/ 11 November 2007

Brutal Ugandan rebels ask for forgiveness

Five years ago, Ugandan rebels bayoneted Ellen Atim’s husband and five of her children to death. Atim narrowly escaped and fled with her surviving children to a displacement camp where they have eked out a meagre existence ever since.

Yet, like many Ugandans consulted this week over peace negotiations, she says she is prepared to forgive the rebels who tore her family and life apart.

”Life is so difficult for us now,” Atim (46) said outside her mud hut in Opit displacement camp in Gulu district, 360km from the capital, Kampala. ”But the problem needs to be resolved; we need peace. These men should be granted amnesty and we will reconcile with them.”

She added: ”God knows their mistakes, and even if they don’t pay for them in this life, they will pay in the next.”

Atim is just one of millions affected by a two-decade-long insurgency by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). At the height of the conflict, almost two million people sought the comparative safety of squalid government camps set up to protect them from rebel atrocities.

Peace talks between the rebels and the Ugandan government have been going on since July last year, but negotiations have been characterised by temporary walkouts and tension.

A key sticking point is the issue of justice for the LRA’s top commanders, who have been indicted for atrocities by the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court. Human rights campaigners argue passionately for jail time as a blow against impunity, while many Ugandans say they, not a foreign court, should decide the rebels’ punishment.

It’s a view touted by rebel negotiators, who want the warrants removed, insisting that their leaders — including the LRA’s shadowy chief, Joseph Kony — should face justice in Uganda for their crimes, including the murder and mutilation of civilians and the use of child soldiers and sex slaves. They are keen to use traditional justice mechanisms, which human rights groups say are not sufficiently punitive.

This week, members of the rebel delegation — accompanied by government representatives and diplomats involved in the negotiating process — began consultations with the victims of the bloody insurgency to hear their views.

Hero’s welcome

In spite of the ravages of the LRA, Martin Ojul, the group’s chief negotiator, received a hero’s welcome in Koch Goma displacement camp, in Umuru district. Hundreds of inhabitants, shabbily dressed, turned out in the blazing sunshine to welcome the respectable face of their tormenters by jubilantly banging drums, singing and dancing.

According to local government official Atube Omach, LRA rebels have raided the camp three times since 2000. On one occasion, almost half of the residents’ huts were razed to the ground.

Ojul, mopping his brow with a white handkerchief, addressed the crowd and asked for forgiveness, urging them to forget the mistakes of the past and concentrate on rebuilding for the future.

”Raise your hands if you can you forgive what has happened,” boomed James Obita — an LRA representative — over the crackling PA system. The response was almost unanimous as the cheering crowd lifted their arms.

He said a photo should be taken of the moment and shown to the International Criminal Court.

”We have a tradition of forgiveness as a means to move forward,” explained Omach. ”It is our people’s way. The general view here is that we are tired of war; we have suffered enough. Forgiveness will bring peace and peace is the most important thing.”


Kenneth Banya knows all about the local capacity to forgive. Once the LRA’s third in command and widely believed to be the mastermind behind some of the group’s most atrocious massacres, Banya was captured by government soldiers in 2004. He was granted amnesty and, having performed a traditional cleansing ceremony involving stepping on an egg, now lives a comfortable life in Gulu — once considered the centre of the conflict.

”I had no problem,” he smiled, shrugging his shoulders. ”I asked the community for forgiveness and I got it. Now I move freely and without fear. It can work for the others too.”

The LRA was born out of a northern rebellion that began in 1986 when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a southerner, seized power. Museveni’s counter-insurgency campaign bred resentment in the north, where his fighters were accused of human rights violations.

Over the past 20 years, conflict has held back the impoverished region’s development. This has only confirmed suspicions among the northern population that the government does not represent them. During ongoing peace talks, the rebels have claimed to be fighting for the rights of marginalised populations in the north and east of the country — a claim conspicuously absent on their first trip to these regions, replaced by calls for forgiveness.

But for some, the wounds left by 20 years of terror and war are too gaping to be healed. Grace Aloyo is just 15, orphaned by a rebel attack on her village that killed her parents. She and her three siblings are now alone and there is no money for school fees.

”Kony should go to prison, that is the only way I see there can be peace,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. ”He cannot come back after what he has done to us.” — Sapa-AP