Translating Forensic Science in Northern Uganda
by Hugh Tuller
The Acholi of northern Uganda believe that spirits of the dead have the ability to interact with the living. When unjustly killed or improperly buried, the dead can take vengeance upon the living in the forms of nightmares, waking visions, illness, crop failures, and other manifestations. After four decades of conflict, the Ugandan landscape is populated by spirits of unjustly killed and improperly buried people. Our research among the Acholi explores if and how improper burials and associated spiritual disturbances are linked to different avenues for post-conflict reconciliation, memorialization, or reparations and if forensic science could play a role in mitigating the perceptions of spiritual disturbances.
This research introduces forensic science to rural participants who have never been exposed to such practices, and then invites their reactions to it in relation to their post-conflict experiences. This process necessarily involves asking participants what happened to them, their family, and community during the wars, and can be very sensitive. As a way to share their trauma with us, our participants were often eager to show us where massacres took place and where their family members were buried.
Looking for ways to better involve communities and to offer something directly to our participants, we conducted forensic archaeological surveys reports of these massacre and grave sites, and distributed them to participants for their use and records. Some participants simply wanted a map of where their loved ones rested, others indicated interest in the reports as a narrative of past injustices. However, surviving participants were not the only ones interested in our mapping.
Deo Komakech, a staff member of Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project (RLP), has been working on a project documenting massacre sites in northern Uganda called The Mass grave Scoping Project. The connection between Deo’s Project and our archaeological survey reports is evident. While Deo carefully documents the “who, what, and when” of massacres, he realized that he could benefit from a more precise mapping process to fill in the “where”. Deo has help us with introductions to a number of communities, and in turn, we have trained him in basic mapping techniques to bolster his Scoping Project data. We feel that this sharing of knowledge contributes positively to both our projects and that it will be a useful documentation tool Doe and RLP can use into the future when interacting with communities.
Full article forthcoming in April 2018 issue of Practicing Anthropology!