Buried in the Heart:
Women, Complex Victimhood and the War in Northern Uganda

by Erin Baines, Cambridge University Press, 2017

Reviewed by Catherine O’Rourke

Buried in the Heart is a unique and important text. The book tells the stories of 30 women formerly abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, who have since returned to their home communities with children born of forced marriages to rebel commanders. The author makes the case for viewing the survival strategies of these women, both during and after abduction, not as manifestations of victimhood, but rather as expressions of agency.

Erin Baines gathered the data primarily from 2009 to 2011, which are drawn together initially through storytelling circles involving sub-groups of the 30 women and based on an Acholi practice of family gatherings. Further data are gathered from the women’s own ‘life stories’, conveyed by them in narrative or picture form. The book brings invaluable original empirical data, sensitively and ethically collected, that significantly enrich understandings of gendered practices of conflict. Most particularly, the book and its underpinning data provide critical new insights into the coping and survival strategies of women in dire settings of conflict and limited autonomy. The book-length treatment of the material, combined with unparalleled access to the research subjects and sensitive analysis by the author, establishes the book as one of the most important in a large body of recent scholarship addressing gender and transitional justice.

The book’s key contribution is twofold. The rich original empirical data stand to make an enduring contribution to understandings of conflict and its impact as gendered. The book’s contribution and strength lies also in its original methodological approach. Rather than confining discussion of method, ethics, and access to a preliminary section, the book is instead infused throughout with reflections on ethics, voice, and the role of the Western/Northern scholar in relaying experiences of women from the global South. Erin Baines names the dilemma at the outset: ‘This is my ongoing ethical struggle. These stories never belonged to me in the first place to tell’ (p. xv). It is important to note that the book is a companion text to the autobiography of Evelyn Amony (I am Evelyn Amony: Reclaiming my Life from the Lord’s Resistance Army, Erin Baines (ed.), University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), one of the women whose experience informs Buried in the Heart. Thus, Erin Baines demonstrates her commitment to ethical research not only through scholarly reflections on questions of voice and privilege, but also through practical support to Evelyn Amony to bring her story to a scholarly audience.

The book is sensitively written, designed to investigate intersecting axes of identity that too shaped the experiences of the women. Sensitivity to age is particularly telling, as the dynamics between the women – between the head wife and later wives – are shown to structure the daily lives of the women. Moreover, Erin Baines has brought the careful eye of an experienced anthropologist to locate the gendered dynamics within broader ethnic stories, in particular of the way in which Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA, utilised religious myths and stories to determine acts of violence – and mercy – towards individual women.

The book sets out to contribute to African studies and understanding of the Ugandan conflict. More broadly, however, the book attempts to speak to debates of transitional justice and gender. Erin Baines sees little promise in overly-formalistic approaches to transitional justice as legal and quasi-legal measures. For her, they are predicated unhelpfully – even harmfully – on dichotomies of victim and perpetrator that obscure the most common and most important experiences of the women featured in the book. We need, according to the book’s author, better ways to accommodate the complexity, limitations, and expressions of autonomy of women whose experiences underpin the book. In its empirical focus, the book is accessibly and engagingly written. In the theoretical reflections that form the conclusion, Erin Baines situates her contribution very firmly in the field of transitional justice and the study of gender.

For this reader – a legal scholar – I found the empirical content more satisfying than the book’s conclusions. It is no doubt unfair to expect an author to produce something this empirically rich and theoretically worthwhile to contribute a treatise of practical application in the same volume. Nevertheless, I was insufficiently convinced of how the distinction offered in theory translated into the practical activities of administrative reparations programmes and truth recovery processes which the author critiques. I was also, I must admit, left uneasy as to the implications of valorising the decisions and activities made by the women, in the worst of possible circumstances, as expressions of their ‘agency’. Surely there is some way to validate their survival without losing focus on the horrors of their individual and collective circumstances? This was the ethical question that lingered with this reader.

Buried in the Heart is essential reading for scholars of the Ugandan case and practitioners in the Ugandan context. Moreover, the book will be of considerable interest and benefit to scholars and practitioners in the broader field of gender, conflict, and transitional justice.

© 2017 Catherine O’Rourke
Senior Lecturer in Human Rights and International Law, Transitional Justice Institute and School of Law, Ulster University, UK

Review originally published in Gender & Development 25(3) November 2017