21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Displaced Perspective

Emily Hogg

 

The United Nations refugee agency – UNHCR – released a report in 2012 which argued that displacement, predominately caused by war, is ‘the new twenty-first century challenge’ (UNHCR Global Trends). Through the perspective of a vulnerable and traumatised young girl forced to live in a camp for displaced persons, Goretti Kyomuhendo’s 2003 short story ‘Do You Remember?’ mobilizes a critique of institutional responses to this challenge. The story turns on a deeply discomforting irony: the gap between the central character’s stated evaluation of her experiences, and what this evaluation is likely to lead the reader to infer.

 

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UNHCR deems displacement caused by war 'the new twenty-first century challenge' 

[Image by Lauren Manning under a CC BY license ]

 

In 2003 at least one and a half million people had been displaced in northern Uganda as a result of the war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government (Allen and Vlassenroot, 15). In 2006, negotiations brought peace to the area (though the LRA was still active in neighbouring countries) and by 2012, most of the camps in which displaced people had been forced to live were closed. The majority of the affected population were able to move back home, where they were faced with the challenges of re-establishing their lives after extraordinary disruption (AVSI and UNHCR). If the one and a half million displaced is, as such vast statistics describing human suffering notoriously tend to be, difficult to grasp and fully comprehend, the technocratic language here may not help either. Thomas G. Weiss and David A. Korn argue that the word ‘refugees’ ‘immediately evokes the image of people fleeing persecution’ where ‘Internally displaced persons’, on the other hand, ‘is too many words, too clinical, too antiseptic’ (15). Yet the situation of internally displaced persons (IDPs) is a particularly dangerous one.

According to the United Nations’ ‘Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement’, IDPs are those who must leave their homes ‘to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or humanmade disasters’, but who do not leave their own country (1).  Where the refugee crises at the end of the Second World War led to the creation of UNHCR and international legal standards to protect refugees, because the internally displaced have not crossed a state border they are not legally considered refugees and are thus not guaranteed the refugee’s legal protections. As the displaced person remains within their own state’s borders, the responsibility for the protection of their rights still rests with their government. But the displacement itself suggests that their government is likely either to be the aggressor endangering them or too weak to protect them from others.

 

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Displaced children resting in an IDP camp

[Image by UNAMID under a CC BY NC ND license]

 

During the conflict in northern Uganda, displacement was an element of government policy. As soon as Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army[1] took power in 1986, it was faced with a number of insurgency movements originating primarily in the north and, Adam Branch has argued, rooted in the politicization of north-south differences and ethnic identity – in particular, the fluctuating position of the Acholi in the colonial and postcolonial state. The LRA, led by Joseph Kony, proved the most long-lasting of the rebel movements. Tim Allen and Koen Vlassenroot state that ‘[o]ne of the Ugandan government’s strategies for dealing with the LRA insurgency was to remove the people from rural areas where they might assist the rebels, either out of choice or owing to fear of what would happen to them if they did not’ (14). People began to be moved into IDP camps where ‘[c]ultivation was almost impossible and movement outside the camps strictly limited. Food was provided by aid agencies, such as the World Food Programme. In effect, by the late 1990s, most of the population in the Acholi parts of Uganda were being kept in rural prisons, often in appalling conditions’ (Allen and Vlassenroot, 14). Andrew Mwenda suggests that, in these camps, ‘charity from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) ha[d] substituted for the state’ (43). So although IDPs, unlike refugees, have no specific protections under international law and remain the responsibility of their state, in the Ugandan case, Mwenda suggests, various international organizations played a central role in the IDP camps. In this context, one of the most interesting aspects of Kyomuhendo’s ‘Do You Remember?’ is the way that the IDP is shown to be precariously and dangerously caught between rebels, the government and international organizations.

 

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Joseph Kony is arguably one of the worst living criminals. He has abducted over 30,000 children whom he uses as kid soldiers and sex slaves in Central Africa.  

[Image by **AB** under a CC BY license]

 

When Maliza, the main character, is a small child, she survives a brutal and violent raid on her home. One of the attacking soldiers takes her away from the scene, and this soldier and his wife bring her up as their own daughter, along with their twins and their son, Barnabas. At the beginning of the story a third person narrator describes the aftermath of this attack on Maliza’s home:

Morning burst upon them.

