Victimization by the Merciful
The hardest challenge by far for any international humanitarian aid organization is the responsibility for treating those whom the NGO wants to help as agents in their own right with feelings and thoughts. They – the abductees in this case – not the humanitarians, have been the main determinants of their own survival. In the horrors perpetrated on the abducted children by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the victims have not just been abducted and abused and enslaved; they have not just been forcibly removed from their family and friends. And they have not just been indoctrinated into becoming part of a killing machine. They are survivors. And they had to negotiate and devise ways to survive.
For there is an unbridgeable contradiction between the need of an international humanitarian aid organization in order to raise funds for their cause, the necessity, on the one hand, to portray themselves as the indispensable and sine qua non without whom the victims could not survive and escape from their victimization, and the need to portray those they are helping simply as hapless victims. Yet those abductees have done for themselves far more than any outside agency can bring to the task, for it is they who have survived. It is they who had to scheme and plan and calculate how to get through each day. The NGOs must realize and recognize the relatively minor added value an aid organization brings to the situation. But if that organization does not portray itself as indispensable, as the sine qua non without which the victims will remain hapless and helpless, why would anyone donate funds to the organization?
Look first at the situation the young boys and girls found themselves in as soon as they were abducted. They were suddenly cast into a totally alien environment. Instead of the security of home, instead of the support of family and friends, they have been thrust among total strangers. If they were abducted with another friend or family member, which most are, they must almost immediately learn to hide that fact just when they most need the support of another. For if they do not immediately learn to hide and disguise the fact that they know another, if they do not quickly master the art of dissembling and misrepresenting what they really know, they pose the greatest danger to both themselves and their friends and relatives.
If they reveal that another abductee is a close friend or family member, if they do not almost immediately learn to hide their relationships, if they slip and the abductors realize that another member of the abducted group is a close friend or family member, then they will have to learn the hardest way of all the first lesson that the abductors must and do teach the abductees – that they are all alone, that they are totally dependent on the LRA for their survival. At the same time, they must retain the sense that they must rely on themselves for survival. Further, if they fail to learn that lesson, if they reveal what must remain hidden at precisely the time when the abductees most need another for support, then, at best, they will be separated and find themselves further alone, or else one of the two will be killed, or, worst of all, they will be “asked” to murder the other as the first act in their initiation in the new laws of the jungle.
Further, if they have already been raised and taught that the jungle is an alien place haunted by malevolent spirits, if they have already been acculturated into the magic and superstitious beliefs about this alien and threatening environment, then the task is all the harder and their fears are much greater. So the abductor has the task of isolating and alienating the abductee from his or her home environment. The abductee is then most in need of security of home and hearth. It is the first and most formidable challenge facing an abductee to negotiate this most fundamental and most difficult initial hurdle.
Assuming these very young boys and girls learn that lesson – and they have to learn it in order to survive – they then have to quickly master the “rules” of their new rulers and masters. And those rules are best absorbed if they are totally incorporated into one’s mind and heart. And the first and foremost rule is that they must be heartless, heartless in their treatment of others and, most importantly, heartless in their treatment of themselves. They must first betray the very essence of their being as a human. Yet if they surrender their essential humanity, they are totally lost and simply become one of the walking dead. They must learn to be schizophrenics.
They must retain their ability to master and manipulate a situation which will, at one and the same time, allow them to survive and, on the other hand, allow them to survive as humans. It is an absolutely impossible task. One comes only at the expense of the other. But if the expenditure is too great, then they are lost. So how do they learn to successfully manage and manipulate the situation in which they find themselves? This is a challenge thrown at those almost least equipped to overcome the difficulties – young teenagers and children below ten.
Look at the tasks that face them. They cannot have a mentor who openly teaches them the tricks of the trade. They must pick up those lessons by osmosis and acute observation. Where just hours and days before, they were primarily taken care of by others, they suddenly must fend for themselves. They must acquire the necessary skills to survive in a polity not committed to their survival and in a natural environment that they have been taught is filled with malevolent spirits. They must learn to interpret the everyday, not as friendly and supportive, but as alien, which they have already been taught. For those religious precepts are the only basic framework which they have inherited, to become masters of their own situation lest that new situation overwhelms them and drowns out their spirits.
All this must be accomplished within an environment of constraint and fear. Which beliefs are reinforced by what is happening to them? Which beliefs – such as beliefs in helping another – must be discarded, or, at the very least, repressed, in order to survive? So they must develop the outlook and the skills using whatever inherited resources at hand to control whatever small degree of freedom of action they can possibly squeeze out of a situation. And they can only do so by driving their most deep-seated beliefs even deeper into the underground of their own souls. They must develop not only the tools of survival, but the tools of hidden resistance as well. They must learn the most fundamental lesson of all, the one that the abductors are most determined to exorcise, that they are the masters of their own souls, that they are not passive victims but are agents of their own destiny.
