The National Catholic Review
In the wake of violence, a campaign for forgiveness
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I was angry about what happened to me and bitterly against any amnesty. But now I know we’ll never have peace if they don’t come out of the bush. And they won’t do that unless we forgive them. Holding a grudge in our hearts doesn’t get us peace. I’ve forgiven them and want them to come back and live in harmony.” John Ochola, who spoke these words, has reason to be angry. He has no ears, nose or fingers, and part of his lips are missing—all cut off by soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army in 2003. The rebel soldiers later released him, and Ochola spent seven months in a hospital. Today he is 24 and lives in Kitgum, a remote town in northern Uganda, where he, his wife and three children survive on food from the United Nations. A relative gave him some land, but Ochola has a hard time holding a hoe. At times his brother lends him a bicycle and he earns a few schillings pedaling passengers around town, the stumps of his hands somehow maintaining control of the handlebars. Most of the time he just waits for the war, a brutal conflict that has dragged on for more than two decades, to end.

Like Ochola, hundreds of thousands of others in northern Uganda have been damaged by the war between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government. They are boys who became killers before puberty and girls who were abducted and turned into sex slaves for rebel commanders. They are some two million people who had to flee their homes to save their lives, who crowded into squalid camps where traditional family values have withered and H.I.V. runs rampant.

Some, like Ochola, are too weary to trust in justice any longer; they believe only forgiveness can bring an end to the fighting. Yet others in Uganda warn that only justice can lay a foundation for sustainable peace in the region. The tension between justice and forgiveness cuts through everything in northern Uganda these days, as the war is coming to an end. How it is finally resolved will determine the viability and longevity of any political agreement about peace.

The Lord’s Resistance Army emerged in the aftermath of the 1986 overthrow of Uganda’s President Tito Okello by forces from the south of the country. Okello was an ethnic Acholi, the predominant ethnic group in northern Uganda. Under British colonial rule, the Acholi had provided the country’s soldiers and police. In the wake of Okello’s overthrow, many feared the erosion of their power and supported the beginnings of a guerrilla war against the government.

That campaign, however, under the leadership of Joseph Kony, a spirit medium who wants a theocratic state in Uganda with the Ten Commandments as the ultimate law, soon became a war against the Acholi themselves. Most of Kony’s soldiers, many of them children, were forcibly recruited from Acholi villages. The L.R.A. has a long track record of abuses, but those committing the abuse have been Acholi, from the same ethnic group as their victims. That moral ambiguity, in a situation in which kidnapped young people are both the perpetrators and victims of brutality, complicates discussions about how to end the conflict.

Debate About International Justice

Kony and four other Lord’s Resistance Army leaders were indicted in 2005 by the International Criminal Court in The Hague and charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, rape, sexual slavery and forcing children to serve as combatants. The I.C.C. ordered the arrest of the L.R.A. leaders by area governments, but Kony vowed he would not surrender unless granted immunity from prosecution. Peace talks mediated by the government of southern Sudan produced a cease-fire in 2006, beginning a process of gradual return for the internally displaced.

Hopes multiplied in February, when the peace talks produced an agreement about justice, including a provision that Kony and his cohorts, who have taken refuge in the jungles of neighboring countries, would be tried in special Ugandan courts in lieu of facing the I.C.C. Yet Kony has insisted that the I.C.C. indictments be dropped before he turns himself in. The Ugandan government says it wants to try Kony first, then deal with the I.C.C. indictments. The uncertainty was just enough of an excuse for Kony to walk away from talks, and by June he was reported to be forcibly recruiting soldiers again, this time threatening a region-wide fight.

While human rights activists in Europe and in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, champion the I.C.C. indictments, distance seems to matter. It is difficult to find support for the I.C.C. process in Acholiland, where few have escaped the suffering of the war.

“We’re asking the international community to reconsider the I.C.C. stand, on the basis of forgiveness, for the sake of peace,” says Matthew Ojara, a Catholic priest in Kitgum. He is a leader of the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative, a coalition of Christian, Muslim and traditional religious leaders from Acholi communities. The group formed in 1998 to push the principal actors in the conflict into ending the violence. Representing the group, Ojara has participated in consultations with the L.R.A. in Juba, the capital of south Sudan. He has paid a personal price for his activism; in 2004, he was arrested by Ugandan police and held for four days on charges of being a rebel collaborator.

Ojara argues that true peace cannot emerge solely from political negotiation. “We’ll have peace in Uganda when we’re able to forgive from the heart. Peace won’t come simply because the rebels return home,” he has said. Kony has refused to acknowledge personal responsibility for any of the L.R.A.’s crimes, an omission that does not trouble religious leaders. “For true reconciliation to take place, one side eventually does need to say they’re sorry. But forgiveness can be unilateral,” Ojara argues.

