In northern Uganda, a region torn by civil war for the last 20 years, where soldiers of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army have hacked off limps, raped, plundered, and abducted thousands of children, the feelings of anger and resentment towards perpetrators of the crimes run deep. While most hope for justice, this is not achievable under the statutes in the law books, partly because the crimes are just too many, the perpetrators and victims uncountable. In short, it is a logistical nightmare.
Many rebels, some of them abducted when they were children, are returning to their former villages either because they have chosen to abandon the LRA or because of a government offer of amnesty. But fitting into the communities they once looted and mistreated is proving difficult.
As a traditional leader of the Acholi people, whose area in northern Uganda bore the brunt of the LRA's violence, Paramount Chief David Onen Achana II is all too aware of the atrocities committed on his people and the problems of achieving reconciliation.
As peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA started last year in the south Sudanese city of Juba, Chief Achana became a proponent of including traditional Acholi mechanisms of reconciliation in the discussions.
Known as Mato Oput, meaning in the Acholi language to drink a bitter potion, the process is voluntary and is very much like Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa or the Gacaca system (pronounced Gachacha) in Rwanda.
On a visit to Ottawa last week, Chief Achana explained that when a crime is committed, it is brought to the attention of a council of elders, whose duties are normally to guide the community.
"Time is given to cool off the anger and information is collected on the nature of the crime," he said.
"In most cases, those who are offended bring up the matter. For this to work, the person who committed the crime has to admit they committed it."
Then there is a period of shuttle diplomacy where the victims or their families and the perpetrator are consulted to get the facts. Then the nature of the crime is ascertained. The perpetrator publicly confesses and acknowledges his or her deeds. The crime is examined to determine the circumstances under which it was committed. Issues like premeditation, in the case of murder, are considered. The perpetrator is then fined under Acholi bylaws. Usually, the victim is paid compensation in the form of livestock or money. The bylaws spell out that the compensation must be reasonable and affordable.
After that, the Mato Oput ceremony is performed. The guilty party steps on a raw egg to symbolize a new beginning and jumps over a bamboo stick. This jumping represents a leap from the past to the present. As the ritual winds up, the guilty party and the victim drink a bitter brew made from a tree called oput. The drinking represents accepting the bitterness of the crime in the past and a promise never to taste such bitterness again.
"It brings the two communities [perpetrator and wronged] together to begin to build a new relationship," says Chief Achana, stressing that the ceremony is not about forgetting the past, but looking to learn from it.
Chief Achana says this traditional form of reconciliation has been quite successful in northern Uganda. Acholi leaders have pushed for and succeeded in incorporating it in the peace discussions taking place in Juba. Scholars studying this mechanism of reconciliation have attributed its success to the fact that most Acholi recognize that the LRA returnees are victims themselves, abducted into the rebel army while they were children. Chief Achana says anyone, including LRA leader Joseph Kony, can seek forgiveness under the Mato Oput process.
"If he comes out with the truth, we will go forward, if he doesn't tell us the truth, we will not go forward," he said.
Erin Baines, director of the conflict and development program at the Liu Institute for Global Affairs at the University of British Colombia, said in an email that traditional mechanisms for reconciliation are effective in bringing members of the Acholi community together to discuss a particular conflict and resolve it.
"Payment of compensation by the perpetrators of the crime helps restore what was lost, and ceremonies encourage the community to forgive and forget what happened," said Ms. Baines, who has done research on traditional reconciliation methods of the Acholi in northern Uganda.
Though the Mato Oput is known widely among the Acholi, Ms. Baines said the international community is hardly familiar with it, "blinded by the tyranny of universalism," where it wants to impose other methods of justice on the Acholi.
Ms. Baines said the biggest misconception of traditional justice in the West is that it is "tribal" and therefore not modern, and thus "not good."
"But the Acholi are only asking the international community for respect and space to address the conflict in a way they feel is appropriate for them," she said.
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