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.
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In some ways, the war in northern Uganda is a vicious family feud. The LRA is dominated by the Acholi ethnic group. When rebels began their quest to overthrow the Ugandan government in 1987, they had tacit support from many Acholis, who complained of economic and political marginalization by the government. But amid wartime destruction, civilian support waned. Then the LRA turned on villagers, raiding their houses for recruits and food – and killing or maiming resisters. It is one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Most of the region's 2 million displaced survivors now cluster for safety in fetid camps rampant with alcoholism and crime.Skip to next paragraph
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But recently the LRA has lost momentum, in part because of declining support from its longtime sponsor, Sudan. A cease-fire was signed in August as a prelude to a comprehensive peace agreement that so far remains elusive.
This weekend, Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni met LRA negotiators in Sudan for the first time since the talks began in July. Although the meeting reportedly consisted of a bitter, five-minute exchange, his appearance was intended to demonstrate the government's commitment to the talks.
The moves toward an accord have meant an influx of ex-rebels coming home. Increasingly, the Acholis face a tough decision: How to treat the returning "terrorists" who are often members of their own ethnic group – and even their own families. A poll last year by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in New York highlights the problem: 76 percent of Ugandans want wrongdoers "held accountable," yet 65 percent support amnesty for ex-LRA members.
Betty, meanwhile, feels the hostility. She constantly, almost reflexively, looks over her shoulder in fear. Sometimes she considers going back to the LRA. At least there she has a "husband" – a rebel commander who made her his wife. She has a lot riding on today's egg-stepping ceremony.
Indeed, the ritual's practical purpose is to begin to reunite families and communities divided by war – to help siblings, parents, and cousins resume lives together. Then they can try to lift themselves out of the region's crushing poverty.
Sounding unsure, Betty says of the ritual, "I hope it will help."
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Ugandans, and other Africans, don't usually advocate instant forgiveness – a snap absolution of sins. The process can take years. In one case in northern Uganda, for example, a murder in 1977 wasn't resolved through traditional means until 2005.
But in all cases, restoring harmony is paramount.
If, for instance, a man from one clan kills a man from another clan, traditional justice dictates an immediate separation of the two groups. Members of each clan don't dare draw water from the same well or go to the same market. It's a cooling-off period meant to avoid revenge killings.
Then the wait begins. The perpetrator is never forced to divulge his crime. Instead, many Ugandans believe that spirits – or departed ancestors – will punish him until he confesses. If a string of misfortunes befall a person, it's assumed he's covering up a misdeed.
Seen from this paradigm of truth-getting, the logic of Western justice seems flawed. As many here see it, when Western lawyers duel before a judge or jury, they're simply trying to outsmart each other – and avoid having the truth about their client come out. Latim Geresome, an adviser to the Acholi paramount chief, says of Western justice, "You stand up and swear on the Bible to tell the truth, the whole truth, and then it's lies, lies, lies all the way."
Here, once the wrongdoer confesses, shuttle diplomacy begins: An elder mediates an agreement by which the perpetrator's clan agrees to pay the victim's clan a certain amount. Traditionally, the currency was cows. Now it's often cash.
When a deal is struck, every member of the perpetrator's clan pitches in to fund the settlement. All in the group are seen as responsible for allowing the perpetrator to err. So punishment is distributed. Each family is assigned an amount. "A child does not belong to the parents alone," Mr. Geresome explains. "And the crime has affected the whole clan," so all must pay.
With details arranged, a final ceremony is set. One ritual involves each group bringing a goat to a neutral spot. Each animal is cut in half, and two halves are swapped. Symbolically, this creates two goats that are whole again.