Gulu Town’s newly-constructed road network gives her flamboyance not seen anywhere else in Uganda. However, for Francis Okello Oloya, 30, this is a beauty he cannot take in. He gets around with a white cane, so it is easy to notice that he is blind.
At home, dogs are his invaluable companions. It has been a dependence routine for many years.
Oloya lost his eyesight in 1999 in a bomb blast during the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) war in northern Uganda. He was aged only 10 at the time.
Nine years later, while in boarding school, facing trauma and depression over his disability, dogs in the neighbourhood instinctively started to give him company. They would guide some of his walks, including night trips to the pit-latrine. That is when he learnt that dogs can be helpful in a helpless situation.
Through The Big Fix Uganda, a charitable veterinary organisation, Oloya and colleagues are now using dogs to treat people in northern Uganda who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
In a rare form of therapy, they mainly get traumatised dogs, like those that have been knocked on the road, treat them for physical injuries and pair them with people who are traumatised or depressed.
“For people who suffer post-traumatic disorders and depression, there is a tendency to commit suicide. When we pair them with the dogs, we know they are going to heal together,” Oloya says.
“The dog will not stigmatise you. The activity of training with the dog is one way of relieving yourself.”
Oloya has been interviewed a few times by some local and international journalists about his initiative. It sounds grand when you listen to him speak about it. Through his low tone, however, gradually rise emotions of pain, both physical and psychological, which his therapy cannot heal.
Fourteen years after the government declared the war over in 2006, the form of justice that would heal, or at least relieve the pain from the wounds of war in northern Uganda is yet to be understood.
“I still have fragments of the bomb in my eyes. I would like people to be in my shoes. How would they feel if their eyes were removed, like mine? I feel the pain. I didn’t have a gun. I was only a child. Nobody from government is even willing to say sorry to the victims. I know it happened. I am now blind but can you put me to a state of being able to contribute to my country, can you put me in a state of knowing that it ends with me, whom can I talk to, the judges, religious leaders? Hearing from me can be part of the healing,” Oloya says.
“When they talk about justice, I don’t know what step to take. Is it for me or for someone else? Sometimes I try to accept. I try to forgive. But when I start to feel pain in my eyes, I remember,” he adds.
The LRA war ravaged northern Uganda for two decades. Tens of thousands were killed, women raped, children abducted and people were massively displaced and kept in internally displaced peoples (IDP) camps. By the time they were told to return home in 2006 their social and economic structures had been broken.
Many families had lost their loved ones. Some found their land taken over by new occupants. In the camps, access to education for children was extremely limited and by the time the war ended, many of those who were born in the camps were also fathers and mothers.
As the region attempts to recover from the impact of the conflict, the scale of the damage leaves no possibility for a quick fix. Some may want to forget about what happened but this is not easy. Some will want justice in the way of bringing the perpetrators to book, but what kind of punishment would be sufficient? And how would the different interventions, social, political or economic, help in the healing of a community reduced to despair?
Oloya was in January among dozens of people who attended a three-day course on transitional justice and legal pluralism at Gulu University. Transitional justice refers to the ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large-scale or systematic human rights violations so numerous and so serious that the normal justice system will not be able to provide an adequate response, according to the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).
Legal pluralism, on the other hand, refers to the existence of multiple legal systems within a jurisdiction.
This course, organised by the Building Stronger Universities (BSU) programme, was one among several that have been conducted at the university over the years and, according to one of the convenors, Julaina Obika, such courses offer participants opportunities to share experiences and knowledge.
“Northern Uganda is more like a lab,” says Obika, in reference to testing post conflict management strategies.
Obika, a senior lecturer at Gulu University’s Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies, has been worked in Gulu for 10 years.
“People here perceive justice with mixed feelings. When you ask people whether they have received justice, you get lots of answers,” Obika says. “From what I have heard, there is still a lot of injustice and people are still waiting. It seems justice is coming very slowly.”
Apparently, some have given up waiting.
“And that is a terrible way to live,” she says. “After so many years of suffering and you just see no hope of getting justice, of getting help, no accountability or reparations, then the whole discussion of justice becomes slippery and very tricky to talk about.”
Dominic Ongwen case
One of the most anticipated events toward justice for people in northern Uganda, according to Obika, is the finalisation of LRA ex-commander Dominic Ongwen’s case at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Ongwen, charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, has been on trial since the end of 2016.
Some sessions of the trial were screened in different places in northern Uganda and they attracted huge crowds.
“People were saying the man is looking so fantastic. He is wearing suits, looking so good. Is this the ICC idea of justice? What about us here, our huts are leaking, we have all these land conflicts, we have nothing,” she wonders. The ruling is expected this year.
“Let’s get an answer. Is he guilty or not? People are so interested because it will determine whether they get reparation, restitution, compensation, they are just waiting for this answer and answers to other cases,” she adds.
Whatever the ruling of the ICC, wounds of war are difficult to heal. And, if ever they heal, the scars are difficult to erase.