Published in: Al Jazeera English
Lukodi, Uganda – For more than two decades Acholiland in northern Uganda suffered at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA fighters, led by Joseph Kony, stand accused of killing 100,000 civilians, and forcing nearly two million people to flee their homes and seek refuge in overcrowded IDP camps.
The most distressing characteristic of the conflict was the fact that the LRA filled 90 percent of its ranks through the systematic forced-conscription of children. The United Nations described the conflict as a war fought by children on children.
Although Acholiland has been free from LRA attacks for 11 years, survivors still struggle to overcome the legacy of the conflict. There are no official reconciliation programmes in place to help the communities heal, and many have been left with a sense of abandonment and injustice as perpetrators of war crimes remain unpunished and at large, as Kony himself is.
Dickens Omara was six years old when the LRA captured him and his father during an armed raid on his village in the Oyam district in northern Uganda in 2002.
He was blindfolded, handed a knife and forced to stab his father to death.
According to UNICEF, 35,000 school-aged boys and girls were abducted by the LRA to serve as child soldiers, porters, spies, cooks or sex slaves.
Living through trauma
The LRA put Dickens through two months of military training and then forced him to join a unit of around one hundred child soldiers.
“Rebels teach you how to fight using a gun. They train you to kill. This is [the] children’s job,” he says.
“In Oyam district, the LRA rebels would not shoot [captured] people, but would boil water and kill them by putting them in that hot water. I was afraid. I wanted to survive,” he recalls.
Dickens was rescued from captivity by government troops in 2005. But witnessing the LRA’s atrocities left Dickens deeply traumatised.
“He has terrible nightmares and becomes unknowingly violent at school. He sees dead people coming to talk to him. I can’t explain this because he is a very social boy,” says Genesis Latigo, the manager for family-based care at the SOS Children’s Villages in Gulu. In Uganda, this internationally active NGO provides care and protection for vulnerable children.
Former child soldiers face multiple obstacles on their road to recovery, Latigo stresses. These include coping with psychological scars, reintegration with families and communities and also developing life skills that would enable them to become independent. “They are lost and they don’t know where to begin their lives. Because of too much trauma, these kids fail to fit in any setting.”
Latigo says that there is a limit to what organisations like his can do to rehabilitate former child soldiers. “We make sure that we support them through different programmes which help them to change their mindset. We make them believe in themselves that they can achieve [goals] in life,” Latigo explains.
But ultimately, the programmes can only be successful if the former child soldiers return to communities that have found some measure of reconciliation and will accept them instead of stigmatising and rejecting them.
“There is a lot of silence around what happened in the past. People are moving on with their lives, but the violence that they experienced, the crimes that were committed against them or [which] they perpetrated themselves are left on the back burner,” explains Oryem Nyeko, Communication and Advocacy Team Leader at the Justice and Reconciliation Project, a non-governmental organisation in Gulu “working for justice and reconciliation with grassroots communities”.
The government has been slow to facilitate reconciliation efforts. A final draft of a transitional justice policy underlining the responsibilities of the government in providing reparations to the victims, establishing truth-telling mechanisms and accountability measures has been pending approval by the office of President Yoweri Museveni since 2013.
Nyeko thinks this delay may be due to the as yet unresolved question of who is to bear the financial burden of paying reparations to victims who have organised themselves into groups to advocate for redress in the form of reparations.
“Some have called for financial compensation, like survivors of the 1991 government-led military operation in Burcoro village on the outskirts of Gulu. Other communities have called for symbolic reparations in the form of memorial schools, like the schools built in Mukura and Atiak,” Nyeko explains.
But most ask for a combination of both forms – expecting the government to bear this responsibility, Nyeko adds.
According to Nyeko, the cost of the reparations remains unclear, because the process of collecting the data required to make that assessment – the number of victims across northern Uganda and what they require – has not yet been done comprehensively.
Margaret Ajok, technical adviser on Transitional Justice at the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs in Uganda, declined to provide a comment to Al Jazeera regarding the Ugandan government’s approach to transitional justice and measures undertaken to reconcile the victims and perpetrators, saying, “some of the questions are very sensitive and may need particular institutions heads to respond”.
In the meantime, local and international NGO’s have stepped in to offer what they can to help the victims. “One of the things we have done is to pilot reconciliatory processes with communities,” Nyeko says. “We have tried to show that if you provide means, then you can engage people in truth-telling and other peace processes, then you could also achieve this on [a] national scale.”
Nyeko argues that a consequence of delayed government action to establish these mechanisms is that survivors instead of healing their wounds are keeping their emotions bottled up.
“I wouldn’t call that reconciliation. I call it a grey, negative peace that exists today and I think it can potentially manifest into official conflict if it is not addressed now.”
Justice and amnesty
The process of creating a meaningful dialogue between the perpetrators and victims became more complicated with the enactment of a law, the Amnesty Act, in the year 2000, which offered amnesty for any fighters who abandon LRA ranks and renounce violence.
Over 13,000 former LRA combatants have taken up the offer, according to official figures. The law also allows high-ranking commanders a means by which to avoid prosecution for the wartime crimes they may have orchestrated.