Maliza and the soldier. And the six bodies lying carelessly in the compound. Arms, legs and heads, crudely severed from their owners with Stone Age weaponry, whispering silent messages to their onlookers. Peace and tranquillity reign in the green hills beyond, nurturing gardens of banana plantations. (175)

But a first-person narrator – Maliza herself – then takes over the narration after this paragraph until nearly the very end of the story. The switch in narrator at the beginning of the text works to emphasise, through the ensuing juxtaposition, the particularity of Maliza’s narrative voice.

It is her narrative perspective which creates much of the story’s disorienting and unsettling effect. For example, Maliza describes the soldier who ‘flung [her] on his shoulders’ as ‘[t]he one who took the place of my real father, Mahoro […] his wife took the place of my real mother, “wife of Mahoro”’ (175). But even though, in this way, at the beginning of the story Maliza says that the soldier is not her ‘real father’, as it progresses, she simply refers to him as ‘father’. For example, ‘[w]e left the barracks and went to live in a camp for displaced people because my father said the village was unsafe’ (177). This creates a slightly jarring effect: though at the beginning of the text, the soldier is explicitly differentiated from her ‘real father’, this distinction then disappears for the rest of the story. Maliza does not describe any emotional response to the way the soldier ‘took the place of [her] real father’ and this leaves her sense of her familial relationships in a slight state of uncertainty.  

This is not the only ambiguity in the story connected with naming. When he rescues her, Maliza’s new father-figure is fighting with a rebel group, which soon afterwards defeats the government and takes power. Maliza explains: ‘This war was bad. Homes were raided to find out if they were hiding the rebels. This is why there was that raid on our former home which I have already told you about […] The rebels won and took the government’ (176). The soldier is required by the new government to move to the north of Uganda and his family, including Maliza, move to Gulu. However, ‘[t]hen another war started. In Gulu. Father told us that these were another type of rebels, who wanted to topple the new government. The government that had come into power after the first war’ (177). Maliza’s new father then chooses to join the new rebel group: ‘He told us that the rebels were going to pay him a lot of money in exchange for information on the fighting tactics of the government soldiers’ (177). Consequently, the family moves from the military barracks where they have been living into a camp for IDPs.

The war described in the story bears strong resemblances to the war in the north of Uganda. As Maliza recounts, ‘these rebels […] raided homes, and took away children who they turned into child-soldiers. And cut off people’s lips and ears, and removed their eyes as punishment for telling on them to the government soldiers […] they burnt houses and cooked people alive and fed them to the other villagers who had not yet been killed’ (177). The LRA became notorious for exactly this kind of vicious, terrifying violence, and the specific reference to Gulu – one of the few place names mentioned in the story – underlines this association: the district was badly affected by the conflict.

 

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This child soldier had been abducted by LRA and at this point (2005) was trying to fit back into life in an IDP camp. 

[Image by Liz St. Jean Photography under a CC BY ND license]

 

But even though such links can be made, it is notable that in the story itself there are ‘rebels’ and ‘the government’, and one group can turn into the other, but the groups themselves are never named. Without naming the groups, it becomes difficult to make distinctions between them, and this sense of interchangeability is emphasised by the way the father changes sides, and by the way both rebel groups in the story are described as carrying out raids on homes. It is as if, where the destruction caused by ‘the rebels’, whoever they are, is so extreme, differences between different types of rebel become unimportant. Further, it creates the impression that, from Maliza’s perspective, ‘the rebels’ and ‘the government’ are not specific political formations, brought into being by particular historical events, but rather inescapable timeless entities.

