Ambiguous Void: Experiences of Loss among Families of the Missing Abductees in Northern Uganda


Kamilla Bjørkøe Jensen

Research Unit, Mental Health Centre Copenhagen, Denmark


Mia Jess

Danish Knowledge Centre for Rehabilitation and Palliative Care, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark



From 1986 to 2006 northern Uganda experienced a devastating civil war between the rebel group ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’ (LRA) and the Ugandan government. During the war abductions were a harsh reality for a large number of people, who as abductees were forced to act mainly as soldiers with the LRA. While some of the abductees managed to escape, a great many of these people did not, and thus, their families continue to live in uncertainty of their loved ones’ destinies; they might be dead or they might be alive and return one day. This article explores how the families of the abductees experience this ambiguous loss. Firstly, we argue that the absence of a missing abductee creates a void in the families that continues to have an impact on them and their everyday life through the presence of absence. Secondly, we argue that the lack of closure regarding the missing abductees creates a chronic state of liminality in the families, which thus becomes what is normal and what constitutes the context of the families’ lives.



Abductions in large numbers were a devastating part of the civil war between the rebel group ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’ (LRA) and the Ugandan government in northern Uganda, which lasted over twenty years. Between 1986 and 2006 the LRA abducted between 60,000 and 80,000[1] people, mainly children and adolescents, who were forced to become soldiers (Blattman & Annan 2010: 883). Both during and after the war many of the abductees escaped LRA and spent time in reception centres, where reintegration initiatives took place to help them return to their communities (Verma 2012: 444). In 2000 an amnesty act was passed in Uganda, making it possible for abductees to return to their local societies without facing trial for atrocities committed with LRA in the bush (Dolan 2009: 51). The Amnesty Act was received with mixed reactions (Finnström 2008: 92-93, Justice and Reconciliation Project 2012). When people were abducted, they became abductees. When they were referred to as people committing atrocities they were labelled as rebels. And when returning home, they were all returnees escaping captivity in the bush. One of the reasons for the disagreements concerning the Act is thus the ambiguity surrounding the categorisation of the persons subject to the Act. Critics ask how rebels can avoid trial, while others fail to understand how abductees as victims can be forced to apply for amnesty. During 2012 the Amnesty Act was substantially reduced, but extended. Today fewer abductees return from the bush and reception centres are closing down. During our fieldwork in Gulu in 2012 we visited two of the reception centres still running. Through these visits we gained insight into how these centres were offering shelter, psycho-social support, health checks and education as well as helping returnees searching for their relatives.

    However a great number of the abductees have never returned home. Many died in the bush, either of hunger or disease, in battle, or in an escape attempt; others are still living with the LRA (Verma 2012: 443-444). Information on how many have never returned is limited. The only report addressing this issue is based on a survey conducted by the NGO ‘Children/Youth as Peacekeepers’ (CAP); in 2012 it estimated that 1036 abductees were still missing in Gulu (CAP 2012: 10). The families of the missing continue to live in uncertainty regarding the fate of their loved ones.

    Today Gulu Town appears to be a city in growth. The reconciliation processes that started when the civil war came to an end are now being replaced by a focus on progress and the future in general. The Acholi people of the area seem to be once again united by the fact that the majority suffered and experienced horrifying atrocities. The families of the missing abductees are in some ways left out of this recently constructed solidarity, as they are ambiguous victims in relation to their abducted family members who possibly, if they are alive, are affiliated with the LRA. The families think of themselves as victims, but if their social surroundings get to know about their abducted family members, they risk becoming associated with the rebels’ immoral actions. Furthermore, the families struggle to move on because they lack knowledge concerning their family members, and are uncertain if they will ever return. Thus, the war continues to affect the lives of many of these families, and they find themselves stuck in the past, while the surrounding society struggles to move forward.

    In the aftermath of the war, there has been little focus on the families of the missing abductees, and they have thus become invisible. This article seeks to draw attention to this overlooked field of study, by addressing grief in the void of a missing family member, and discussing the nature of loss among the families of the missing abductees in northern Uganda.

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[1] There has been disagreement about the exact numbers of abductions (cf. Branch 2008:12). Therefore this number is only an estimate which is however based on several recent analyses.