Maria Burnett, Africa Division Associate Director at Human Rights Watch, explains that this kind of approach to conflict resolution can be problematic for reconciliation efforts. When commanders who have committed serious crimes against their own communities receive amnesty, a sense of injustice lingers.
One of Joseph Kony’s former top commanders was one of the LRA fighters who left its ranks to return to his home village. He was a military strategist who spent 24 years in the LRA’s top ranks.
The former top commander, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, says he carried key responsibilities in his time as a fighter, such as arranging weapons transfers from Sudan for the LRA. The 50-year-old Acholi native left the LRA in 2012.
He admitted that LRA fighters were abducting school-aged children in Uganda and training them at military camps in Sudan. He himself had child soldiers under his command.
“[The conscription of children] really wasn’t right,” he admits, but claims to have treated child soldiers well.
Testimonies of former child soldiers, however, speak to an environment of extreme violence.
One former child soldier tells Al Jazeera that he was 10 years old when the LRA kidnapped him along with his three brothers from the Kadagu district in 2003.
From his first day in its ranks, he learned that the LRA had no mercy, that he would face the most barbaric and inhuman punishment for every action they saw as misbehaviour or disobedience.
“I thought they were going to register me in the sense of writing down my name. But to my surprise, I saw some of them bringing canes. They caned me 160 strokes and even right now I have scars on my back and some other parts of my body,” he says, adding that his two brothers never returned from captivity.
The thin line between victim and perpetrator
“In northern Uganda, the line between victim and perpetrator is sometimes very, very thin. Many people were abducted as children [and] forced to do horrific things. They are perpetrators in a classic sense, but are also victims,” explains Burnett.
Dominic Ongwen is the only LRA high-ranking perpetrator on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), facing 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But Ongwen had been a child soldier, captured by the LRA at the age of 13 while on his way to school, and the case has raised many questions regarding whether commanders who were themselves captured as children should be held responsible for war crimes.
Although many commanders have taken advantage of the Amnesty Law provisions, the legal representatives in the country insist that there is no blanket amnesty extended to all commanders. Instead, they explain that Uganda is working with a “dual conflict response model that seeks to pursue peace alongside accountability”.
In the case of Thomas Kwoyelo, for instance, also a commander who was recruited as a child soldier, and who is currently facing accusations of war crimes at the International Crimes Division (ICD) of Uganda’s High Court, amnesty was rejected.
In his ruling, in response to the legal challenge that denying amnesty to Kwoyelo was discriminatory, Justice Galdino Okello said any crimes willfully committed against innocent civilian populations “do not qualify for grant of amnesty under the Amnesty Act” as they stand separate from “crimes committed in furtherance of the war or rebellion” carried out against government targets or the peripheral results of such attacks.
Oumar Ba, political scientist at Morehouse College, who has conducted research on the International Criminal Court and the LRA, argues that the Ongwen case at the ICC will influence how Uganda handles the Kwoyelo case.
“If Ongwen is standing trial in The Hague for similar crimes, why would Uganda grant amnesty for Kwoyelo?” he asks.
In his opinion, the prosecution of former child soldiers, either domestically or at the ICC, poses many legal and ethical challenges.
“But we should also ask ourselves, what is being done for the other children who were abducted? What is being done for the communities that were victimised? How to balance the accountability with rehabilitation,” stresses Ba.
According to Ba, the priority for the victims of the more than two-decades-long civil war in northern Uganda is to see accountability for both sides of the conflict.
“As long as this is not done, reconciliations will be elusive. Beyond the prosecution of Kwoyelo, there is [a] lack of any real effort from the government of Uganda towards reconciliation, transitional justice, post-conflict reconstruction and responding to psychological and medical needs of former combatants and refugees,” Ba says.
Hellen lost her husband and two children in an attack on the Lukodi community in May 2004, known as the Lukodi massacre, in which more than 60 people were killed. “I am unable to do anything but to carry my sadness deep inside myself. I feel hopeless. The trauma of what happened … will never go away,” says the 53-year old.
Hellen says she feels marginalised and forgotten. “No justice has been done because the rebels have not been held accountable.”
Calvin Dcora, a 52-year-old man, lost one child and 18 relatives in the attack.
“I have not forgiven rebels because none of them ever came to ask for forgiveness. I am still grieving,” says Dcora, who knows one former LRA corporal who participated in the Lukodi killings and returned to the community, but never engaged in dialogue.
In his opinion, Acholi cultural leaders could play a primary role in reuniting victims and perpetrators by arranging the traditional reconciliatory ceremony called Mato Oput during which both parties to the conflict drink a mixture made from the root of the oput tree in a sign of forgiveness.
The survivors of the conflict simply wish to close the painful chapter of their lives and move on.
“Nothing will replace the lost lives. However, the government of Uganda should come up with a programme of compensating the local people for the property that they have lost and for the relatives that they have lost. It would never be equivalent, but at least people would feel comfortable and become a sense of justice being delivered for them,” says Kennedy Caymoi, who lost many relatives during the attack and is now taking care of a memorial in Lukodi village.