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Africa After War: Paths to Forgiveness – Ugandans welcome 'terrorists' back

In the first of a four-part series, the Monitor examines how Africans are developing a unique form of reconciliation based on community and forgiveness.

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of the Christian Science Monitor / October 23, 2006


Today a doe-eyed 20-something named Betty Atto, a former member of one of the world's most-brutal rebel armies, finally gets to take her first step toward redemption – toward the forgiveness she now seeks from the people she terrorized for so long.

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It's a sun-drenched afternoon here in Africa's heartland, and Betty stands beneath a "blessing tree," fidgeting with the pleats in her fanciest skirt. She's waiting with 400 other former rebels for a ritual to begin that will welcome them back into their community.

"We did bad things," Betty says of her six years in the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a group infamous for chopping off lips and other body parts of civilians – and forcing children to become sex slaves and soldiers.

Today's main event involves Betty and other ex-rebels stepping on an egg – an act that symbolically breaks open a new life and returns them to innocence. It's the first step in a long process of earning forgiveness from their community. And it stands as one example of how African notions of justice differ from the approach typical in the US and other Western nations.

Indeed, Western civilization – with its emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities – might tilt toward severely punishing people like Betty and her one-time commander, LRA chief Joseph Kony. After all, Mr. Kony presides over a "terrorist" group largely responsible for as many as 200,000civilian deaths during two decades of war. Last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague issued indictments for Kony and his top commanders for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Yet here in Uganda, there's serious talk of reconciling even with Kony if peace talks succeed. Such an impulse echoes Nelson Mandela's famous forgiveness of his South African captors. It emerges from a unique continental ethos of communalism, in which the desire to punish individuals for their crimes is balanced against the need to restore wholeness to the community – to unite victims, perpetrators, and their families. Indeed, it's often a practical response enshrined in tribal jurisprudence: Villages in small, poor communities need every last person to survive. These days, the tendency is often magnified by the spread of Christianity – with its focus on forgiveness – across the continent.

But Africa's reconciliation ethos now faces several difficult tests. The number of major armed conflicts on the continent has fallen, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 11 in 1999 to just three in 2005. Yet the aftermath of war is not simply peace. As conflict-weary societies such as Burundi, Rwanda, and Liberia start to rebuild, a common conundrum looms: How to reconcile bitter enemies so all can move forward, while also ensuring justice for those who committed atrocities.

If these nations succeed – as South Africa largely did a decade ago – they may stand as models of how victims and their attackers can move out of the violent past. With its "uncomfortable commitment to bringing the perpetrator back into the family," says Alex Boraine, deputy chair of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, "Africa has something to say to the world."

* * *

It wasn't as if Betty Atto wanted to become a "terrorist."

During a raid on her village when she was a teenager, she was kidnapped and forced to become a sex slave and soldier in a rebel group the US has labeled a terrorist organization. If she dared refuse an order from a commander, she faced almost-certain death. So, gradually, she became an active member of the LRA, which, diplomats point out, has killed more people than Al Qaeda (not including insurgents in Iraq), Hizbullah, and Hamas combined.

Then, early one morning in 2004, after six years of captivity, she and three others made a risky escape, running through high grass to a Ugandan Army barracks.

Suddenly, Betty was free. But her homecoming was complicated. During her absence, her two brothers had been killed by the LRA – the same army Betty had been forced to join. It contributed to "many problems" Betty has with her family and community. Fellow villagers mutter "terrorist" as she and others walk past.