Myth and Reality in Post-Conflict Northern Uganda: Can Interfacing with Ghosts and Spirits Heal War Victims and Conflict-Affected Communities?
Complex beliefs and psychology revolving around the existence of “life after death” as well as manifestations of spirits of the dead interfacing with the living, are widespread in many post-conflict communities across the globe. As a psychosocial researcher involved since 2007 in transitional justice and the study of war-related trauma in Uganda, particularly in the Greater Northern Uganda, I have come across widespread claims and complaints that the ghosts or spirits of people killed during conflicts continue to disturb survivors in conflict-affected communities.
Examples include Burcoro in Gulu, Ordramchako in Arua, Corner Kilak in Pader, Pawena in Lamwo, and Lamogi in Amuru. Such experiences are usually associated with histories of mass killings and other serious crimes. Affected communities are notorious and famous for harboring haunted roads/routes, hills, houses, trees, and burial sites, to mention but a few.
Whether there is pathology or psychopathology involved, it needs to be critically explored in relation to both the impact of such haunting on the affected community, and the cultural belief systems of the affected people. Terms that have been used to describe phenomena such as these include “mass madness”, “contagious mass fear”, “group hallucination”, “diffuse panic,” “collective illusion,” or “mass hysteria.” I might perhaps add a new one; ghostitis.
Whatever the terminology, such events raise mental health and psychosocial concerns that experts struggle to deal with in terms of systematic pragmatic research, recognition, diagnosis and treatment. If the affected people believe that ghosts exist, can they “heal” by taking antipsychotic medications? If ghosts are a sign and symptom of mental illness, can this be addressed by traditional cleansing and healing ceremonies or prayers? If they are symptoms of mass fear, should the affected people/community migrate from the haunted places?
Equally, if such hauntings are a reminder of the fact that many mass human rights violations remain unaddressed, should stakeholders promote the injustice of impunity by silencing the accounts? Or should they instead see such hauntings as entry points into the identification and discussion of such violations, a way to begin advocating for appropriate redress whether legal, rehabilitative, and restorative? How best to understand and confront this subject matter remains a puzzle requiring debate, reflection, study, analysis and critical conceptualization.
Hauntings in context
While leading a research team in Awach sub-county in Gulu district during the National Reconciliation and Transitional Justice Audit Research in 2011, I was puzzled when focus group discussion participants narrated their individual and collective encounters with ghosts. They argued that the war in northern Uganda had not yet ended because even in the community there existed on-going conflict between the living and the dead in terms of; face-to-face confrontation with ghosts, seeing ghosts resembling living human beings who disappear mysteriously, and hearing strange voices. The most surprising one was the story of a Sunday where, in mid-prayer, the congregation of a church in Burcoro heard the voices of a ghost demanding that they stop singing and praising the Lord because their shouting was disturbing the ghost’s peace. Such narratives of haunting ghosts pose a huge puzzle and challenge to researchers, mental health practitioners, community members and the general stakeholders to attest or contest the myth and reality associated with the existence of claims vis-à-vis the notion of mental illness.
During a mental health dialogue organized some years later in Burcoro village in Gulu district by the Refugee Law Project in 2015, the participants unanimously and genuinely voiced their desire for urgent mental health rehabilitation to facilitate individual and community healing and thereby foster a durable solution and avoid new patterns of displacement. This community, that had returned from the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) Camps a few years earlier, described how several individuals and families, following repeated encounters with the spirits of dead combatants and other community members who had been killed, had fled from the village to seek refuge in Gulu town or with relatives and in-laws. Participants also shared their alarm over alleged widespread manifestations and encounters with ghosts masquerading in the community. Sightings included white people swimming in Burcoro Primary School football pitch, cyclists riding on roof-tops, soldiers patrolling the village, strange voices and knocks on doors at night, ghosts wrestling the living in physical confrontation, obsessive nightmare attacks, and a reported increase in the number of community members getting confused or mentally disturbed after interfacing with the ghosts.
The community’s demand for rescue motivated the Refugee Law Project to intervene and conduct a series of investigations and dialogues in 2016. We organized a comprehensive trauma healing intervention which we called a psychotherapeutic-medical camp. This involved a holistic integrated approach that included; traditional cleansing, psychiatric interventions, psychosocial counseling, medical treatment and prayers. This combination of approaches accommodated the divergent belief systems and healing needs of the affected population. After the therapeutic camp and subsequent follow-ups, the community reported experiencing a huge sense of psychological freedom and improvement. Similar experiences have also been locally reported by traditional Chiefs of Lamogi; Rwot Otinga Atuka Pa Min Yayi of Lamogi chiefdom and Rwot Raymondo of Paibona chiefdom. Both have pro-actively searched for support from Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to facilitate traditional healing therapies such as ritual cleansing of the ills.