But it is much worse. They are forced to become complicit in committing atrocities. Not only atrocities against a purported enemy, not only atrocities against their fellow abductees, but atrocities against their very sense of what it is to be a decent human being. The challenge of survival has been compounded by an almost impossible task in a situation in which they have been deprived of the most basic security and the emotional and intellectual supports to meet such a challenge.
Then imagine their escape. Imagine their return. Imagine the task they have of both learning to forget and re-learning who they once were and are no longer. And imagine facing that task in a context in which those dedicated to helping you, by the very nature of the support those agencies need to muster, also view you as a hapless victim rather than the agent of your own survival. Now in this most benevolent environment, the skills of deception and disguise acquired in the jungle are reinforced rather than discarded.
However, in this case, they are not just victims. They have been perpetrators. Not one can escape that label. They must deal with their own shame and guilt without full acceptance of that fact by those trying to help them. For, at the same time as humanitarian NGOs are pressured by their own circumstances to portray those they are dedicated to helping as victims in need of help and not agents who have demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to survive, the former abductees must be complicit in reinforcing an image of themselves as innocent victims and not agents of the most atrocious crimes.
So they are doubly deprived of agency – as agents of their own survival and as agents complicit in denying the survival of others. In the choice of whether to kill or be killed, they were forced to choose to be killers in order to be agents who survive. To the extent an NGO recognizes and publicizes this latter essential phenomenon, to that extent do those agencies undermine their own efforts in fundraising. After all, who wants to give money to support those guilty of heinous crimes? The very act of charity then will almost certainly induce an initial feeling that, in doing so, one is complicit in the crime itself.
So the former abductees must, of necessity, rely on the very same tools of deception and misrepresentation that they were taught in the jungle. They must, in the case of female abductees, now become complicit in portraying themselves as rape victims and sex slaves in the hands of their abductors rather than as active explorers of the world of sex, never mind as porters, cooks, and even enthusiastic participants in attacks, abductions and slaughters. They must participate in the construction of an identity so essential to the agency dedicated to helping them. Once complicit in murder, it is far easier to be complicit in reinforcing the basic lie necessary to the very essence of humanitarian aid, the lie of their pure victimhood.
Once relatively powerless as abductees, they must again be portrayed as powerless by their ostensible saviours. Once subject to the imperious barking commands of their overlords, they now must submit to the soothing care of those who would bring them help rather than fill them with fear. But it is care accepted at great cost – they must be cast in a movie once again of themselves as merely victims and, thus, be doubly victimized as they seek survival, not in an atmosphere of extreme repression and oppression, but in an atmosphere of loving care. Having been indoctrinated to spit on pity for others as well as for themselves, they must now repress that deep and hard-won lesson.
Having returned from a moral order that was harsh, brutal and usually short, they have come back to a context in which they are similarly subjected to the whims and fantasies, not now of their tormentors, but to the bleeding hearts who offer them help and assistance. And they must hide the fact now that they have acquired at a very deep level a disdain for sympathy and empathy. It is hardly the best environment conducive to facing the depth and extent of their own spiritual contamination. Once again, the rules of the game, however well-intentioned and benign this time, are being set by others. And this is almost more difficult, for, at the very least, the bad guys were clearly identifiable previously. Now, to survive as an agent responsible for one’s own being and destiny, one must again master the art of becoming internal strangers, but this time in an atmosphere where one’s masters have come to the situation, not with whips and guns, but with a helping and supposedly loving hand, but a hand resistant to grasping the horror that has penetrated your own soul.
Finally, in defining the Acholi conflict as a humanitarian rather than a political crisis, international human rights and humanitarian organizations undercut and help hide the reality that behind the moral conflict there is a deeper political one, one between the Acholi and the Ugandan government in Kampala. And these humanitarian agencies are in league with that government. Thus, their ostensible friends are cast into the camp of enemies. Instead of facing a command structure simply of evil, they now have to face one in which good lies in bed with evil. The alien other has a much stronger hand than the simple evil of a Joseph Cony. It is even more difficult to resist and survive as an individual responsible for oneself in such an ostensibly benevolent atmosphere.
Is it any surprise that re-integration is so difficult for abductees?
Tomorrow: Justice Without Mercy: The Paradox of the International Criminal Court