When Richard Odong was 10 he was stopped at gunpoint on his way to school, tied up with ropes and marched into Southern Sudan, where the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) trained him to fight, kidnap and kill.
Last month in northern Uganda’s Gulu district, the place of his birth, Odong tried – unsuccessfully – to apologize for the crimes he committed during his 15 years with the LRA, one of Africa’s most brutal rebel militias.
“When I was in the LRA we did a lot [of] things. We were attacking people. A lot of people... Kidnapping,” the 28-year-old said while in Kampala for a medical visit. “I need forgiveness. Especially from the Acholi, my tribe.”
Several weeks ago, Odong approached Kenneth Oketta, prime minister of the Acholi cultural authority, and asked to experience Mato Oput, a traditional process of justice that aims to foster reconciliation after a killing.
At the first formal hearing before a panel of elders, Odong’s Mato Oput derailed.
“We had hoped there would be truth telling and that there would be forgiveness," Oketta said. “Unfortunately, this thing did not proceed well at the truth-telling stage. The panel did not allow it, making it very difficult to go to the next stage.”
Atonement proceeds in two phases. First, the aggressor offers a full description of the crimes he committed, then a negotiation between the aggressor's clan and the survivor’s clan regarding compensation starts, moderated by elders.
The ceremony ends with the ritual of Mato Oput - "drinking the bitter root" - a day-long ceremony of symbolic acts aimed at reuniting the clans.
But in Odong's case, the elders were unhappy that he could not name his victims.
With the LRA leadership still at large and the peace process in tatters, Oketta suggested it was also possible the ceremony stalled because the elders, and the larger Acholi community, were not yet ready for a full accounting of the conflict that devastated northern Uganda for more than two decades.
Mass apologies accepted
Moses Odonkyero, a journalist based in Gulu and working with a foreign-funded media project, has for several months been collecting testimonies from former LRA combatants about their resettlement experiences. He said that for those not seen as senior commanders, generic apologies satisfy the community.
Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
|Two young women who had been abducted by the LRA in a World Vision rehabilitation centre, Gulu|
“The fact that so many [former LRA] have moved back to their villages, away from the cities and protected areas, is an indication that they have been accepted back,” Odonkyero said. “These general apologies for the rank-and-file, they work.”
There have in recent years been several ceremonies where large groups of former fighters are “cleansed” after apologizing en masse, according to a report published jointly by Tufts and Gulu universities in October 2009.
But, in the same report, nearly 60 percent of Acholis surveyed said that true reconciliation through Mato Oput required detailed accounting of the crimes committed.
Odong said he could not satisfy that condition. “When I am abducting you, do I know your place?” he asked rhetorically. “If I kill you in the road, I cannot know where you come from.”
He insisted he was prepared to describe his crimes, but argued that community leaders should be empowered to receive his apologies on behalf of his unknown victims and that he should be pardoned for not remembering names and dates.
Given Odong’s length of time with the rebels, and the fact that at one point he commanded, according to his own estimate, more than 100 fighters, it is perhaps impractical to expect a complete and full account.
But Oketta demanded that, wherever possible, Odong must confront the relatives of those he killed.
“It will not facilitate re-integration until [he] comes face to face with his victims. It is haunting him. I want him to come out and tell what he has done,” Oketta said.
Even if an agreement can be reached on the particulars of Odong’s testimony, there remains the task of persuading the elders to hear a full confession. “Maybe you can say it was too soon,” Oketta said. “The panel could fear the rebels still in the bush.”
LRA still a threat
Northern Uganda has been largely free of LRA violence for more than four years, but rebel chief Joseph Kony and the remnants of his militia are still at large within the central African region. Recent reports have linked the group to kidnappings and massacres in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.
“They are still lethal, although they are far,” Oketta said, pointing out that panel members could face risks if identified as people “investigating LRA atrocities”.
But despite these complications, both Odong and Oketta vowed to persist. Odong has settled in Gulu with his wife and two children and found work co-running a maize mill through a re-integration programme run by the International Organization for Migration.
Even though he fled the rebels more than two years ago, he said he still feels stigmatized and worries about being regarded as a “jungle guy”. Successfully going through Mato Oput, he said, would help him to feel settled. “I think with that one, I could be safe,” he explained.
For Oketta, the issue extends beyond Odong’s specific case. Throughout the protracted Juba process that ultimately failed to produce a deal, there was ample discussion of traditional justice and its appropriate role in post-conflict Uganda.
The text of the Juba agreement, which the LRA refused to sign, says traditional processes should play a “central” role in the recovery process. Oketta argues that the time for discussion and debate is past.
“We don’t need to keep on predicting,” he said. “Without this process there is no healing. We need to move forward.”
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