Global Policy Forum

Atrocity Victims in Uganda Choose to Forgive


By Marc Lacey

New York Times
April 18, 2005

The International Criminal Court at The Hague represents one way of holding those who commit atrocities responsible for their crimes. The raw eggs, twigs and livestock that the Acholi people of northern Uganda use in their traditional reconciliation ceremonies represent another. The two very different systems - one based on Western notions of justice, the other on a deep African tradition of forgiveness - are clashing in their response to one of this continent's most bizarre and brutal guerrilla wars, a conflict that has raged for 18 years in the rugged terrain along Uganda's border with Sudan.

The fighting features rebels who call themselves the Lord's Resistance Army and who speak earnestly of the import of the Ten Commandments, but who routinely hack up civilians who get in their way. To add to their numbers, the rebels abduct children in the night, brainwash them in the bush, indoctrinate them by forcing them to kill, and then turn them - 20,000 over the last two decades - into the next wave of ferocious fighters seeking to topple the government. Girls as young as 12 are assigned as rebel commanders' wives. Anyone who does not toe the line is brutally killed.

The international court, invited to investigate the war by President Yoweri Museveni, has announced it is close to issuing arrest warrants for rebel leaders including, no doubt, Joseph Kony, the self-styled spiritualist calling the shots. But some war victims are urging the international court to back off. They say the local people will suffer if the rebel command feels cornered. They recommend giving forgiveness more of a chance, using an age-old ceremony involving raw eggs.

"When we talk of arrest warrants it sounds so simple," said David Onen Acana II, the chief of the Acholi, the dominant tribe in the war-riven north, who traveled to The Hague recently to make his objections known. "But an arrest warrant doesn't mean the war will end." Lars Erik Skaansar, the top United Nations official in Gulu, has sought peace in as varied places as the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and the Middle East over the last 12 years. "I have never seen such a capacity to forgive," he said.

Mr. Kony tells his followers that he is in direct contact with God, and that God says it is right to kill in the cause of toppling Mr. Museveni's evil government, which is accused of hostility toward the country's north. (The government's sins, however, remain unstated.) In 1988, when the government tried to train villagers in self-defense, Mr. Kony was quoted as saying: "If you pick up an arrow against us and we ended up cutting off the hand you used, who is to blame? You report us with your mouth, and we cut off your lips. Who is to blame? It is you! The Bible says that if your hand, eye or mouth is at fault, it should be cut off." The rebels began cutting off the lips, hands, noses and breasts of civilians, intending that their victims survive as constant warnings to others.

The other day, an assembly of Acholi chiefs put the notion of forgiveness into action. As they looked on, 28 young men and women who had recently defected from the rebels lined up according to rank on a hilltop overlooking this war-scared regional capital, with a one-legged lieutenant colonel in the lead and some adolescent privates bringing up the rear. They had killed and maimed together. They had raped and pillaged. One after the other, they stuck their bare right feet in a freshly cracked egg, with the lieutenant colonel, who lost his right leg to a bomb, inserting his right crutch in the egg instead. The egg symbolizes innocent life, according to local custom, and by dabbing themselves in it the killers are restoring themselves to the way they used to be.

Next, the former fighters brushed against the branch of a pobo tree, which symbolically cleansed them. By stepping over a pole, they were welcomed back into the community by Mr. Acana and the other chiefs. "I ask for your forgiveness," said Charles Otim, 34, the rebel lieutenant colonel, who had been abducted by the rebels himself, at the age of 16, early in the war. "We have wronged you."

The age-old rite is what local residents have used when members of one tribe kill members of another. After being welcomed back into the fold, the offender must sit down together with tribal leaders and make amends. After confessing to his misdeeds, the wayward tribesman is required to pay the victim's kin compensation in the form of cows, goats and sheep.

It is a system not unlike those in use in other parts of Africa. Somalis still pay compensation to quell the inter-clan battles in that country, although the traditional rite cannot possibly keep up with all the killings. In northern Kenya, where a recent bout of clan violence resulted in several dozen deaths, tribal mediation became bogged down over complains that the loss of a man's life was compensated for with more cows than for a woman's life.

