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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

* * *

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.

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."

* * *

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.' "

* * *

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."

What is the LRA?

• 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.

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