituals help cleanse the areas of evil spirits so that people can be free to return to their farms. If anyone finds human remains, he explained, according to our culture, if you cant bury them you are supposed to pluck some tree branches and cover them. If they are not buried and someone touches them, we believe that person can go mad.
Before the cultural leaders reach a site where remains are located, a sheep is slaughtered to cleanse the area. This is because among the Acholi, some cultural leaders arent supposed to see a dead body or even the remains.
The first body we came across was in a farmland, and Owiny said most of the bodies were LRA fighters. On the site, the remains are collected and wrapped in a white cloth, and the burial ceremony is conducted by a local catechist. After the bodies are covered, the cultural leader kills a chicken by hitting its head on the grave. Then a goat is killed, and its blood sprinkled on the grave. In the Puranga ceremony, songs were sung to signify that people can move on with their lives without fear of evil spirits. Finally, the cultural leaders move on to the next site often a 20km journey away, under a hot sun.
There are tens of thousands of human remains from the LRA war scattered across northern Uganda. The ongoing reburials are coordinated by the Northern Uganda Transition Initiative, a USAID-sponsored body that aims to encourage recovery efforts in the north, as an integral part of resettlement of internally displaced peoples.
We started after getting complaints from returnees about attacks from evil spirits,â€ Patricia Cingtho, programme officer of the initiative, explained to The Independent. They said they could not stay if their departed relatives were not given decent burials.
Cingtho said that the sacrificing of animals involved in the cleansing ceremony and burials made them very expensive for northerners. Every ceremony includes one chicken, a sheep and a goat, she said. People cant afford it, and for us to be able to do this across the north we make sure the remains in one village are identified and we carry out one cleansing ceremony.
The mass burial ceremonies were started in December last year in Gulu and Amuru districts, and Cingtho said that by end of March they will have covered Kitgum and Pader. These four districts, which make up Acholiland, have borne the brunt of the 20-year conflict against the LRA, and it remains unclear how many lives have been lost in this war.
In many war-affected areas, like Luwero and western Uganda, the Ugandan government has erected monuments for mass graves. But burials in the north remain a local affair, carried out for purely cultural reasons and without any help from central government. Some analysts fear that the lack of documentation of the deaths means the full effect of the war on the lives of people in the north will be excluded from the war history of Uganda.
The burials and the abandoned homesteads in Puranga are just one reminder that the scars of the war remain raw. For Owiny and many others in the north, the burials are aimed at furthering the causes of peace and resettlement. But lasting peace can only come from the learning of lessons lessons only history can teach. And documenting this war is very critical to the history of the country.