Wednesday, May 25, 2011

LRA War Victims need Genuine Reconciliation and accountability

August 26th this year will mark five years since the government of Uganda and the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels signed the cessation of hostilities agreement that paved way for the Juba peace. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described it as a “step in the right direction that could pave the way for a comprehensive settlement after decades of violence”.

Many in northern Uganda however received the news with some skepticism and uncertainty because of the unpredictable nature of the LRA leader Joseph Kony and his lack of commitment to previous peace talks. After more than two years of negotiation and the signing of 5 protocols in Juba, Joseph Kony refused to sign the final peace deal on November 29, 2008. Following this development, the UPDF declared war to wipe out the LRA in December and the peace talks came to a collapse.

Since then, Kony and his remnant forces have reportedly been traversing the Congo, South Sudan and Central Africa Republic, killing and abducting people. Meanwhile, peace and normalcy has returned in northern Uganda and communities are slowly rebuilding their lives. Formerly internally displaced persons have returned to their villages of origin and want the government to close the marginalisation gap that has been created by the war.

Despite the prevailing peace in the region, some questions still continue to be asked by victims of the war. One of such questions is if those who committed crimes against them will ever be held accountable? Unfortunately for such victims, the government of Uganda has been quiet despite several calls from the civil society and politicians that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) be set up to investigate the violations by both the LRA and UPDF and bring perpetrators to justice. Analysts argue that the government is worried about unearthing its own crimes, committed by the UPDF.

They point that the lack of significant steps to understand and heal the past could spiral more violence and conflict in future. The International Crisis Group has in its 2008 report criticized the government of Uganda’s lack of commitment to the process of national reconciliation and accountability. The report pointed out that the victimisation and grievances that accumulated during the 20 years of war could only be addressed by a genuine process of reconciliation based on accountability for all crimes including those committed by the UPDF. They argue that this will also give way for fair reparation to the victims of war.

The Acholi have a proverb that goes “poyo too pe rweny” (meaning the scars of death never heal). Memories of the war are still fresh in the minds of many people in northern Uganda. Symptoms of psychological distress and anxiety are still very common.

According to David Oketayot, a former child soldier in Gulu town, “after hearing the gun shots, I became very scared, my body was trembling and I did not know what to do”, referring to the incidence where soldiers and the police fired several gun shots in Gulu town last week following the walk to work protests.

Over the past few years, some former LRA rebel commanders have asked for forgiveness from people within the region over the radios. But community reconciliation experts have warned that no genuine reconciliation can be achieved unless victims and their perpetrators come face to face and there is a confession. Some perpetrators have been criticized for reportedly boasting to their victims that no one could prosecute them because they obtained certificates of Amnesty. Such act raises a lot of doubts on the meaning of the amnesty and could spur feelings of hatred and revenge.

The Amnesty process has several weaknesses; it did not for instance require the perpetrators to ask for forgiveness in order to get the certificate. There has also been a false premise that all victims of the war in northern Uganda have forgiven their perpetrators (both UPDF and LRA) or that they believe in traditional justice. It is important that justice options are widened to allow victim participation. The guns may be silent, victims may be smiling, but their grief and bitterness are yet to be resolved. It is time to reopen the wounds, to start a proper healing process, Government needs to create an impartial and an independent truth and reconciliation commission to investigate all the violations by both UPDF and LRA and bring the perpetrators to meaningful justice. This may be the only way to achieve sustainable reconciliation and avert future violations.

By Alex Okello Ouma

The writer is pursuing a Masters in Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego in the United States

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