Uganda Peace Hinges on Amnesty for Brutality

In the beginning, it was simply called the Acholi war, and despite its brutality, few people outside Uganda paid attention.

The Lord’s Resistance Army, a messianic rebel group, was exploring a new dimension of violence by building an army of abducted children and forcing them to burn down huts, slice off lips and pound newborn babies to death in wooden mortars, as though they were grinding grain.

“I killed and killed and killed,” said Christopher Oyet, an 18-year-old former rebel who was kidnapped at age 9. “Now, I am scared of myself.”

But, for the first time in 20 years, the killing has stopped. The rebel leaders, boxed in and with dwindling support, signed a cease-fire agreement on Aug. 26. Whether it lasts depends on whether Joseph Kony, the phantom rebel commander who is said to live deep in the jungle with 60 child brides, and his top deputies are given amnesty.

That is uncertain, because they have been charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Still, this is the furthest any peace deal has come, fueling hopes that one of Africa’s most grotesque and bizarre wars, which cost tens of thousands of lives, may finally be over.

White flags are already fluttering in Gulu, the hub of Acholiland, even from the antennas of government trucks. People are no longer night commuting, the signature north Ugandan exodus from villages to towns every evening for safety’s sake. Instead, they are returning to the carpeted green hillsides to plant cassava, corn and beans, and this time their hoes and machetes are being swung to make things grow, not to destroy them.

The victims of this war are so desperate to put the nightmarish days behind them that they want to forgive, just as much as they want to forget. Typical is Christa Labol, whose ears and lips were cut off by bayonet-wielding prepubescent soldiers she now says she would welcome home.

“Only God can judge,” Mrs. Labol said through a mouth that is always open.

Of course, the rebels are not out of the bush yet. Many still hide in a remote, lawless corner of northern Congo. Some people wonder if Mr. Kony, who has told his troops he is possessed by spirits, will ever give up.

Mr. Kony has said he will but only if he is not prosecuted.

The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for Mr. Kony and four of his commanders. Ugandan government officials have said they will ensure that the rebels get amnesty if they surrender. But the rebels have said the amnesty must come first. It is an impasse that possibly only the international court can break, but the court, established in 1998, has not indicated what it will do.

“We’ve never had such a situation,” said Claudia Perdomo, a court spokeswoman.

The Acholi people have their own solution. It is the mataput – the word means drinking a bitter root from a common cup – and it is a traditional reconciliation ceremony. Peace is more important than punishment, Acholi elders say, and they would rather have Mr. Kony return to Gulu for a mataput than rot in some European prison. Although the fighting may be over, it seems a new battle has begun: tradition versus modernity.

“In our culture, we don’t like to punish people,” said Collins Opoka, an Acholi chief. “It doesn’t really get you anywhere.”

The Acholis know something about punishment. For decades, it was customary for members of southern tribes to get the prized university spots and good office jobs, while northerners like the Acholis were stuck in the fields. The Acholis were known as superstitious – and tough – and filled the ranks of the national army. They fought rebel forces led by Yoweri Museveni, and after Mr. Museveni seized power in 1986 – he has been president since – the Acholis were marginalized and persecuted.

Enter Mr. Kony, a former Catholic altar boy revered in his village near Gulu as a prophet since he was 12. He smeared himself with shea butter, said his body and those of his Acholi followers were impervious to bullets and vowed to overthrow the government.

“We saw him as our savior,” said Mary Olanya, who knew Mr. Kony growing up.

Mr. Kony claimed to be guided by the Ten Commandments but soon his army was violating each and every one.

From about 1988 on, the rebels terrorized their own people, raping, robbing and killing across Acholiland. According to former rebels, Mr. Kony communed with spirits and his rules became stranger by the minute – anyone caught bicycling had to have his feet chopped off; all white chickens were to be destroyed; no farming on Fridays.

Few adults wanted to join his cultish, bloodthirsty movement, and soon the only recruits were children, most against their will.

Mr. Oyet said he was snatched one night nine years ago from his hut near Gulu and forced to march miles into the bush. The boys whose feet swelled and could no longer walk were clubbed to death – by other boys. All new recruits had to help with the killing. It was called registration. The population responded to the rebel violence by seeking safety in numbers. Nearly two million people abandoned their villages and crowded into government camps. “It was a desperate time,” said Quinto Otika, a Gulu elder.

And it continued for years, nourished by the Arab-led government of Sudan, which gave the rebels arms and sanctuary as payback for Ugandan support for the Christian rebellion in southern Sudan.

But by 2002, the Sudanese government was making peace with southern separatists and no longer supporting the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Mr. Kony – and his bodyguards and harem – fled to Congo, where, according to Ugandan military sources, they set up a slave kingdom, living off the land and slaughtering wildlife. By then, the elusive rebel army had shrunk to a shadow of a shadow, with fewer than 2,000 fighters left. The West mostly ignored this war, more focused on Rwanda, Somalia, and Darfur, Sudan. But in 2005, the Ugandan government persuaded the international court to issue arrest warrants against rebel leaders, despite pleas from Acholi elders.

In Acholi culture, killers are accepted back into the community after they have paid compensation, admitted to their misdeeds and shared a meal, usually a roasted sheep, with the relatives of their victim. This is the mataput ceremony, and it comes from the days when clans were tightly intertwined by marriage and trade and could not afford to alienate one another.

The Ugandan government eventually warmed to the idea and signed a cease-fire with the rebels that took effect on Aug. 29. Since then, some rebel soldiers have emerged from hiding. They plan to assemble at collection points in southern Sudan, where they will wait until a full peace agreement is reached.

Though some United Nations officials have bristled at the idea of granting immunity to Mr. Kony and his top commanders, Ugandan officials say they are confident a deal can be reached.

“We can go to the judges and say there are new circumstances and that the indictments are no longer needed,” said a Ugandan government spokesman, Robert Kabushenga.

People are already beginning to wonder what Mr. Kony will do if he comes home a free man.

“He never aspired to be a politician,” said Florence Adokorach, now in her early 20’s, who was kidnapped at age 14 and forced to be one of Mr. Kony’s brides. Instead, he told his young wife, he just wanted to return to spreading God’s word.


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