However, though the rebels and the government are not precisely identified, other groups are. In the IDP camp,

[t]he World Food Programme supplied us with food […] it was easier for girls my age to obtain bigger food rations from the World Food Programme men who gave out food, because they liked to fondle our tits in the process. (177)

One day when this happens, her ‘brother’ Barnabas intervenes, attacks one of the men and ‘beat him up real bad.’ (177)

He was so jealous! I felt good but this meant we did not get any food for that day. Or the next. Barnabas was put in a small room where he was beaten every day, and denied any food or water for a week. Me and mother and the twins were given food only once a day. As a result, one of the twins died. My mother cried a lot. (177)

Here emotion is unsettlingly distributed: Barnabas’ jealousy (rather than anger) – which, we might expect, should itself be unsettling, as, in the new family which she has joined, he is her brother – is the only event which provokes the narrator to describe a feeling: ‘I felt good’ (177). Meanwhile, what the World Food Programme men do to her, and the death of the baby, produce no described emotion. For the rest of the story, attention is drawn to the death of the child, but in a way which suggests that Maliza has difficulty bearing the death in mind: ‘for now, he was going to take away my mother and the twins – no, one twin – back with him where he lived’ (178); ‘the night my father and mother and the twins – no, one twin – went away’ (178). On the one hand, this ‘no, one twin’ repetition works to emphasise the child’s absence; the death is otherwise described in one sentence. Yet on the other it suggests that this death has not really registered with Maliza – and suggests the depth of her own psychological suffering.

 

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LRA Child Memorial

[Image by Josh Zakary under a CC BY NC license]

 

But it is also notable that when describing the death of the twin and the sexual harassment she herself suffers Maliza specifically refers to the World Food Programme, in contrast to the way ‘the rebels’ and ‘the government’ are never specifically named. Similarly, when the father proposes returning to Gulu, he is not concerned about government reprisals for having worked with the rebels ‘Because Amnesty International (the group which forgives people who have done wrong to other people) had said he could come back and would be protected’ (179). The parenthetical explanation is both explained by what we know of Maliza’s perspective and bitingly satirical. Amnesty International is presented not as the facilitator of forgiveness but as its dispenser: as Maliza sees it, it is the organisation itself which does the forgiving, not the people who have been wronged. Where ‘the rebels’ and ‘the government’ are indistinct and, unnamed, tend to blur into one another, the specific names of the international organizations are made more noticeable. Given this contrasting specificity, the depiction of both the World Food Programme and Amnesty International in the story is doubly shocking and surprising. If ‘the rebels’ and ‘the government’ are an indistinguishable source of suffering, the gap between the expectations evoked by the names of these organizations and the way they are pictured in the story works to underline the hopelessness of Maliza’s situation, the sense in which – victimised by the rebels, the government and the humanitarian groups – her experience of displacement is that she has nowhere to turn.

 

CITATION: Emily Hogg, "Displaced Perspective," Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2015): n. pag. Web. 13 May 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.2.03

 

Dr Emily J. Hogg’s research is about the relationship between contemporary literature and discourses of human rights and focuses on representations of children, families and young people. She has published on Nadine Gordimer and David Foster Wallace and is the co-editor, with Dr Clara Jones, of the forthcoming collection Influence and Inheritance in Feminist English Studies. Emily completed her PhD in 2014 at Queen Mary, University of London, where she currently teaches.

 

Notes:

[1] NRA, but now known as the National Resistance Movement – NRM. 

 

Works Cited:

Allen, Tim and Koen Vlassenroot. ‘Introduction’. Allen and Vlassenroot 1-24.

Allen, Tim and Koen Vlassenroot, eds. The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality. London: Zed Books, 2010.

 

AVSI and UNHCR. ‘A Time Between: Moving on From Internal Displacement in Northern Uganda. <http://www.unhcr.org/4baa0fd86.html>

Branch, Adam. ‘Exploring the Roots of LRA Violence: Political Crisis and Ethnic Politics in Acholiland’. Allen and Vlassenroot 25-44.

‘Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement’. <http://www.unhcr.org/43ce1cff2.html>

Kyomuhendo, Goretti. ‘Do You Remember?’. Discovering Home: A Selection of Writings from the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing. Bellevue: Jacana, 2003. 175-181.

Mwenda, Andrew. ‘Uganda’s Politics of Foreign Aid and Violent Conflict: the Political Uses of the LRA Rebellion’. Allen and Vlassenroot 45-58.

UNHCR Global Trends 2012 <http://reliefweb.int/report/world/unhcr-global-trends-2012-displacement-new-21st-century-challenge>

Weiss, Thomas G.  and David A. Korn. Internal Displacement: Conceptualization and its Consequences. Abingdon: Routledge, 2006.

 

 

 

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