Power of forgiveness offers hope for peace in war-torn Uganda
By Steve Bloomfield in Gulu, Uganda
Published: 25 September 2006
Martin Acaye was a soldier in Uganda’s fearsome rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), for seven years. Abducted during an ambush and forced to join the country’s 20-year civil war, he entered villages and stole food at gunpoint every day. And every day he prayed that he would one day be reunited with his wife and children.
But now that he is home, Mr Acaye, 33, is ready to forgive the men who took him away from his family. Like so many people in the Acholi region of northern Uganda who have suffered at the hands of the LRA, Mr Acaye wants the group’s leader, Joseph Kony, and his estimated 6,000 fighters, to go home.
"I do not have any negative feelings to those in the bush," he said. "I want them to come back." Peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government appeared to stall over the weekend. Under a truce agreement, LRA soldiers are supposed to assemble at two points in neighbouring Sudan. But Kony, a self-styled spirit guide, and his deputy, Vincent Otti, have not yet emerged from the bush.
Mr Otti told reporters last week that the LRA leadership would not leave their bush hideouts unless indictments handed down by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes were dropped. The indictments, the first delivered by the ICC, are seen as a vital test case for international justice.
It is not just the LRA which wishes to see the international arrest warrants scrapped. President Yoweri Museveni has offered LRA leaders an amnesty and regional leaders have called for the rebels to instead face traditional Acholi justice in the form of mato put, a reconciliation ceremony.
"If Kony goes to the Hague, he has TV, flushing toilet," said James Otto, the executive director of Human Rights Focus, an advocacy group based in Gulu. "The man will be better off than when he was in the bush. Here, he would have to publicly apologise for all the crimes under his leadership. There are victims here who are saying ‘yes, I lost my lips, I lost my arm, but I forgive’. Who is the ICC to say no?"
The Acholi people have usedmato put – "blood atonement" – for centuries. They believe that killing a person makes you unstable. By ceremonially cleansing his soul, the former soldier would exorcise the evil spirits.
Under the system, a returning LRA fighter would first tell the head of his family of any murders he has committed, specifying the clans of those he has killed. The family head would then tell the clan elder who in turn would meet elders in the clans of those killed.
The two clans would then negotiate a payment in goats or cattle for the loss of life. At a mato put ceremony, the two sides come together and the perpetrator makes a public apology for his crimes. The bereaved accept the apology and offer forgiveness.
The mato put is not part of Uganda’s formal legal system. But if a law were passed aimed at integrating the Acholi reconciliation process into the national justice system, it could offer a compromise that the Ugandan government and the ICC would be willing to accept. Mr Museveni would be able to claim a legacy as a peacemaker, while the ICC could argue that the threat of international justice pushed Mr Kony to the negotiating table.
For the Acholi, the prize would be even greater: peace. The talks in Juba, southern Sudan, are widely believed to be the best chance of peace since the conflict started in 1986. Since then, some 100,000 people have been killed, thousands have had lips, ears or limbs cut off, while 1.7 million have been forced from their homes into "protection camps" set up by the government. Tens of thousands of children have been abducted by the LRA and used as soldiers or sex slaves.
When Nathan Opiro was 11, rebels from the LRA broke into his home and abducted him. He was trained to fire a gun and suffered regular beatings.
After a month of living in makeshift camps in the bush, Nathan was rescued by poachers who spotted him alone at an observation point. Now 16, he and his five younger siblings take refuge every night in a shelter at Gulu where they sleep protected by guards.
"I still fear the rebels," he said. "If they could get me again they would kill me." But though he fears the LRA, Nathan said he wanted them to return if they signed a peace agreement. "We have been too long without peace. If they could accept to come back home so people here can have peace it will be a good decision."