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 a society still heavily reliant on groups of people to haul water, build houses, and do other tasks, normal life could fall apart if two groups were forever separated. Reconciliation is crucial, explains Erin Baines, a Canadian researcher working in the region. "It's all about ensuring the unity and harmony of the clans."Skip to next paragraph
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The prelude to the egg-stepping ceremony includes a phalanx of about 30 dancers with ostrich-feather headdresses who are high-kicking, shout-singing, and beating drums in a raucous display for the tribal chiefs.
The royal dance seems like a throwback to primal times. Yet peeking out from beneath the dancers' cow-skin skirts are nylon gym shorts like those sold at Target – stamped with names such as "Sport Collection."
Traditionally, the egg-stepping ceremony was used to welcome villagers home from long journeys. Now Acholi chiefs are trying to adapt it to help salve, or end, Africa's longest civil war. And many Ugandans put great faith in age-old methods. In the ICTJ poll, 30 percent of residents said peace could be achieved through dialogue; 26 percent through amnesty, forgiveness, and reconciliation; 14 percent through military means; and just 5 percent through justice.
The dialogue-and-reconciliation focus, including the ceremonies, is "part of a cultural revival," says Dr. Baines. By sponsoring the rituals, she explains, the chiefs are saying, "We're really trying to put our house in order" – in a traditional African way.
They're also trying to head off the imposition of Western-style justice: The ICC issued arrest warrants for five top LRA leaders last October, trying to end the conflict by punishing the individuals responsible. The move raised hackles among tribal chiefs, who see it as contradictory to their conciliatory approach. Yet their traditional method has major flaws. With so many atrocities, for instance, it's not clear which perpetrators hurt which victims, and one-on-one reconciliation is impossible.
There's also plenty of skepticism. "The ICC is a good idea," says Edward Ochken, a dissenting chief. After all that the LRA leaders have done, he adds, "No one can say they should not be tried." Indeed, 66 percent of residents say top commanders should be punished, according to the poll. Many, however, distinguish between the leaders and young soldiers who were following orders.
Yet, according to the survey, 22 percent would forgive even the top LRA leaders. In a community full of traditional beliefs, spirits are often assumed to be controlling people. A wiry ex-rebel named Samuel Watmon explains how he would approach Kony, the LRA's mystical leader: "I would say to him, 'It was a ghost that was leading you, so let's forget about the past.' "
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As the sun grows hotter, the returnees, including Betty, wait in long, snaking lines for their official welcoming to begin. With a forceful stomp, the first ex-rebel in line sends bits of shell and yoke splattering. Hundreds of onlookers cheer.
One by one, the former rebels step on the ever-dwindling remains of the egg. Then they pass through a gantlet of smiling chiefs who shake their hands vigorously. Many women returnees carry babies who were born in the bush, often as a result of rape. When they arrive at the egg, the avuncular elders insist the children's feet be placed on the egg, too. A spirit of reconciliation is in the air.
Afterward, as night falls, Betty relaxes. "I feel cleansed," she says. After a day of being welcomed and celebrated, she adds, "Some of the bad things in my heart: they are gone."
• The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) emerged in the late 1980s among northern Uganda's Acholi ethnic group, who have long complained of being neglected by the government.
• Led by Joseph Kony, the LRA is one of Africa's most brutal rebel armies, uprooting some 2 million people and abducting about 25,000 children as soldiers and sex slaves.
• Five of its top commanders are wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
• Most LRA members are now in two camps in Sudan. A cease-fire was signed in August. But negotiations for a permanent peace deal between rebels and the Uganda government have stalled.
Source: Reuters, BBC.