Welcome to Community A

What does a professional killer do after the fighting stops? The men I met at Tumutu trainnig center were trying to make a new start after a lifetime of violent rebellion. Many had been in the bush for five, ten, or twenty years. Some made “general” at twenty-five in reward for their brutal military exploits.

Not all killed, and only some committed the kinds of atrocities we read about in lurid accounts of civil war, but an awful number of women and men live with acts and experiences that are so gut-wrenchingly terrible that they may spend a lifetime not admitting them to their friends or even themselves. Meanwhile, all lived in a culture of violence, where might made right.

Most of the men I met, however, have had a transformation in their six months in the training center. The bulk of schooling is in vegetable and rice production and the like. Twice a week, however, they meet in groups with counselors–all young ex-coms like themselves–for training in conflict resolution. To my surprise, the men spoke of this training as more important to them than the farming skills.

The conflict curriculum is focused on helping the youth understand their past behavior as well as ways to live and cope going forward. “I was living in Community B,” explained one man, the name couselors use for the rebel camps. “There are no laws there, and you take what you want. If someone does not give it to you, you can even kill them.”

Community A, though, has laws and norms and a culture. It brooks no violence. You must respect elders, avoid violence, and earn what you need. Community A is the home they will return to in a few weeks.

The trainings give the ex-fighters a narrative, a way to explain to their communities, but most of all themselves, their seemingly barbaric actions. Wicked acts are placed in a particular context, to an extent externalizing the evil. By making sense out of the senseless, it makes their lives easier to live day to day.

In past years, the narrative I heard in Uganda was much the same: there was the ‘bush’ and ‘home’. The very word for ‘rebel’ in the Acholi tongue — olum — means ‘the bush’, or unpopulated wilderness, itself. The bush is uncivilized, and full of malevolent spirits.

My friend Tim Allen, an LSE anthropologist, has said that Uganda’s reception centers for escaping rebel recruits were important not because of the medical treatment and other services they provided, but because the centers gave young men and women a space to transition from the bush to home.

The centers also promulgated a (mostly accurate) narrative of innocents coercively recruited and forced to commit violence according to bush rules. This narrative allowed youth to shed their bush skin and adopt the mindset of home.

At times like these I appreciate how interesting life must be as a psychologist or anthropologist. Excuse me now as I return to my more banal statistical inquiries.

*sigh*