“May I join you for breakfast?” I looked up, having just stuffed a corner of toast with scrambled egg and bacon into my mouth, and found a kind-looking man smiling down at me. Unable to chew quick enough, I hastily beckoned to him to sit down. My first thought was that these conversations now seemed to be coming to me, as opposed to having to search for them all myself.
Having regained my composure following desperate attempts to swallow entire pieces of crust, I introduced myself, and learnt that this man was Jesse Mugero, a documentation officer with the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) in Northern Uganda. He works directly in line with Ugandan transitional justice efforts. This was, as such, a great opportunity for me - before my trip, I was admittedly unfamiliar with much of the conflicts that has ravaged Northern Uganda for the best part of 30 years. Jesse was someone who had experienced and heard first hand accounts of the atrocities committed and seen the damage that was caused. I confessed my ignorance to him.
“Simeon that is not something to be worried about! Let me tell you something - even much of Uganda was ignorant about the conflicts that were happening in the Northern parts. I am sure you can imagine that the media has a lot to do with that - the government did not allow them to report what was happening. Even the privately-owned Daily Monitor did not report on it much, let alone the state-owned New Vision. So you see - no-one knew until too much had happened!”
Jesse went on to explain that the work he does was his way of giving back. It was his way of saying sorry for what happened, even though he was not an accomplice in any of the atrocities committed. By not actively taking part in efforts to stop the conflict, he felt indirectly responsible for the suffering of his fellow Ugandans. He felt a moral guilt, in that he felt guilty that such atrocities could happen in his country. In a sense, he felt guilty that innocent others had suffered and he had not.
“I deal directly with the victims. A lot of the events we try to uncover and learn more about took place a long time ago - so I specialise in memory retaining techniques, through visual methods such as diagrams, pictures and oral procedures. It is tough work, and I see a lot of pain. It is impossible to become desensitised in this way because you are so close to the pain.”
He gave me an example - his organisation, JRP, recently finished a report on the Ombaci Massacre of 1981, where the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) attacked and killed almost 100 civilians at Ombaci colleges, while these civilians were taking refuge from the conflict raging elsewhere in the region. It was a senseless attack, beyond any kind of humanitarian explanation. The victims of this attack, including the families of those that were killed and those that were themselves wounded, still suffer in many ways today, from a lack of compensation to a lack of support for livelihood, education and reconciliation.
Our conversation was cut short by the realisation that our second day of the conference was soon to start, but, short as it was, the content and their implications of this conversation stuck with me throughout the day. Jesse’s feelings of moral responsibility for atrocities that he did not even know that much about was humbling, particularly in the context of the suffering that headlines the news today - multiple airline crashes, deadly atrocities committed in all parts of the world, increasing humanitarian crises brought about by senseless conflict justified by seemingly incomprehensible reasoning. Are we capable of feeling any sort of moral guilt anymore, or have we become too desensitised by the horrific images and stories that plague our social media timelines? Do we have a responsibility to feel any sort of moral guilt? And if we do, what on earth can be done? These are difficult questions that deserve consideration.
Upon my return from Uganda, the first email in my inbox read as follows:
It was great to meet you at the 4th Institute for African Transitional Justice (4thIATJ) organised by the Refugee Law Project in Munyonyo, Kampala. It was a wonderful institute and deeply enriching. I hope you reached your place well and had a great time. How are studies going at UCT?
Hoping this finds you well,
He also attached the report form the Ombaci Massacre that I referred to above, titled ‘It Was Only The Gun Speaking, With A Pool Of Blood Flowing,’ which you can read here.