Post-war Development and Camp-site Graves: The Politics of Reburials in Former Pabbo IDP Camp, Acholiland


Ina Rehema Jahn

African Centre for Migration and Society, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa




Since the end of the conflict in Acholiland, northern Uganda, development actors increasingly embark on economic reconstruction and rehabilitation projects in former IDP camp sites. Yet, all these sites contain multitudes of graves as a burial back at home was greatly obstructed during the period of forced encampment. For many Acholi, a burial away from home is however widely believed to aggrieve the spirits of the dead, whose bones are said to lie in the ‘wrong soil’. Former camp residents have attributed misfortunes and illness to these bones left behind in the camps. Since the first closures of IDP camps in northern Uganda, the need to move graves from former camp sites back home has thus occupied the imagination of many returnees, and reburials have become a common practice. At the same time bones and graves left behind literally come to the surface in the context of reconstruction projects in former camp sites. Drawing from the example of a donor-funded infrastructure project in former Pabbo IDP camp, this article highlights both the material and cosmological implications of dealing with bones and graves that have been left behind in these sites. It argues that while reburials are intimately linked to questions of local cosmology and efforts to reconstitute a sense of belonging in the post-conflict phase, the practice also becomes subject to political stakes of development and government actors with potentially unsettling cosmological consequences. Without understanding both material and cosmological concerns of former displaced populations regarding graves in the ‘wrong soil’ and their appropriate treatment, development initiatives in former camps in Northern Uganda hence run the risk of causing renewed social and cosmological disorder.

Since the 2006 Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, which marked an inconclusive end to war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government, the majority of the forcibly displaced have returned to their former homes. However, the violent disruptions of social, political and economic life which marked the two decade long conflict remain etched in collective memory and linger on as returnees attempt to remake homes and reorder lives. Among the remnants of war are also the physical remains of those who died in the displacement camps and were buried away from ancestral or marital land, a situation commonly described by former camp inhabitants as ‘bones in the wrong soil’ (congo i ngom ma pe tye kakare). Death was a daily occurrence throughout the period of forced encampment, conditions of which have been described as amounting to ‘social torture’ evidenced in ‘widespread violation, dread, disorientation, dependency, debilitation and humiliations (…) perpetrated on a mass rather than individual scale’ (Dolan 2009: 2). The harrowing camp conditions caused excess mortality levels classified as highest humanitarian emergency (Branch 2012: 89, WHO & MOH 2005) while the camps themselves also ‘soon became magnets of fighting’ (Finnström 2008: 136). Destitution and death were so omnipresent that a strong local narrative emerged which framed the camps as the implicit means to control, dominate and even ‘exterminate’ the Acholi population (Finnström 2008: 144).

In the context of such intense structural violence perpetrated against the majority of the Acholi population, cultural and social agency became severely diminished while cosmological orders were also subject to new negotiations. In Acholiland, where the dead are customarily given a burial at home and graves are sacred places intimately lived with on one’s homestead, culturally appropriate recognition of the many occurring deaths often became impossible. Official restrictions on movement and the lack of income both heavily inhibited the transport of the remains back home as well as the customary institution of funeral rites. In Acholiland, improper burials are however thought to greatly aggrieve the spirits of the dead who as a result can cause misfortune, illness and even death among their surviving relatives and the wider clan (Baines 2010), spreading cosmological disorder and upheaval. Since the end of the conflict, many bereaved families have therefore organised reburials from camp sites to their former homesteads in order to appease the spirit of their dead relatives and to reconstitute a sense of belonging with their land. Reburials in post-conflict Acholiland thus acquire their meaning in the relation to prevalent cosmologies tied to notions of place and belonging and the shared experience of structural, decade-long violence.

The emergence of reburials in post-conflict Acholiland also coincides with rapidly increasing business opportunities and land commercialisation in the former camp sites, which are purposefully developed into larger urban centres (Whyte et al. 2014). Since the end of the conflict, the Ugandan government has exerted ‘highly public pressure (…) for the opening up of Northern Uganda for “development”’ (Atkinson 2009: 2) by incentivising large scale infrastructure and economic rehabilitation projects in the area. As highlighted by Whyte and colleagues (Whyte et al. 2014), this drive for development is underpinned by the logic of subtraction: to clear the way for concerted development intervention and economic reconstruction, former camps need be cleared from both the remaining displaced populations as well as the dead bodies they left in the ground.

Local cosmological idioms circumscribing the engagement with the spirit world – of significant importance to many Acholi – therefore become entangled with development approaches which are often grounded in materialist concerns that fundamentally exclude the cosmological domain. As a consequence, family-level negotiations over the reburial of their dead have become part and parcel of post-war reconstruction efforts. The potential consequences of these processes are highlighted by the construction of a sub-county hall in former Pabbo IDP camp funded by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2009, following the request for support by the sub-county leadership. The construction of the hall provoked widespread anxiety and concern among Pabbo’s residents, and led the agency to funding both exhumations from the construction site as well as reburials in returnee villages. Many of the affected families experienced these reburials as a forceful violation of their cosmological imaginations with unsettling consequences, long outlasting the presence of JICA.

This article aims to situate reburials in the context of post-conflict development and reconstruction initiatives and their politics in former Pabbo camp. Based on six weeks of fieldwork in early 2013, the case of JICA’s involvement is used as a lens to understand how bodies and bones ‘in the wrong soil’ are not only part and parcel of local negotiations of the meaning of home and belonging in the wake of return, but also and simultaneously the substance of post-conflict politics in the former camp sites such as Pabbo. It is hence important to return the debate on post-war belonging and reconstruction to a discussion of local cosmological idioms and concerns and shift away from analyses grounded in predominantly materialistic worldviews and concerns.

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