Young people in a refugee camp in Kitgum, prepare costumes for a performance of life with The Lords Resistance Army. The play featured the children taking on roles of top LRA commanders, to both educate members of their community and as a kind of therapy, via humour, helping to disengage from those that had once held so much power over their lives. Photo: Elizabeth Langslow / Flickr.

A long-term consequence of violence, beyond the harm and misery caused to the people directly affected, is the damage of the bonds of trust that underwrite the social functioning of society. Conflicts have made enemies of people who should for the good of their communities live, work and trade peacefully together, but who may not be willing or psychologically able to do so, once arms have been laid down.

In response, international agencies recognize that in the aftermath of civil war or violent internal conflict, one of the key peace building challenges is to reconcile former enemies who are members of the same small-scale societies. Our recent publication in the Journal of Peace Research looked at the process of social reintegration after the recently ended civil war in northern Uganda.

The Ugandan civil war lasted for more than 20 years and was fought in Uganda’s northern districts between the rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, and the government of Uganda. Between 1986 and 2006 attacks by the LRA were widespread with an estimated 25% of all northern communities suffering direct attacks resulting in an estimated 100 000 deaths and more than 80 000 individuals being abducted from their homes. Although adolescent males were the primary targets, females and males of all ages were also taken. Abductees would be forced to act as fighters, porters and camp attendants, or as “wives” to LRA members of sufficient rank and power.

In response, the Ugandan military forced 1.6 million people – 90% of northern Uganda’s population – to live in displacement camps in which population density reached 1700 people per hectare, with approximately 95% living in absolute poverty. In 2003, Jan Egeland, the then UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, described the conflict as the “biggest neglected humanitarian tragedy in the world.”

The research team for this study was based in the small market town of Kitgum in northern Uganda and spent nine months conducting fieldwork among the rural communities that had been exposed to some of the most severe impacts of the violence. Our aim was to document the impact that the war had had on how individuals and groups perceive their own identity, and to measure to what extent this heritage of internalized conflict continues to influence their behaviour towards others in their community.

Beatrice was married to Brigadier Sam Kolo of the LRA. Pictured here with their daughter in a camp that continued to suffer raids by the LRA. In interviews Beatrice spoke with some affection for Sam. The more time you spent there in many ways the less you felt you knew. Peoples lives and allegiances are complicated especially in a time of war. Photo: Elizabeth Langslow / Flickr.

A peculiar facet of this conflict was the fact that very few of the LRA members were volunteers: it is estimated that of the tens of thousands of LRA members, as few as 200 to 300 had willingly joined, with the remainder having been forcibly recruited into the insurgency. At the war’s end, the overwhelming narrative promoted by national and international agencies, and civil society organisations, was that LRA members should be forgiven their actions and everyone should recognize that everyone had been made victims by the war. This narrative of reconciliation was often repeated when the research team spent time in the communities during the early months of the study’s fieldwork. During a memorable interaction one village chairperson told us that former LRA members should be forgiven for their actions: “They are our children, and they have suffered terribly by what they were made to do.”

Government and NGO reporting on the reconciliation process picked up on these expressed themes and used such sentiments as evidence for the successful implementation of post-conflict programming. Other academics however highlighted the variation in relative impact that different sections of the community had felt as a consequence of the violence, in particular pointing out the terrible rates of mental illness that were reported among former LRA members. A study by Pham et al., 2009 for example conducted a survey of 2875 individuals and found that of those that had spent more than six months as members of the LRA, 15% of men and 60% of women reported symptoms of depression, and an astonishing 79.8% were diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

From our observations in the field, and considering the academic evidence, it seemed to us that the overwhelmingly positive and dominant narrative around the reconciliation process was at odds with our own observations about how different individuals and groups were interacting with each other. In particular we became concerned that social desirability bias – whereby respondents have a tendency to answer questions in a manner that will be viewed favourably by others, in this case to report positive relationships with former LRA members – was masking the underlying tensions that the conflict continued to cause between community members.

The corresponding research challenge was to find a way to measure the extent to which social reintegration had taken place in the years following the end of conflict that avoided the problems around social-desirability bias. One way of conceptualizing social reintegration was to think of it as former enemies regarding and acting towards each other no differently than they would towards any other community member.

We applied novel research methods that combined qualitative components to inform the design and implementation of quantitative and experimental approaches so as to be able to quantify attitudes between community members engaged in a process of post-conflict reintegration. Our innovation was to match individuals on the roles they played in the recently ended conflict. We therefore were able to evaluate post-conflict social reintegration by concentrating directly on the social connections between pairs of individuals (dyads) who we matched according to their roles in the conflict.

Our approach allowed us to avoid many of the pitfalls that social-desirability bias can have on data and analysis. This meant we could identify, and rigorously verify, the existence of unacknowledged social fault lines that were a consequence of individuals’ conflict history, whether these were consciously or unconsciously held. In doing so we are able to identify which groups are more prone to discriminate against different members of their community, which we expect will help in targeting post-conflict interventions.

We hope that the method and approach described in our recent paper will become a model used more widely for the evaluation of social cohesion in post-conflict settings. If it does, then we feel that we would have gone some way in repaying the unstinting support, hospitality and kindness shown to us by the people of Kitgum District during our time with them.