Atrocity Victims in Uganda Choose to Forgive
By MARC LACEY
Published: April 18, 2005
GULU, Uganda -
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 -
on a deep African tradition of forgiveness -
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 -
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
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-
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-
"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-
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-
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-
regional capital, with a one-
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."
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-
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
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-
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-
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-
week, including those supporting the prosecution of top rebels. On April 16, Mr.
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
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."