Survivors, Victims of Mass killings Deserve Dignity, Empathy

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Tobi Soniyi

Survivors, victims and communities affected by mass killings deserve empathy, dignity and closure, participants at the Molluma Yakubu Medico-Legal Lecture, held last week by the House of Justice, a public interest law centre, in Kaduna have said.

Speaking on “From Atrocity to Closure: Managing Victims and Deploying Forensics in the Aftermath of Mass Killings”, a world-renowned geneticist, Mishel Stephenson, representing Fredy Peccerelli, Executive Director of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (GAFG), called attention to the needs of families affected by mass killings and disappearances and underscored the obligation of government to address these needs.

She said: “Families affected by such killings or disappearances usually have a diverse range of emotions, needs and priorities, such as locating the bodies of their loved ones, knowing the cause of death (right to truth), according them a burial, finding closure or ensuring justice.”

She stated that the skills required to fulfill these needs were multi-disciplinary, and included genetics, anthropology and psycho-social support.

According to her, forensic genetics helps in identifying the bodies when they are located and could also help in prosecution of alleged perpetrators or bringing to justice persons behind mass atrocities for the purpose of truth and justice.

Stephenson revealed that in Guatemala, the work of the FAFG had helped to locate over 3,500 victims and to bring many people, including a former president of the country, to justice.

According to her, the families and communities of victims are the real victims and the driving force behind investigations of this nature.

She warned that investigating mass killings takes time, effort and could be excruciating but was the only way that the collective dignity and humanity of both victims and survivors could be validated.

The Country Director of Amnesty International in Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, who was on the panel of discussants, decried the acceptance of impunity and lack of accountability for mass killings in Nigeria.

Ojigho referred to cycles of killings and reprisals by terror groups and security forces or in so-called inter-communal clashes and regretted the seeming lack of interest on the part of the Nigerian government to bring these cycles to an end.

She cited the example of the massacre of Shiites in Zaria, Kaduna State, in December 2015 where security forces were involved in the mass killing and disappearance of hundreds with no consequences and no closure for the families despite even the recommendations of a judicial commission of inquiry.

She underscored the importance of the right to truth, saying that truth has oftentimes been caught in between a citizenry who demand accountability and government officials who disdain the kind of work that groups like Amnesty do in pursuit of truth about mass killings.

Drawing from the experience of Indian-Administered Kashmir, Khurram Parvez, a panelist and Chair of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances stressed the obligation of government to protect its citizens and communities, pointing out that quite apart from their impact on individuals and families, mass killings also undermine bonds of coexistence and faith in institutions.

Parvez explained the importance of ensuring effective documentation of such crimes even when it was not immediately evident that prosecution would take place.

In Kashmir, he disclosed, they had worked to document over 6,700 mass killings and mass graves.

Another discussant, Abiodun Baiyewu, Executive Director of Global Rights said closure would be much easier to achieve if the government were to show empathy and sincerity in investigating mass killings and bringing their perpetrators to justice.”

This, he said, was the most effective way to break the cycle of atrocities and reprisals. When this does not happen, atrocities and impunity can be said to be ‘state-backed” she argued.

Editor-in-Chief, HumAngle and foremost conflict reporter argued that mass killings and massacres would continue as long as the government and its agencies neglect their primary duty which he said was to protect the citizens and their communities.

He stated that in Nigeria, the government deployed effective assets “to protect property, but behaved as if its people were expendable. The government must choose its citizens over properties.”

Advocate, Peter Kiama, Executive Director of Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) in Kenya, who was also a panelist at the event argued that mass killings did not occur by accident but were enabled by government policies.

“This means that policies can also be made to curb or eradicate them”, he added.

He also called attention to the need to address the trauma needs of survivors who often were affected in ways that society and government would be unwilling or unable to pay attention to.

Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, who chairs International Advisory Board of the Molluma Medico-Legal Centre added that it was important for families to have closure and to be able to locate and identify the remains of their loved ones and that could be made possible if citizens and government learnt to count and account for each other.

Citing the examples from both Guatemala and Kashmir, Odinkalu underscored the importance for attention to detail, documentation and dignity in responding to mass killings.

Participation in the lecture came from over 30 countries, including Botswana, Kenya, Nigeria, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States. They included former Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, Justice K.B Akaahs, former Attorney-General of Kaduna State, Zakari Sogfa; Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ghana at Legon, Professor Raymond Atuguba; and Head of Advocacy in Christian Solidarity World-wide (CSW), Dr. Khataza Gondwe.

Executive Director of the Molluma Medico-Legal Centre, Gloria Mabeiam Ballason, said that the 2020 lecture was necessary to empower citizens to put pressure on Nigeria’s federal government to ensure accountability for the instigators, sponsors, perpetrators, catalysts and enablers of the mass killing that characterized the country.