Uganda's rebels on 'forgiveness' tour

A delegation of the brutal Lord's Resistance Army is traveling the country this week in a peace bid.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

As a parade of representatives of Uganda's notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group swept into the refugee camp, Thomas Oling confessed that he had never experienced such excitement.

Mr. Oling has spent most of his young adulthood at this camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Gulu, a town that was once at the epicenter of the rebels' horrific 20-year civil war. Their army killed thousands of people, displaced nearly 2 million, and became known for such brutal tactics, as disfiguring civilians and forcing children to be soldiers and sex slaves.

On Wednesday, the LRA delegation toured the dusty maze of huts as part of a historic "forgiveness" tour of the country aimed at reviving peace talks between the rebels and Uganda's government.

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The homecoming of sorts turned into a feverish rally with loudly beating drums, dancing, and singing. And when delegation leader Martin Ojul called out to assembled camp residents to forgive the LRA, Oling replied: "They are our people. We have to welcome them back."

Despite being victims of the LRA's brutal tactics over the years, many here share Oling's conciliatory mood.

"There's going to be peace; people are really tired and willing to forgive," says Stella Hida, a shop owner.

The LRA delegation kicked off the tour this past weekend with a visit to the Ugandan capital, Kampala, and has since moved north to hold town-hall meetings and visit camps for displaced people in places like Gulu.

The group is led by Mr. Ojul, an LRA sympathizer who was exiled in Kenya, and consists of other rebel allies and former fighters.

The LRA's top leaders, including their infamous chief, Joseph Kony, are still in hiding in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, while other rebels are scattered throughout the bush in Congo and southern Sudan.

"I – and Joseph Kony – are not for war anymore," says Ojul. "We want to get an agreement expeditiously so that we can go home and join hands with the people."

Peace talks that began in July 2006 between the Ugandan government and the rebels have been frequently interrupted or are on the verge of falling apart.

A major sticking point of the talks has been the Hague-based International Criminal Court's (ICC) charges against the LRA for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The rebels have refused to sign a peace agreement as long as the ICC refuses to drop its indictments.

This pushed the government to announce in August that it will set up a national tribunal comprised of both formal and traditional justice elements to try the LRA rebels. Says Ayena Odong, a member of the LRA delegation, "The ICC is neither here nor there – it will die a natural death."

Many at the camp in Gulu say the LRA should be tried by a local court, which they believe will speed up the peace process, as opposed to sending the LRA to the ICC. At the rally, a local leader invited the international court to come and witness reconciliation between the rebels and their victims.

But Chris Nolan, director of the Kampala-based Refugee Law Project, doubts the LRA tour's impact.

"The ICC is not interested in reconciliation; they're interested in what constitutes justice," says Mr. Nolan. "Only if a special court is established will the ICC think again." While Nolan admits that the ICC has come under criticism for not having more conciliatory policies, he stresses that the forgiveness tour will not earn the LRA any points in the world court.

"The LRA going around the country hand-in-hand with the government shows the government's capacity to rein in the LRA more than before," he says, adding that this new capability may help persuade the ICC that Uganda can justly try the LRA.

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