Ambivalent Places of Memory: Mass Graves in Teso

Anne Wermbter

Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany


This article is concerned with mass graves that have been constructed in the aftermath of different violent conflicts in the Teso region in eastern Uganda. These are not hidden graves, but rather graves that have been established by different actors – the Ugandan state, local government, and community-based organisations in cooperation with NGOs. By investigating customary practices of burial, mourning and commemoration I explore the ways in which people in Teso perceive the mass graves to deviate from conventional notions of memory, burials and graves. I draw on material from interviews with respondents from all four gravesites in Teso and from villages in Amuria and Katakwi to analyse the divergences that the mass graves represent and how they seem to challenge and contradict people’s concepts and practices of how to come to terms with the violent past. By describing these differences that revolve primarily around notions of how to achieve a sense of closure with the past, I explain how prolonged mourning and memories of loss and suffering are related to local concepts of sickness. Furthermore, it can be argued that controversies evoked by the mass graves can reveal something about the current relationship between the government and communities in Teso. Taking the example of the mass grave in Obalanga,, I examine matters of commemoration, compensation and reparation.

For more than thirty years, Teso region in eastern Uganda has experienced a series of conflicts, stemming from recurring cattle raids, the Uganda People’s Army (UPA) insurgency (1986-1992) and the incursion of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in 2003. These violent conflicts caused loss of life, internal displacement and economic and social destruction in the region. In the aftermath of the violence, four mass graves were constructed by different actors: the Ugandan government, the local government and community-based organisations (CBOs) in cooperation with national and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Although these four gravesites are all located in different areas in Teso and represent three different conflicts, which all had their own dynamics and parties, they share certain similarities. All four mass graves were built with the intention to preserve the evidence of the particular incident, to collectively mourn the dead and to be used as sites of public remembrance and commemoration, thus giving them the status of ‘intentional monuments’ (Riegl 1988).

Mourning and commemoration rituals are practices that produce meaning (Jewsiewicki & White 2005: 2) and aim to restore social and moral norms after a period of disorder caused by death and disaster (see Oliver-Smith & Hoffmann 1999). Following this perspective, the mass graves provide valuable insights into how the dead are mourned and remembered and what kind of meanings people in Teso assign to them. Furthermore, responses to the mass graves reflect how the past and the future are mediated and envisaged (Jewsiewicki & White 2005: 2), particularly how communities in Teso perceive and relate to former parties of conflict.

This article investigates certain practices of memory in Teso: how the dead are mourned, buried and commemorated and how the mass burials are perceived to deviate from customary burials. It also discusses the notion of memory in relation to the violent conflicts in Teso and how it correlates with concepts of suffering and sickness. Furthermore the mass graves/memorials are intertwined with local, national and international politics of memory and are therefore contested places in the ongoing debate about reconciliation and reparation for victims of conflict in Uganda.

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