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

What Form of Justice Will Kony Face?

LRA leader’s victims want him to be brought to account - but aren’t sure how.
At the Olupe Trading Centre in Pader District, the site of a grisly massacre of 27 civilians by Lords Resistance Army, LRA, rebels more than four years ago, the locals still recall vividly how their loved ones were hacked with pangas and machetes by the rebels before their body parts were cooked in huge pots on a fire within their compound.

It was in the early morning hours of October 22, 2002 that the rebel assault group descended on the small village, 25 kilometres from the district capital, Pader town. They demanded a gun from a former rebel from the area who had quit the LRA: tipped off about the impending LRA raid, he had fled for his life to Kampala, the national capital, in the south of Uganda.

Angered, the rebels, under the leadership of Colonel Onen Kamdulu, rounded up 27 civilians, among them five women, and hacked them into pieces that were plunged into boiling water.

Terrifyingly, Kamdulu, the LRA's former chief of operations, is today a free man after being given amnesty by the Ugandan government to act as a state witness in the treason trial of Dr Kizza Besigye, leader of Uganda's main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, FDC, who lost in last year's presidential election to Yoweri Museveni.

Besigye's trial in the Kampala High Court - on charges of having met LRA leaders in 2001 to foment an anti-Museveni rebellion - was adjourned a year ago when defence lawyers protested against the use of Kamdulu as a state witness. Defence lawyer David Mpanga said the only place Kamdulu should be allowed to occupy in court was in the dock for countless "crimes against humanity", including the abduction of thousands of children he forced to murder and rape Ugandans.

"We wonder if the state can stoop as low as collaborating with men such as Onen Kamdulu, whether in future this court will not be asked to hear testimony from the likes of [LRA leader] Joseph Kony and Osama bin Laden," said Mpanga. "If criminals or alleged criminals are to be conscripted by the state to give evidence without themselves going through any form of due process, and without their victims getting justice, it is our submission that the rule of law would be grossly undermined. Kamdulu should not be able to dance on the graves of his victims."

Angry people outside the High Court accused Kamdulu of killing their relatives and tried to kick and punch him. One man in tears accused Kamdulu of clubbing his father to death.

The issue of Kamdulu's admissibility as a witness was referred to Uganda's Constitutional Court which decided in favour of the state.

The International Criminal Court, ICC, insists that Kony and his commanders must face trial in The Hague, on 33 charges - 12 of them crimes against humanity, which include murder, enslavement, sexual enslavement and rape; plus 21 war crimes, including murder, cruel treatment of civilians, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population, pillaging, inducing rape and forced enlisting of children into the rebel ranks.

However, the Ugandan government has said it will seek to persuade the ICC chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, to drop the charges if its negotiators manage to sign a comprehensive peace deal with the LRA.

But opinion in the north is deeply divided about the wisdom of doing any kind of deal with Kony and the LRA. Those locals who have first-hand experience of LRA brutality are particularly dubious.

Rose Mary Akot, who lives in Odokomit, a camp for some 7000 internal refugees 50 kilometres from Pader town, told IWPR that she will never forgive Kony even if the government gives him amnesty for his crimes. She said Kony’s rebellion had driven her and her family from their home village of Olupe into the camp where she can no longer work to feed them.

Akot, who described Kony as a “cannibal who kills and cooks his own people", warned that for the government to trust Kony at peace talks with the LRA would be dangerous because he will betray any deal that is made. She said that if Kony is allowed to return home he should be put in a camp far from his own Acholi people whom he had brutalised for two decades.

In a mixture of Acholi and broken English, Akot went on, “I’ll never forgive Kony. He cooked people like meat. He killed people in Barlonyo (the target of an LRA attack in which 337 people were killed, according to Amnesty International). We are suffering from hunger because of Kony. We are in camps. We cannot dig. We cannot plant crops. If he does not surrender the government should fight him up to the end.”

She added, “To start building a house is very difficult. Kony has made us beggars. We have to beg every day from [the United Nations] World Food Programme. If government wants to forgive him [Kony] let them take him and put him in a camp with them [in the south], not here in Acholi.”

Anjella Ajwang, a mother who lost her son and a daughter in the Olupe Trading Centre massacre, cannot erase the memory of her son’s stomach being cut open by the rebels before he was sliced up and doused in boiling water. Ajwang, who now lives in Patongo, site of a refugee camp for more than 35,000 people, told IWPR that it is too painful for her even to remember the name of her son.

Ajwang said that because of Kony’s rebellion she goes hungry for two to three days before getting a meal. She said forgiveness for Kony is out of the question at the moment, but conceded that she would be prepared to forgive the rebel leader if he ever accepted total responsibility for his crimes.

Speaking in Acholi, Ajwang added, “Kony should first accept that he killed my son. He killed my son and daughter on the same day. How can we sympathise with him when he did not sympathise with us? Let him just stop fighting.”

While women interviewed by IWPR said they would never forgive Kony, or were reluctant to be merciful, several of their menfolk said they hoped Kony would accept an agreement with the government and return home.

Ojok Patrick, the senior headman at Odokomit camp, said he is ready to forgive Kony and the rebels if they sign an agreement to come home peacefully. Ojok, who lives with his nine children and a wife in the camp, doubts however that Kony will be willing to sign a peace agreement. He said the government should be ready to fight Kony to the end if he does not enter a peace deal.

Ojok’s sentiments for amnesty for Kony were shared by Onok Jimmy who comes from Adilang, one of the Acholi areas worst hit by the LRA war. Onok, who is waiting in hope that his nephew Oneka Sam, abducted by the rebels in 1996, aged 15, will one day return home, said he has already forgiven Kony, but that he wants him to stop fighting.

Onok said he opposes prosecution of Kony, arguing that the rebel chief has loyal fighters who will not face trial in The Hague and who will subsequently take revenge on local people for any punishment meted out to Kony.

The government's deputy chief negotiator, Okello Oryem, acknowledges that many people in the north support pardoning Kony through a local justice system based on forgiveness and reconciliation, called Mato oput.

Mato oput, which in Acholi means "to drink a bitter potion from the leaves of the oput tree", involves a series of symbolic acts to restore unity between injured and offending parties so that perpetrators can receive forgiveness and be welcomed back into their communities.

Responsibility has to be accepted for the actions of the individual seeking forgiveness, who must repent for his or her crimes and pay reparations in the form of a goat or a cow to those they have wronged.

Oryem said the Museveni government is in the final stages of drafting an act that will recognise Mato oput as part of Uganda’s national law. Oryem, a lawyer and minister of state for international affairs, said that once the process is complete and Kony signs a comprehensive peace agreement, the Uganda government will ask the ICC to withdraw the indictment against the rebel commanders.

Oryem, himself an Acholi, said, “While the Ugandan government respects the ICC, the Acholi traditional and cultural leaders are already consulting with the local population for consensus on the Mato oput justice system.”

However, he added that the ICC indictments had been very useful in putting pressure on the rebels to come to the negotiating table in Juba.

Charles Odongtho is an IWPR contributor in Uganda.

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