In an interview with the Police Officer in Charge of Palaro Sub-County police post, the officer compassionately narrated how a 27 year old former LRA young man had committed suicide because of being haunted by the traumatic images of the people he had been forced to torment by his former LRA commanders. He said;
“This was a boy who spent 7 years in the bush and escaped from the LRA in 2003. When he was reunited with his family by Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO), his life never changed because he was reporting to his parents how the spirits of the people he was forced to kill and walk over came to him at night and strangled him in revenge, however much he prayed or screamed. All along, for over 9 years, the boy has been asking his poor father to cleanse him traditionally the way it was being done to some fellow returnees so that the haunting spirits are appeased or wiped out. His father consistently said he does not have money to buy goats, sheep, and other requirements to facilitate the purification and cleansing ritual. It was unbearable to the boy who even informed his parents and uncles that if he is not supported within that week, he is going to commit suicide before the spirits kill him. Finally, the boy committed suicide and to us the Police, whether attempted or complete suicide, it is criminal and punishable. This boy could have been rescued if the parents or an NGO had supported adequately. I gave a strong sensitization during his burial so that people begin to respect their own life and that of others.’’
While the above story demonstrates how the sense of being haunted may lead to self-harm, even to suicide, it is also important to note that some victims experience their encounters with ghosts as not just haunting but also as a route to healing. In my experience working with former child soldiers and war affected communities in northern Uganda for over a decade now, I have found that such encounters signal the need for deeper investigation and analysis of the roots and underlying causes, and thus open up avenues and opportunities for therapeutic interventions. For instance, some former LRA returnees who come for counseling are troubled by seeing ghosts of the people they were forced to kill coming for revenge. Others report that ghosts are demanding appeasement and truth-telling about what happened to them so that their long grieving parents can be psychologically set free and organize for their decent burial. Some suicidal parents of missing persons report healing after seeing their son’s ghost in a dream counseling them that rather than commit suicide they should instead take care of the living siblings, advice that helped them to recover psychologically.
To date neither the majority of the ordeals and violations experienced in the war in northern Uganda nor their consequences in affected localities and the wider community, have been comprehensively documented. This silence has been an obstacle to possible attempts and initiatives to devise pragmatic remedies that address war horrors and mass traumatization. Affected communities have therefore harbored and promoted chronic psychological distress, despair, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, sometimes manifested in what I have termed "ghostitis."
Sustainable trauma healing in post conflict northern Uganda requires policy and pragmatic psychosocial studies to inform comprehensive interventions that go beyond western approaches. It is important to explore the feasibility, efficacy and dynamics of integrating traditional and western approaches, as well as spiritual, livelihood and justice approaches. Therapeutic approaches in the domain of mental health and psychosocial support should focus on creatively blending and contextualizing interventions, and ensuring consistent treatment, care and support to affected persons/communities. Medical practitioners, especially psychiatrists, should revitalize liaison psychiatry so that psychiatric assessment and treatments can be provided to patients attending general hospitals (out-patient clinics, medical ward, Accident and Emergency Departments or those admitted to in-patients wards, and could have taken long periods in admission). Liaison psychiatry responds to the reality that a number of patients present with comorbid signs and symptoms of ill-health that necessitate both physical and psychological health interventions. Some war victims and survivors RLP interfaces with present with serious psychological distress relating to living with prolonged untreated war wounds/injuries. People in such circumstances can benefit a great deal from liaison psychiatry interventions.
Finally, the benefits of integrating an understanding of ghosts and haunting into our understanding of the post-conflict setting are not limited to the medical and psychosocial field. In the field of transitional justice, documentation and discussions of such phenomena have been completely missing. Yet at community level, discussion of these post-conflict hauntings could catalyze powerful dissection of the connections between past actions and present impacts. They could be powerful in informing and shaping transitional justice policy agendas, practice and research as Uganda strives to deal with the legacy and consequences of conflicts and forced migration in the country.
Comprehensive documentation of conflict-related crimes and their unaddressed impacts should therefore be an indispensable element in supporting and rejuvenating victims’ demands for healing, accountability, justice and reparation. Stakeholders should strongly acknowledge that what victims and survivors say about haunting spirits is part of their quest and demand for healing and should be used to inform programming, fundraising, research projects, interventions and advocacy for victims’ right to remedy after violations. Good political will and legislative interventions in the form of, inter alia, a finalized Transitional Justice Policy and the long awaited Mental Health Treatment Bill, will rejuvenate comprehensive mental health rehabilitation in Uganda.
By Benard Okot Kasozi
The author is a Senior Research and Advocacy Officer/Lead Psychosocial Researcher with the Refugee Law Project under the Conflict, Transitional Justice and Governance (CTJ&G) Program, Gulu Field Office. firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com