Researcher of the Month

Every month we get to know one of the researchers at the department better. Read about their research areas, fieldwork and why they do what they do.

Sverker Finnström: Existential fears, global wars and to see cracks in the narrative of good versus evil


War and death are themes that cultural anthropologist Sverker Finnström investigates in his research. Issues that can teach us something about human's universal thoughts about life and our place in the world. Starting with the civil war in Uganda, his research has taken him through time and space to Asia during the Second World War. He can also see parallels to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

On and off for 25 years, Sverker Finnström has conducted fieldwork among the Acholi people of northern Uganda, researching life in and after the civil war between the Ugandan army and the Lord's Resistance Army rebels. This has resulted in the acclaimed book Living with Bad Surroundings: War, History, and Everyday Moments in Northern Uganda (Duke University Press, 2008), which was awarded the American Anthropological Association's Margaret Mead Award.

-Since the war ended in 2006, I have stayed in the same region and continued to study what happens to those who grew up in the shadow of the war. The media logic is to focus on one issue at a time, and when something new happens somewhere else, everyone seems to jump on the bandwagon to go there. When everyone else moves on, one of anthropology's contributions is to stay behind and continue the research. It takes time to build trust and understanding, and over time you get more nuanced answers, says Sverker.  

Through his research on war, Sverker has become interested in what it means to be a soldier and different cultural practices around death.

-My starting point is the Acholi people of northern Uganda. How they look at death, how they conduct funerals and what they do in cases where a body is missing, like when someone dies in war abroad. Many Ugandans have been soldiers in neighbouring countries, like Congo, South Sudan and Somalia. In my fieldwork, I also met old men who told me that they were in Myanmar, then called Burma, fighting with the British against Japan during World War II. It is an interesting situation. Japanese and Ugandans clashed in a third country, far away from the respective home-countries. On the one hand, they were killing each other; on the other hand, soldiers on both sides were trying to figure out what to do when comrades died. How did that influence the understanding and rituals of death?

Universal anxiety

Sverker says that no matter where you come from, everyone seems to have existential thoughts about what death means and how to deal with it.

- To be left behind, dead and forgotten, without a proper burial, seems to be a universal anxiety. We saw this in Sweden, for example, when the MS Estonia sank. It was extremely difficult for many relatives not to be able to bring home and bury their loved ones. Anthropology teaches us that people struggle with much the same issues no matter where they live, but they have different ways of dealing with them. Through a specific ethnographic focus, in my case the Acholi people, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of universal issues, such as death. Anthropology is one of few disciplines with the explicit ambition to go beyond its own reference system in order to better learn from other people's life worlds.

Sverker saved the stories from the Second World War for several years before they became the focus of his research.

-Africa's role in the two world wars is a new field for me. I am reading a lot of books about these wars, and especially about the World War II front in what was then Burma. Because Africans were most often rendered invisible in these accounts, or only marginally mentioned, you have to read a lot to be able to piece together a fuller understanding. In memoirs written by British officers, stories of camaraderie with African soldiers sometimes appear alongside outright racist comments. Africans were often denied proper equipment and food, and were forced to sleep directly on the muddy ground in the Burmese rainforest, among malaria mosquitoes and snakes. The British on their side argued that most Africans did not even bother with funeral rituals, based on descriptions from the early colonial time that Africans preferred just to leave their dead in the bush. This shallow and incomplete understanding, was exploited by the British, as it was very costly to bring home soldiers who had died in war. Even today, you can see large war cemeteries with rows of tombstones on green lawns in the former British colonies. But almost all of these graves are for Europeans only. For example, next to the war cemetery in Nairobi, there is a bush-like mass grave for the African soldiers. Clearly, the racist colonial power structure is maintained even after death.

Recurring narratives about cannibalism

Sverker has found a few cases where Ugandans themselves have written about their experiences of the war in Burma. For example, Robert Kakembo wrote about life as a soldier and racism in the British army. The British soon banned his book.

-When visiting an acquaintance in Kampala, I found a self-published book by a Ugandan who interviewed older relatives. A story from the war in Burma caught my interest: when the British overran a Japanese camp, they obviously encountered dead Japanese enemy soldiers. When the British officers suspected that the Japanese were watching them from a distance with their binoculars, they ordered some Ugandan troops to dismember a dead Japanese and put the body parts in a large pot to dance around. In the ambitions to scare the Japanese, the British fell back on their own ideas of Africans as savages and cannibals.

Through his research, Sverker has seen how stories of Africans as cannibals run like a thread through history from the 19th century explorers into the 2000’s.

