Uganda: Healing and Reconciliation in Maaji III
22 December 2017

Fr. Martin Vuni was called in to help mediate between the two fighting communities (Fr. Martin)

JRS Uganda organized a peace building workshop in Pagirinya refugee settlement, Adjumani district, Northern Uganda, from 23-27 October 2017. While the workshop was underway, an incident occurred in the nearby locality of Maaji III involving two refugee boys and resulting in the death of one of the boys. The incident ignited a wave of inter-community violence and Fr. Martin Vuni who was facilitating the JRS workshop was called in to help mediate between the two fighting communities. This is Fr. Martin’s account of how the reconciliation process unfolded.

Adjumani, 22 December 2017 - On the 2nd November, a fist fight between two pupils in Maaji III Primary school resulted in the death of one of them.  The 17-year-old boy was killed by a slightly older boy said to be 21 years old.  Maaji III was the venue where the International Peace Day was celebrated on 21stof September this year.  And during the celebration the guest of honor, the District Security Officer emphasized that whatever education children may get, if they are not educated on peace, their learning will be useless.  He was right.

What happened after the boy’s death was very revealing and it underlined the importance of the peace building programme which JRS has started in the refugee settlements.  The community split up along tribal lines.  The deceased boy was a Ma’di while his killer is a Latuka; both tribes are from the Catholic Diocese of Torit in Eastern Equatoria, now called Imatong State.  Upon hearing of the boy’s death, the Ma’di reacted by attacking the school and setting teachers’ huts ablaze. From there, around 4:00 pm, they turned their attention to the Latuka community, setting their huts on fire and beating up any Latuka they could find.  The situation escalated into serious inter-community violence.  Members of the Latuka community had to seek protection at the community center.  The police tried to intervene but they were severely outnumbered.  So they withdrew to their barracks.

The violence subsided only following the intervention of the deceased boy’s grandfather.  He was in Pagirinya (a locality of the Adjumani district in Northern Uganda) when, upon hearing about what was happening, he urged the members of the Ma’di community via a telephone call to stop the violence. By the time he reached Maaji III the situation was under control and the fighting had stopped.  However, a lot of damage had already been done the extent of which I was not able to establish.

On November 8th, the two communities came together for a reconciliation meeting which was facilitated by the Camp Commandants.  International aid agencies working in the refugee settlements were also present. It so happened that about the same time I was facilitating a peace building workshop at the nearby settlement of Maaji II.  So the Camp Commandant invited me to go and mediate at the reconciliation meeting, which I did. For seven hours the people sat and talked about what happened and expressed their desire to reconcile.  By the time we concluded the meeting the two communities were reconciled and they were ready to go back to living together again. 

However, in situations like this, there are four steps in the reconciliation process.  I explained to the Camp Commandant and to the aid agencies that only three steps have been achieved.  The fourth step is yet to be carried out.  The first step in the reconciliation process is the renunciation of violence by both parties.  This was clearly done.  The two parties have all renounced violence.  The second step is to reconcile the narrative of the two parties. This too was done because the parties agreed that what happened was an accident.  The Latuka community did not intentionally plan to kill a Ma’di. This was extremely important.  The third step is to cross the bridge.  The two communities did cross the bridge and reached out to each other and shook hands. This symbolic gesture was important. Lastly, reconciliation can only hold if there is a transformation of the situation which caused the violence to occur in the first place.  That is the most important step.  It also means the dead should be owned and celebrated by both parties, including the school. So my recommendation was that at the appropriate time, the school, the Latuka community and the Ma’di community must come together to mourn the dead and recognize all the victims affected by the violence.  Up until now, no one knows exactly how many people fell victims to the violence.

Testimonies from those who were closely involved in the incident suggested that the people reacted in response to what they perceived as negligence on the part of the teachers in failing to prevent the boy’s death.  According to one witness, when the fight broke out in the classroom, pupils ran to the office three times to inform the teachers that there was a fight going on. But the teachers did not respond immediately and by the time a teacher finally appeared at the scene the boy was already dead.  This account was narrated by the pupils to the relatives of the deceased boy, which is why, out of anger, they responded by burning the teachers’ huts. This account was further corroborated by the head teacher who said on the fateful day he and five other teachers had taken class seven pupils to Joka Primary School to sit for their exams. Three other teachers had stayed home due to sickness, meaning that only a handful of teachers were on duty when the incident occurred. The school has over 3000 children and only 24 teachers. On the fateful day, only 16 of them were present.

On the other hand, the violence was brought to a halt quickly because the two communities acknowledged that they had no history of fighting between them.  The Latuka and Madi do not share a common border. Therefore, back in South Sudan, the likelihood of conflict between the two communities was very low.  They all testified that they had mutual respect for each another.  All that happened was solely as a result of the deceased boy’s family’s anger over his wrongful death. In the end, both parties acknowledged their mistakes, exchanged apologies and reconciled.  In retrospect, this conflict could have a far reaching effects. Members of the two communities in Diaspora, especially in the United States, England and Australia, as well as those in Juba and Torit had started expressing hostility against each other on social media, despite their limited knowledge of the facts. This was already raising fears of inter-community violence, especially in Torit where the Latuka community is dominant. 

Even now the situation remains tense. As recently as November 25th, a young man from the Ma’di community was beaten by a mob of Latuka youth in Maaji III.  The circumstances of the fighting remain unclear.  And again, when a newly elected chairman of Refugee Welfare Committee from the Latuka community suddenly died recently, suspicions turned to the Ma’di Community.  So the situation is rather delicate and risks being exploited by some rascals or agitators. We hope this scenario will not come to pass. 

Furthermore, there are underlying factors that have to be reckoned with to mitigate future conflicts within the South Sudanese community.  The level of poverty is too high.  The majority of the people are in dire straits thanks to lack of food and joblessness. Moreover, many of the young people are either unaccompanied or children of single parents.  Typically, fathers remain behind and mothers are left to find for the children alone. This family setup is not normal.  Add this to the refugees’ experience of violence back home and the resulting trauma and you have a community that is vulnerable to conflict.  The JRS peace building programme is one effort in the right direction but more is needed. Although humanitarian response usually does not include peace building as a priority, the situation on the ground suggests a change is needed in this regard. For communities that have a long history of violence, peace building and psychosocial support has to be part of any humanitarian intervention protocol.

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