A Second Chance in Life: Meeting Victims of Atrocity Crimes in Gulu and Ituri

Many victims face rejection by their own communities and even by their closest relatives. Some scars, the ones on the heart and the soul, can be hidden. Others cannot.
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Recently, as a guest of the Trust Fund for Victims, created under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, I undertook a journey to two of the most ravaged places on earth: Ituri in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gulu in Northern Uganda. This is where countless victims of warlords, like Joseph Kony, Thomas Lubanga, Bosco Ntaganda, and Dominic Ongwen, struggle to get on with their lives. This is also where the Fund is assisting more than 100,000 people by providing physical and psychological rehabilitation and material support.

"You have given me a second chance in life," said one of the beneficiaries of the prosthesis program.

"Please make it so that your assistance will last until the day that we die," pleaded another.

Indeed, life is tough for many survivors, most of whom prefer to remain reticent about their feelings and condition. The situation is complex, especially for those who as child soldiers were perpetrators and victims at the same time. Many victims face rejection by their own communities and even by their closest relatives. Some scars, the ones on the heart and the soul, can be hidden. Others cannot: Abducted girls have come back to their villages with several children born from rapes. By now, some of the rape victims have been living with fistula for 10 years. In a remote village in Northern Uganda, after all the official words had been said and heard, women gathered around me to show some visible signs of past torture: mutilated limbs, missing earlobes. I was told by women they felt they were subjected to crime and torture because they never received schooling in the first place, because they are poor, uneducated, and thereby worthless.

Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson has written in her memoirs, "I had nothing tangible to offer victims. ... They needed our action, not our tears; our practical downright, problem-solving help." With the establishment of the Trust Fund for Victims along with the ICC, we do have something to offer. Under the TFV's reparations and assistance mandates, the capacity to support victims exists. Reparative justice is of paramount importance to the victims of atrocious crimes. The Court, despite its first verdict, has yet to implement reparations -- to tie accountability to mending injuries. But in the interim, under its assistance mandate the TFV works with local grassroots organizations, victims' survivor groups, and many others, reaching into the surrounding communities. It helps them reclaim a sense of security, seek peaceful means of solving conflicts, and translates into improved economic conditions. The voluntary contributions to the Fund by States and by private individuals are indeed being put to a very good use.

While I am still not sure what to do with a moving letter I received from one beneficiary of the Fund, presently a proud second-year medical student who asks for assistance to complete his studies, there are even more pressing questions to be answered:

How to ensure the sustainability and national ownership of necessary assistance programs once the trust fund starts to scale down its activities?

Will the victims of atrocity crimes be able to see a day when perpetrators pay reparations?

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