Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Northerners Struggle to Forgive Ex-Rebels

Former militia members continue to be shunned by their communities, despite traditional justice rituals.
By Bill Oketch

Hundreds of people routinely gather to witness cleansing rituals for former Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, rebels, but many of the ex-members of the militia say this has done little to help their return to society.

The ceremonies – which are separate from the more widely known traditional reconciliation ceremony of mato oput – involve the Acholi tribal leader having rebel returnees step on a raw chicken egg placed between sticks. Held at the Acholi tribal palace in the north of the country, the ritual symbolises a break with the past as well as the community’s desire for peace.

Acholi cultural minister Emmanuel Mwaka said that because so many crimes were committed, the returning rebels must be “cleansed” in order for them to be accepted by the community.

“This cleansing is a covenant between communities and returnees,” he said. “After performing it, we expect no revenge and the levels of stigma are reduced.”

About 17,000 returnees have been cleansed this way before re-integration into their communities, said Mwaka.

Yet for many, the ritual does little to draw them back into the fold.

Florence Ayot, 28, the former wife of LRA commander Dominic Ongwen who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, ICC, told IWPR that cleansing rituals are not enough to ensure reintegration.

After 18 years in captivity, Ayot is struggling to find a comfortable and secure place to live in the community once attacked by her ex-husband.

Ayot cares for five of her brother’s children who were orphaned during the Ugandan government’s war with the rebels, which effectively ended in July 2006 when peace talks between both sides began in Juba, South Sudan.

“Even if re-integration does [have] an impact, [it] will never make a change in my life,” said Ayot.

“People here still insult us.”

She said she is also rejected by her family, “My relatives fear that I’m traumatised and might imperil their well-being in the community.”

Another problem she faces is acquiring a small parcel of land so she can grow food, she said. Acholi communities, she explained, traditionally prefer men to own land.

“I do not have the right to own land because they say it is family land,” said Ayot. “So where will I stay?”

Despite these limitations, many Acholis believe cleansing rituals play a crucial role in reconciling and uniting returnees with their families.

Beatrice Akello, 22, another former wife of an LRA commander, is now a student at one of the secondary schools in Gulu. She said that taking part in a reintegration ceremony allowed her to resume her education.

However, she said, it hasn’t solved all her troubles,

“My aunt’s husband hates my child, and I think he has not accepted me in his home.”

She told IWPR that she underwent a terrible experience in captivity.

“I cannot forget how they raped me,” said Akello. “[Passing] me from [one] commander to another pains me so much that I cannot forget what happened while I was still in the bush.”

Akello, who lost both parents during the war, now faces the challenge of fitting in with her community. However, she has found some help, she said, from aid group the Windle Trust, and is seeking more assistance for her child.

The government, meanwhile, said it has taken steps to protect former rebels by introducing legislation to outlaw attacks on them.

Uganda’s Amnesty Act, which came into force in 2000, was designed to facilitate the forgiveness, demobilisation, reintegration and resettlement of former LRA fighters into civilian life.

When a returnee obtains an amnesty certificate, he or she is legally protected from possible retribution from their community.

The Amnesty Commission’s representative in Gulu, Patrick Ashby, said the amnesty certificates are, in effect, also pardons. The commission supports returnees by supplying them with household items, counseling services and accommodation, he said.

Yet Ayot said that although she has reported incidents of abuse against her and other former rebels, nothing has been done.

“[Although] many times I have referred cases of abuse before our community leader to solve, nothing materialises,” said Ayot.

Alfonse Ojok, a Gulu district councilor, told IWPR that implementing the legislation to protect former rebels against retribution and prejudice has been difficult.

He also pointed out that not all returnees wanted peace and unity – some threatened their communities with violence.

“Sometimes, returnees are very violent,” said Ojok. “[They] think life is all about violence.”

Yet former high-ranking commander Opio Makasi, one of the more notable ex-LRA members to participate in the cleansing ceremony, said that many returning rebels face a dilemma.

“Being in captivity was neither our making, nor yours,” said Makasi to the crowd gathered at his recent cleansing ceremony.

“I was abducted at 12 and stayed for 20 years in the bush. What I know is only the gun,” he said.

Makasi, who thanked the community for welcoming him and other rebels back, said that while he wanted to be reconciled with the community, he acknowledged that this would be difficult for many to accept.

“If am happy and you are not happy, life will not be fine for all of us,” he said. “I hope the excitement [shown] by some people to know me is in good faith.”

Makasi encouraged people to try to forget the past and instead focus on the future.

“There should be total unity and forgiveness,” he said. “We should bury the past and stick to development, so that the new generation does not think life is all about war.”

Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained reporter.


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