Locals want rebel leader forgiven

George Olara was emphatic that Joseph Kony, the indicted leader of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), should abandon war and be allowed to return to the community.

"He should not be taken to The Hague [where the International Criminal Court is located]," he said. "Let him come back and live with the community because this is how reconciliation will be achieved."

The father of two dropped out of school at primary five and is living in Atanga camp for displaced civilians in the northern Pader District. "Peace will come if the talks succeed, but there is the potential that they may also fail like they have done before," Olara added.

In another part of the sprawling camp, Kelen Ayugi, who did not know her age, said she had not followed the ongoing peace talks between the LRA, elders from northern Uganda and the Kampala government, but she still wanted the rebels to be forgiven so that the 20-year war could end.

"In spite of the fact that one of my two children was killed by the rebels, leaving me to look after two grandsons, they should still be forgiven," she said.

The talks, mediated by the southern Sudanese Vice-President Riek Machar, started in Juba on 14 July after the Ugandan government changed its previous position and announced on 4 July that it would grant a total amnesty to the rebels if they renounced rebellion. The announcement was a surprise given that the Ugandan government had asked the ICC to indict the rebel leaders.

The delegates took a week's break to consult and are due to resume negotiations this week. In the meantime, however, the LRA is meeting delegations of relatives, religious and local leaders from northern Uganda, and Sudanese officials.

High stakes

"The stakes are very high this time because the SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army] government in southern Sudan would like the UPDF [Ugandan army] to leave southern Sudan," Norbert Mao, a political commentator and chairman of Gulu district, told IRIN in Gulu.

"They believe that having a foreign army on their soil will undermine any efforts at reconciliation," he added. Uganda has an agreement with the Sudanese government that allows it to hunt down the rebels inside Sudan.

"I only hope that the southern Sudan government continues to be a credible mediator because that has been a missing link," Moa noted. "We’ve had parties that wish to talk, but lacked a credible mediator."

ICC spoiler?

The Ugandan government is trying to convince the ICC to suspend the indictments. Over the past few weeks, officials have been talking in favour of traditional justice systems, including 'Mato Oput' [traditional forgiveness rituals], to resolve concerns over LRA impunity.

Mao said the people of northern Uganda who have borne the brunt of the war had been in the forefront in asking for what he called a "total and unconditional amnesty" for the rebels as a way to end the suffering.

"They are the ones whose children have been kidnapped, the ones that have had their limbs cut off and their lives shattered," Mao said. "But notwithstanding all that, they have agreed to forgive the perpetrators of these atrocities."

Analysts in Kampala say the government's decision to announce a total amnesty for the LRA is a strategy to win support from a region that has never fully backed President Yoweri Museveni in his 20 years in power.

Despite a request from Uganda, the ICC insists the indictments will not be waived. "We collected evidence showing how the LRA systematically attacked civilians, abducted children to use them as soldiers or as sex slaves. We even have evidence that Joseph Kony himself has been raping girls. We will show all this during the trial," Luis Moreno-Ocampo, ICC chief prosecutor told IRIN in July. "We believe the best way to finally stop the conflict is to arrest the top leaders."

Leaders in northern Uganda reject this position. The Catholic Archbishop of northern Uganda, John Baptist Odama, said the ICC should keep far away from the talks in Juba, saying the ICC’s zeal is not what northern Uganda wants now.

"Everybody, including the ICC and those going for talks, should be thinking about these people who are suffering and about their future," he told IRIN. "People in the camps are tired. They want peace, they want to return to their ancestral homes and rebuild their lives."

Human rights organisations such as the New York-based NGO, Human Rights Watch, have denounced the proposed amnesty for the rebels, saying international law rejects impunity for "genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture".

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