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The Agency of the Dead, Transitional Justice, and Forensic Science in Northern Uganda (Dr. Tricia Redeker Hepner and Dr. Dawnie Wolfe Steadman)

Watch Dr. Hepner, Dr. Steadman, and graduate student Lucia Elgerud talk about the DDHR program and the team project in northern Uganda

This project, focused on post-conflict northern Uganda and the problem of improper burials related to the 1986-2006 Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) civil war, is a prime example of UT Anthropology’s innovative DDHR approach. Working with a collaborative, interdisciplinary team of cultural, forensic, and archeological anthropologists, including Dr. Dawnie Steadman (Director, UT Forensic Anthropology Center), Dr. Jaymelee Kim (UT/DDHR alumna, University of Findlay) and Wilfred Komakech, MA (UT/DDHR alum), and current doctoral candidates Hugh Tuller, Julia Hanebrink, and Lucia Elgerud, Dr. Hepner has led a multi-year ethnographic investigation into the political, legal, and religious significance of mass graves, internal displacement camp burials, and other war-related graves in the Acholi sub-region of northern Uganda.


Funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Fieldwork and the National Institute of Health (through DDHR’s partnership with Rhodes College’s Minority International Heath Research and Training Program, or MHIRT),  the team has worked since 2012 with Acholi survivors to learn about the omnipresence of improper burials (mass graves, displacement camp graves), and the ways these relate to psychosocial and spiritual disturbances as well as socio-economic crises like obstruction to agriculture, infrastructure, and development. The project foregrounds ethnographic methods, informed by forensic and archaeological practice, to explore whether and how future forensic investigations could contribute to ameliorating survivors’ suffering. By examining the different kinds of burial scenarios and the many ways they have affected survivors, discerning how survivors define “justice” relative to the causes and impacts of the war, and conducting archaeological site mapping of problematic burials, the team hopes to gain a more nuanced understanding of the potential impacts of deploying forensic science in the service of human rights and humanitarianism. Underpinned by critical approaches to the anthropology of human rights and humanitarianism, transitional justice, and forensic science, the project promises to contribute major innovations in theory and method.


With the support of a prestigious award from the School for Advanced Research, in fall 2020 the team and several invited colleagues will convene in Santa Fe, New Mexico to plan a book manuscript, titled Restless Spirits and Human Remains: Life, Death, and Justice in Post-War Northern Uganda.


The applied dimensions of this project include an educational component to inform participants about the process, potentials and limitations of forensic investigation to help them better evaluate the benefits and risks of forensic investigation, and to aid the team in understanding how scientific techniques and concepts interface with cultural and religious norms, especially beliefs about the spirits of the dead and culturally appropriate exhumation and (re)burial rituals. Finally, team members are engaged in capacity building efforts, training Ugandan pathologists, medical examiners, NGO staff, and researchers in the foundations of forensic science, funded by an award made to Hugh Tuller from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.