UBC Reports | Vol.
50 | No. 11 |
Dec. 2, 2004
UBC Program is Helping War Victims be Heard
By Michelle Cook
Erin Baines was walking with some of Uganda’s “night
commuters” in the town of Kitgum when she got the call
about the deadly ambush.
Night commuters are the estimated 40,000 children who stream
into towns near the country’s northern border every
evening at sunset seeking refuge from the Lord’s Resistance
Army (LRA), a rebel group notorious for abducting young people
and killing unarmed citizens in its brutal 18-year war against
the Ugandan government.
Members of Baines’ research team told her they had
been riding in a convoy on the outskirts of town when they
came across a group of civilians who had been attacked by
rebels while trying to transport food to market.
“This is the risk people take when they try to have
a livelihood,” says Baines, the academic director of
UBC’s conflict and development program at the Liu Institute
for Global Issues. “One man -- a father with small children
and the sole provider for his extended family -- was killed.
Several others had been beaten by rebels. One 16-year-old
girl was shot in the stomach.”
Baines rushed to the local hospital to meet the group, and
sat with the wounded girl during her 24-hour wait for medical
attention. Back in her office in Vancouver, Baines reflects
on the incident that occurred in August this year.
“I held her hand for a long time and she just moaned
and whimpered and you could see how much pain she was in.
I still don’t know whether she lived or not,”
All this was happening, she adds, at the same time the Ugandan
government was saying it was close to defeating the LRA.
The anomaly between the official version of events and the
actual experiences of the millions of people living in war-torn
regions like northern Uganda lies at the heart of what Baines,
35, is trying to achieve with the conflict and development
Established in 2000, the program’s goal is to partner
with civil society organizations (CSOs) worldwide to conduct
hands-on research and advocacy work on how governments and
the United Nations respond to violent internal state conflicts
and their aftermath. CSOs are non-governmental and not-for-profit
organizations that include charities, trade unions, faith-based
organizations, indigenous peoples’ movements and foundations.
“In any conflict situation, there are always many
versions of the truth but the one that is always the most
dominant is the government’s,” Baines explains.
“So, if it’s possible to listen to those most
affected by the conflict -- whether that’s the widow
or orphan or human rights worker in the conflict zone -- what
our program is doing is giving these people a space in which
to reflect on their experiences, gathering that local knowledge
and information together, and then working with them to write
it down so that it can be used to document that they actually
“For these people, just being able to say, ‘this
happened on this day or that day’ is very important
to counter the massive amount of information that’s
out there that attracts attention away from what is really
The program, currently operating only in Africa, gathers
and disseminates documentation in several ways. These include
workshops like one held in Vancouver last month to honour
the reconciliation and re-building work being done by survivors
of Rwandan genocide. It also includes reports co-written by
program researchers and CSO partners, advocacy work, visits
to affected areas and even documentary films.
The information is then shared with other CSOs and Canadian
and foreign governments with the goal of informing their policy
decisions on humanitarian issues and approaches.
“In a way, we are bridging local-level knowledge from
those most affected by conflicts with the international actors
and hoping there’s a two-way exchange of information,”
Although it’s too early to tell whether the work is
influencing high-level decision makers, the program’s
African partners are already seeing results.
Michael Otim is the program co-ordinator for the Gulu District
NGO Forum, an umbrella organization supporting the work of
several CSOs in northern Uganda. The Forum has partnered with
the conflict and development program on several initiatives
including a documentary film, two reports on the situation
in the region and an international advocacy trip to several
countries to increase awareness of Uganda’s internal
Otim says the program has helped to raise the Forum’s
profile internationally and nationally, establish it as a
resource for visitors and researchers to the region, and strengthen
the network of northern Ugandan CSOs.
The result is an “increased awareness about the problems
of the conflict in northern Uganda as well as increased humanitarian
assistance by the international community,” Otim says.
“In addition, it has strengthened the position of the
CSOs as ‘watch dogs’ in the north by exposing
certain ills that communities are faced with as a result of
the ongoing conflict.”
