Forgiveness: more important than prosecuting war criminals

War criminals in Uganda may put down their weapons if given amnesty.

The round mud homes of the Unyama camp are packed close, allowing little privacy – or dignity – for its 20,400 residents.

As we walk between the huts, camp leader Odoki Raymond Lamaka tells me that seven of his 12 children have passed away in the 10 years the family has lived here. "We are constantly short of food, and the only health center is two miles away," he says.

All around the mud-brown camp, the hillsides are green from recent rain. Mr. Odoki, like many of the camp's residents, can point to where his family's homestead used to be. But he cannot live or farm there. In 1996, after nearby skirmishes between government troops and rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the government gave all the area's residents 48 hours to move into this camp. "They shot at people who tried to stay at home," Odoki said.

Since then, these internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been confined to the camp. Some 90 percent of the population of Gulu and two other administrative districts in northern Uganda that contain mainly Acholi people have been forced to live in such IDP camps for 10 years or longer.

The LRA is a violent group whose excesses have been well documented. Its leader, Joseph Kony, and his sidekicks have abducted tens of thousands of children from this region – including from within the IDP camps. LRA commanders have forced the abducted children to commit atrocities and used the captured girls as sex slaves. Then they tried to keep these traumatized youngsters in their fighting ranks. Many Acholis also accuse the government of trying to starve them in the IDP camps, and of destroying their culture. And they accuse some government soldiers and commanders of committing rape and other atrocities against the unarmed IDPs.

The Acholi people I talked to said they felt caught in the middle, victims of atrocious violence commited by both the government and the LRA. Above all, the Acholis want the long-running civil war that has incubated all this violence to end, so they can rebuild their homes and livelihoods in peace.

Their hopes for peace are now (cautiously) running high. In mid-July, the regional government of neighboring south Sudan opened peace talks between representatives of the Ugandan government and the LRA. The usually evasive Mr. Kony gave the talks a rare public imprimatur. Acholi community and church leaders played a big part in getting the peace talks started. One of those peacemakers was Norbert Mao, a longtime parliamentarian who is now chair of the Gulu District Council. In late July, Mr. Mao organized a groundbreaking "peace convoy" of Acholi leaders: They traveled to the border between Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to meet with Kony in person. "The LRA needs to know it was we in civil society who prodded the government to change its policies toward them," Mao told me. "It was we who pushed for the amnesty program.... It was we who pushed for the peace talks. But we are also the community that bore the brunt of the war...."

Mao and the other Acholi leaders I spoke with said their main aim is to "get Joseph Kony out of the bush." They fear that as long as the LRA's leadership remains intact in the remote rain forests where Uganda, Sudan, and the DRC all meet, then the civil war that has devastated the Acholis can be reignited at any time. And the way they want to bring Kony out of the bush is by bringing him back into Acholi society where, after undergoing traditional rituals involving social healing and truth-telling, he will be reintegrated into the civilian community.

Thus far, the Ugandan government has gone along with this plan. In July, it declared that it would include Kony and his colleagues in its longstanding amnesty program, and it has participated constructively in the peace talks.

But another shadow still looms over the search for peace. In 2004, the Ugandan government had referred the LRA's atrocities to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. In mid-2005 the court issued arrest warrants against Kony and four other LRA leaders. Since then, it has been technically illegal for the Ugandan government to have any peaceful dealings with Kony. All the governments that support the court are simply supposed to arrest the indictees.

For now, the government is sticking with its commitment to the peace talks and its offer of amnesty to the LRA leaders. But Kony reportedly remains wary that the government might later change its mind and hand him over to the court in The Hague.

How will this work out? The peace talks are very important for Uganda, but the prosecutions against the LRA leaders are very important for the court. In a later column I'll explore this clash between "peace" and "justice" for Uganda and some of the solutions proposed for it.

Helena Cobban's book, "Amnesty after Atrocity?: Healing Nations after Genocide and War Crimes," will be published next month.

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