-Racism was a prerequisite for colonialism and the idea of the African as an inferior savage was central to this. More often than not, this savage was also assumed a cannibal. In my research, I can show that these ideas still exist, for example in the civil war in Uganda. In 2015, a rebel commander of the Lord's Resistance Army was captured and sent to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where he was later convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But when the prosecutor first presented the case to the court, he claimed, alongside all the evidence, that the officer was also guilty of cannibalism. This was not really correct. The rebel commander who was actually guilty of these crimes had already been arrested, convicted and executed by the rebels themselves. When the official court hearings began, the accusation of cannibalism was dropped. It seems that it had been told only for dramatic effect. Despite other very serious crimes that the rebel commander indeed was guilty of, it was the allegation of cannibalism that the international media picked up on, since cannibalism seems to confirm an already ingrained image of Africans as very different from us in Europe. References to the Lord's Resistance Army also found their way into popular culture, including the rebel leader appearing in a Bond movie. Through their spectacular war crimes, the rebels attracted a lot of attention, a bit like ISIS did later. Not least because they confirmed the European image of primitive, violent Africa.

Local wars with global connections

One argument that Sverker develops in his book on the civil war in Uganda is that, despite the geographical delimitations, it was in many ways a global war that could not have been sustained without international support.

-The civil war in northern Uganda was largely financed by aid funds and a global trade with arms, jewels, ivory and minerals. In this development, the rebel movement was just one player among many. But because the rebels' fight was so incredibly violent, the massive focus on them rendered other actors invisible, for example those who benefited from the war, corruption, and the flows of commodities in the shadows of the war. I once spoke to a woman in Uganda who asked: "Why are you sending us all these modern weapons that we haven't even invented?". Now similar things are happening in Ukraine. The influx of weapons militarizes the whole society and, as always, the civilian population is suffering. Putin uses it in his propaganda, but it is to some extent true that Europe and NATO are fuelling the war. We should never for a second forget that Putin is guilty of starting the war and that Ukraine is defending its freedom and democracy. But we must also realize that since Sweden contributes with weapons to Ukraine, we are involved in the war, with consequences for the situation in Sweden as well. During the Cold War in Africa, this was called proxy war.

What are your thoughts on Sweden's application to join NATO?

-Right now we are undergoing a paradigm shift in Sweden's policy of neutrality and non-alignment. There is public support for joining NATO and it is up to everyone to think carefully as to form their own conclusion on the matter. One thing to consider is that NATO is a military alliance with member countries that do not necessarily function as democracies. For example Türkiye, which seems to have a final say whether Sweden will be allowed to join or not, while at the same time exerting influence over our democracy and legislation. And Hungary, in order to accept Sweden as a NATO member, wants Sweden to drop its criticism of how Hungary deals with questions of democracy and LGBTQ. More, the US military has chosen to cooperate with militarily organizations in Yemen, Sudan and Congo that use child soldiers. From the Swedish horizon we see quite a significant shift and I haven't really heard any discussions about how Sweden, as a member of NATO, could be a strong voice for human rights. On the contrary, such a voice seems to be silenced. We also have to be prepared for the fact that Türkiye, which has ongoing conflicts with Greece and Kurdish groups in Syria, may request help from NATO, and that we may then be obliged to help militarily. NATO is so much more than just a protection for us in Sweden against Russia.

Reality is often a grey-area

In general, Sverker believes that critical thinking and reflection are important in times of war.

- It is so easy to take sides and see everything as black and white in the desire to support Ukraine, but we must not lose the critical eye even when it comes to those we support. When Amnesty International wrote in a report that Ukrainian soldiers may also have committed war crimes, people were upset with Amnesty, also in Sweden. But it is naïve to think that there cannot be war crimes on both sides. War is dirty and we must dare to ask uncomfortable questions that expose cracks in the narrative of good versus evil. Reality is more often a grey-area than just black and white. I think anthropology has a lot to contribute with here, especially when reporting on events in other parts of the world. Urgent issues are important to pay attention to, but I often miss the long-term follow-up, an anthropological speciality.

In the same way that Ukraine should not be above criticism, Sverker thinks that one should be careful not to paint everything Russian black.

-The call to boycott Russian culture was a surprising reaction to the war. Yet it is more important than ever to read up on Russian history and culture. Dostoevsky has nothing to do with Putin. It is dangerous to smear Putin over everything Russian, it can lead to persecution of Russians in the diaspora. And if you think that all Russians who do not openly protest are supporters of Putin, you lack understanding of what it is like to live in a dictatorship," Sverker concludes.

Text: Jennie Sjödin

Researcher of the Month

Last modified: 2023-08-23