Despite a history of tensions between countries in the region,
Baines hopes to further develop regional networks of CSOs
to share information and exchange experiences common to all.
One partner who welcomes the approach is Harriet N. Musoke,
who works with ISIS-Women’s International Cross Cultural
Exchange in Kampala, Uganda. She attended the Rwanda genocide
survivors workshop in Vancouver and found the lessons learned
from another nation’s conflict very useful for her organization’s
“There was a lot to learn, especially of how people
from one country can look at the same conflict or war differently,”
Musoke says. “Creating space for people to heal, retell
their stories and learn what others are doing in other countries
to maintain peace was a useful forum.”
It was a trip to Rwanda that changed the course of Baines’
Originally from Halifax, Baines’ doctorate at Dalhousie
University focused on humanitarian emergencies and refugee
populations in Central America and the Balkans. Then she was
asked to go to Rwanda, post-genocide, to conduct a study.
“Everything I had learned up to that point wasn’t
helpful in understanding what had happened in Rwanda and the
aftermath and effects. It was a UN community that had failed
miserably to protect these people and continued to fail 10
On the trip, Baines met a group of women and orphans in
a village hard hit by the genocide. During a discussion about
their lives and the assistance they’d received from
aid programs, Baines felt them becoming increasingly exasperated
by her questions.
“Finally, a couple of older women just threw up their
hands and said ‘what can we say to you? We’re
poor. We’re hungry. We have AIDS. Our kids are never
going to go to school. Not that they’re our kids. Our
orphans will never go to school. There’s reprisals and
violence. How can we move on?’”
The reality of the survivors’ living conditions sent
Baines “into a little bit of shock” and had a
profound effect on her academically and personally. She no
longer wanted to do research that “sat on a shelf.”
She made a shift to more hands-on academic work and took on
a personal commitment to engage with and exchange ideas to
support women and children like those she met in Rwanda.
Baines, who arrived at UBC in 2001, thinks solutions to
humanitarian crises like the ones she witnessed in central
Africa are possible but not without radical structural change
at the international level. She is critical of the big UN
agencies responsible for humanitarian work as well as national
governments in Africa and abroad for approaches she says are
reactive, ineffective and institutionalized. As a result,
program designs often miss the most critical dynamics of the
peace process at the local level.
She cites the current situation in northern Uganda as a
classic example of the international community’s flawed
approach. Ninety per cent of the population there lives in
displacement camps without basic rights, but there is a movement
by traditional leaders in the camps to re-introduce traditional
justice, counselling and cleansing ceremonies for returning
fighters. They feel this local response is effective, yet
the International Criminal Court (ICC) recently indicated
it wants to try LRA leader Joseph Kony and others for crimes
according to its guidelines.
“The traditional leaders have very set ideas of what
justice and reconciliation is that is very different from
the international community’s ideas,” Baines explains.
“In Uganda, they worked hard to get an amnesty agreement
[that would allow re-introduction of traditional justice],
they feel it’s working and feel it’s the only
path to reconciliation but the ICC, if it doesn’t exercise
sensitivity to these local initiatives, may very well undermine
the peace process.
“Local leaders fear the timing of the ICC will scare
away commanders from returning under the amnesty act. That’s
why we need to listen more and do a major re-think about applying
What would work, Baines says, is listening to what people
at the centre of conflict are saying. Based on findings from
workshops and ground work done last year, Baines found that
when the State or international community is unwilling or
unable to protect citizens, they find ways to protect themselves.
“There’s all sorts of coping mechanisms and
people are amazing in their will to survive, and not just
survive but keep their culture and their dignity,” she
This was best summed up for her at the funeral for the man
killed in the ambush outside Kitgum. The next day, the entire
community was mobilized and well organized to hold it.
“People told us ‘this happens so much we’re
ready for it. As a community we pull together, it’s
the only way we can cope and pull through it,’”
“We have to stop talking amongst each other and start
listening vastly more to them, and design our programs and
interventions around their existing coping mechanisms, encourage
them to come up with their own solutions and carry them out.”