South Africa managed to put apartheid in its past by insisting on truthful admissions from those who brutalized the country's blacks but then by promoting reconciliation among the races. A traumatized Rwanda has used both international and local justice to respond to the mass killings of 1994, which left an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutu dead. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Arusha, Tanzania, was set up by the United Nations to prosecute the orchestrators of the violence. The many foot soldiers in the slaughter are facing traditional "gacaca" trials, where the community hears their cases and often forgives those who confess.

The Darfur region of Sudan is the subject of a separate investigation by the international court although there it is the government, which has been implicated in the violence, that is pushing for reconciliation methods to be used. Uganda's government, which backs the international court, has already adopted the traditional notion of forgiveness as one of its peace strategies. An amnesty program in place since 2000 has prompted thousands of rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army and other groups to lay down their arms and re-enter society. A popular radio program broadcast in the north sends the message out that returning rebels will not be executed, to counter what Mr. Kony tells his followers.

"Whoever comes out of the bush is forgiven," explained Lt. Tabard Kiconco, an army spokesman based in Gulu. Amnesty is one strategy being used to quell the violence. Also, more conventional peace talks are taking place. In December 2004, they resulted in a rare meeting of the rebel and government leadership. If the war does end soon, these negotiations led by Betty Bigombe, a World Bank consultant and former government minister whom Mr. Kony apparently trusts, will play a critical role.

In addition, Uganda's military has been using force to try to end the rebel insurgency, and most agree that successes in the heavily forested battlefield have made the rebels more willing to strike a deal. At the same time, Mr. Museveni, a former guerrilla fighter who frequently dons a camouflage army uniform when inspecting his troops in the north, has said repeatedly that his administration has already finished off the Lord's Resistance Army. The rebels show the president's pronouncements to be false by hacking off some more lips or snatching some more children from their beds, as they have done repeatedly in recent weeks.

"Reports of the insurgency's death are greatly exaggerated," the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research group, said in a report last week that called for renewed diplomatic pressure by the United States and others for a negotiated solution. It said issuing arrest warrants against the rebel command "could drive the rebels definitively out of the peace process." To be sure, certainly, many Ugandans want Mr. Kony and his cohorts behind bars.

[After meeting with critics of the court last month, the international court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, met with a broader group of leaders last week, including those supporting the prosecution of top rebels. On April 16, Mr. Moreno-Ocampo issued a statement saying the court and the community leaders had agreed to integrate peace talks, the international court investigation and traditional justice and reconciliation processes. "We urge the Lord's Resistance Army members to respond positively to the appeal to end violence," the statement said.]

Still, remarkably, a number of those who have been hacked by the rebels, who have seen their children carried off by them or who have endured years suffering in their midst say traditional justice must be the linchpin in ending the war. Their main rationale: the line between victim and killer is too blurred.

Many African conflicts pit one tribe or community against another. But in northern Uganda, the Acholi are cursed with being on both sides of the fight. Young Acholi are kidnapped; the people they are forced to kill are just as likely to be other Acholi as of other northern tribes. The nephew of Mr. Acana, the paramount chief, was abducted by the rebels and turned into a killer some years back. The boy is now back home, washed in the egg and on his way to being forgiven.

Understandably, forgiveness and rage are mixed in many people's heads. Former rebels who have surrendered have been largely welcomed back to the communities they had preyed upon, with each new arrival celebrated as a sign that the war is fizzling out. But former fighters complain that they are sometimes shunned and subjected to taunts, as well.

Conacy Laker, 25, finds it hard to look anyone in the eye after losing her nose, ears and upper lip to rebels more than a decade ago. Her physical wounds have healed, but her suffering goes on. "I have nothing to say to the person who cut me," she said sternly, staring at the dirt. "But the person needs to be punished like I was punished." A moment later, though, forgiveness seemed at the fore. "What I'm after is peace," she said. "If the people who did this to me and so many others are sorry for what they did, then we can take them back."

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the International Criminal Court
More Information on Uganda


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.