Kampala, 3 April 2018 – At the end of last year, a fist fight between two students at a school in Maaji III, one of several refugee settlements in the northern Adjumani district of Uganda, resulted in the death of one of them.
The boys belonged to two different South Sudanese ethnic communities: the Ma’di and the Latuka. In the aftermath of this tragic incident, there was an escalation of violence between the two communities, which the local authorities struggled to contain and was only brought to a halt following the intervention of the deceased boy’s grandfather.
Around the time of the incident, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) was conducting a peace building workshop for community peace facilitators in Pagirinya, another refugee settlement not far from Maaji III. The workshop was facilitated by Fr Martin Vuni, a Friends of Kids and Youth International (FKYI) team leader.
A week later, the two communities came together for a reconciliation meeting which was convened by the camp commandants. International aid agencies working in the refugee settlements were also present. Upon the invitation of the Camp Commandant, Fr Martin left in the middle of the other workshop to go and help mediate the meeting. For seven hours the people sat and talked about what happened and expressed their desire to make peace. By the time the meeting concluded the two communities were reconciled and they were ready to go back to living together again.
Important lessons were learned during this process. In situations such as this, there are four steps that must be taken on the way to reconciliation. First, the two communities had to renounce violence, and this happened following the intervention of the deceased boy’s grandfather. The second step was to reconcile the narrative of the two parties. This too was done because the parties agreed that what happened was an accident: the boy’s death had not been premeditated and was not ethnically motivated. The third step was for the two communities to cross the bridge and shake hands, a symbolic gesture that was important. Lastly, reconciliation can only hold if there is a transformation of the situation which caused the violence to occur in the first place. This is the most important step. It also means the dead should be owned and celebrated by both parties, including the school. Thus, on a recommendation of Fr Martin, the two communities agreed to come together at the appropriate time to mourn the dead and recognise all the victims affected by the violence.
Peaceful coexistence is a priority of the UNHCR and the government of Uganda through the coordination arm of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM). Although 233,654 refugees have been settled in 19 settlements in Adjumani district, inter-ethnic conflicts among the South Sudanese refugees prevail, worsened by the scarcity of resources that complicates sharing of land and social services such as education, health, environment between refugees and host communities.
The JRS peace building programme is one effort in the right direction but more is needed. Although humanitarian response usually does not include peace building as a priority, the situation on the ground suggests a change is needed in this regard. For communities that have a long history of violence, peace building and psychosocial support must be part of any humanitarian intervention protocol.