A delegation of L.R.A. officials traveled throughout northern Uganda late last year, holding a series of consultations with local communities and offering what many who are tired of war claimed was an official apology. But not everyone was convinced. Cecilia Engole, a leader of Teso Women Peace Activists in the northeastern region of Katakwi, prefers that the top commanders of the L.R.A. be taken to the International Criminal Court because they have committed crimes against the people, including genocide. As she explains it: “We have mass graves, and those responsible for that violence should face the law. Some Ugandans are desperate and want peace at any cost. To get sustainable peace, however, we need to take the main perpetrators to the courts, so that others will learn from that and not go back to the bush.” She adds: “If I were Kony, I would walk myself to the I.C.C. and say, ‘Here I am,’ because that’s the safest place for him.” If Kony were to turn himself in to Ugandans, he might be killed.

When word first broke of the I.C.C. indictments, some local news reports claimed that if Kony were arrested and taken to The Hague, he would have a comfortable cell with a television set. That did not go down well with families crammed into squalid camps, where for years children had to trek every evening into nearby cities to sleep, safe from the possibility of being abducted by the L.R.A. Another problem with the court’s indictments is that they do not address the massive human rights violations by the Ugandan military in its campaign against the L.R.A. Aisulu Masylkanova, a student at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, asks who should be prosecuted and under what rules. In her view: “The army says they won’t subject themselves to the same mechanisms as the L.R.A. [President] Museveni has said they’ll be dealt with under military law, but people don’t believe that any soldiers will ever be tried for their violations. In the past, the government has dealt with soldiers who raped women in the camps by just moving them elsewhere. One side is facing justice now, but the other side isn’t facing anything.”

Traditional Justice: ‘Mato Oput’

As an alternative to letting the International Criminal Court try Kony, many Acholi favor using a traditional tribal form of justice, known as mato oput, which seeks the restoration of right relationships through truth-telling, accountability, forgiveness and reparations. Mato oput refers to a “bitter drink” that both parties drink; by this act, they bury the bitterness of the soured relations. Such justice often takes place in elaborate negotiations between clans—that of the offender and that of the victim.

Ojara sees this as a way forward: “We do not believe in punishment in the sense of imprisoning someone. Once reconciliation is done, you have to walk free and live with your brothers and sisters. There are no prison cells or house arrest. That’s a Western practice.” As Ojara puts it: “People who don’t live here have a hard time understanding this, but they haven’t been affected directly by the war. There comes a moment when you say enough is enough. We have to forgive and sit down together.”

The February agreement on justice allows for limited use of traditional justice systems in deciding the fate of soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army. Yet some argue that such traditional processes are inadequate. “When our cultures were made, these atrocities didn’t exist,” said Engole. “Formal justice should be the order of the day. Where were these traditional mechanisms before, when the killing was going on?”

Reparations are also a traditional element of mato oput, but the L.R.A. does not have resources to compensate the families of tens of thousands of victims. Many women are also suspicious of traditional forms of reconciliation that often, as a way of bringing peace between two warring tribes, offered a woman to the other tribe as compensation for wrongdoing.

Ruth Ojiambo Ochieng, director of the Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange in Kampala, explained that women would accept the traditional mechanisms only if the perpetrators come themselves and say they are sorry. The women want to face those who mutilated and raped them. That would provide a start, but the next step in traditional justice systems usually involves compensation. If someone is killed, compensation might mean receiving seven cows for each person in the affected household. But since traditional mechanisms do not contemplate mutilation and gang-rape, today some other form of compensation may be required. If I was gang-raped and have problems with fistulas, maybe you owe me appropriate surgery. If I got H.I.V. as a result of being raped, then you have to deal with that. All this will cost millions and millions of dollars, according to Ochieng.

Church leaders admit that costs will be high and suggest that the international community must play a key role. The conflict grew from a humanitarian crisis the world long ignored. Investment in pacifying northern Uganda now could help tone down conflicts throughout the region, where wars from Darfur to the Congo increasingly take on international dimensions. As the debate about justice and forgiveness goes on, the displaced have begun to move from the giant camps into smaller transition settlements where they will prepare themselves to move all the way back home.

Corrina Akongo is one of a small number of the displaced who went home to her ancestral village last year. She arrived at Amuca in April 2007, just in time to clear decades of brush from her fields and plant some crops. In December, she harvested sweet potatoes from her own land. “It seems like forever that we’ve been waiting for peace,” Ms. Akongo said. “I couldn’t wait to get back home and start my life again.”

John Ochola, pedaling passengers on his bicycle, sees mato oput, the way of forgiveness, as the only way to achieve peace and reconciliation.

Paul Jeffrey, a United Methodist missionary photojournalist who lives in Eugene, Ore., has covered issues of reconciliation in post-conflict situations for decades.