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Uganda: Victims back leniency for LRA chief but trial awaits

02 March 2015, 12:50

Barlonyo — This is the horror that Silveria Okweny is willing to forgive:

On Feb. 21, 2004, as the sun dipped below the horizon, rebels walking single file approached the Ugandan refugee camp in which she lived. At the shrill sound of a whistle, one of the worst attacks on civilians by the Lord's Resistance Army began.

With gunfire and screams punctuating the evening, some of the rebels entered Okweny's hut as the family cowered inside. As the insurgents assaulted Okweny's husband, their 5-year-old son Innocent pleaded with them to stop. Instead, one grabbed the boy by the legs and smashed his head against a wall, killing him.

All told, more than 120 civilians — including Okweny's husband and her older son — would die that day.

Eleven years later, the International Criminal Court in The Hague is preparing to try senior LRA commander Dominic Ongwen for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ugandan military officials and survivors say he helped direct the attack on the camp in Barlonyo.

But Okweny and some other survivors of the Feb. 21, 2004, attack say Ongwen should not be tried by the ICC. Instead, they say he should be pardoned if he comes to Uganda to confess his crimes and seeks forgiveness in a ritual ceremony.

Their willingness to forgive is partly a function of northern Uganda's traditions and culture, but it is also prompted by Ongwen's personal history — he was kidnapped as a boy by the LRA and turned into a child soldier.

"From the victims' perspectives under the circumstances, traditional justice and reconciliation would have been more appropriate," than a trial in the Netherlands, said Jonathan Odur, who runs the Facilitation for Peace and Development in northern Uganda. "Many victims think that an international trial is not going to change anything tangible."

Ongwen was taken into custody in January in Central African Republic by a local rebel group and handed over to U.S. special forces who are pursuing top LRA leader Joseph Kony, who started the insurgency in the north not long after President Yoweri Museveni seized power in 1986.

Though this region suffered the most at the hands of the LRA, there is widespread feeling that it would be appropriate for Ongwen to undergo a traditional ceremony in which the aggressor confesses his crimes, goes through some form of ritual cleansing, and is then made to pay damages. During the ceremony — called "Kayo Cuk" or "Utmost Forgiveness" — a bull may be slaughtered, its blood smeared on the foreheads of both the perpetrator and victims. Only then, some believe, may it be possible to achieve justice and reconciliation.

"Kayo Cuk is about extending an olive branch, and if Ongwen comes to Barlonyo and seeks forgiveness and people see that he is sincere then he can definitely be forgiven," said Ben Erweny, a senior member of the Lango Cultural Foundation, an institution that unites the clans of the Langi people. "He would maybe bring a bull which would be slaughtered for the people to eat. It would an occasion for merriment."

Anna Acheng, a 45-year-old who had been abducted by the LRA and whose left ear was partly sliced off by rebels, said reports that Ongwen turned himself in makes him seem a sympathetic figure and worthy of Kayo Cuk.

"Since he surrendered, we can now forgive him for the atrocities he committed against our people because we are confident that he will never go back to the bush," she said.

Scores of former LRA rebels who were granted amnesty by Uganda's government have been guided through similar rituals. They now live freely across northern Uganda. None of these former rebels, however, had been charged with war crimes by the ICC.

Ongwen told the ICC in his first and so far only appearance that he was abducted as a 14-year-old boy in 1988. That account is confirmed by his relatives who say he was kidnapped by the LRA while walking home from school.

Ongwen rose, according to the ICC arrest warrant, to membership in the LRA's "Control Altar" — a group of senior commanders that plotted and carried out attacks in northern Uganda. It does not specifically cite the Barlonyo incident.

When the LRA fighters attacked Barlonyo, its population had swelled to more than 11,600 people, many of them war refugees and living in a camp.

After a rebel blew his whistle, the column fanned out, first attacking and overwhelming an outnumbered local defense force, then hacking, shooting and burning alive unarmed civilians, according to AP reports from the scene. Those who fled their huts of dried mud walls and grass-thatched roofs were gunned down; those who stayed inside burned to death, one survivor told AP.

Hundreds of people were abducted; the LRA kidnapped boys to become fighters and girls to be sex slaves, and others to be porters.

The LRA fighters are now reduced to a few dozen who roam the wilds of Central African Republic, Congo and South Sudan, still carrying out the occasional attack on civilians or kidnapping children. The LRA was forced out of Ugandan territory in 2005.

Today, a ceramic-tiled monument marks the mass grave where scores of the Barlonyo victims were buried. A headstone says "LRA terrorists" killed 121 people. Estimates of the death toll are often higher. Many of the victims were so badly burned their bodies were not counted, said Moses Ogwang, a local aid worker who was the Barlonyo camp leader back then. He said he counted 301 bodies.

Lira, a northern district that encompasses Barlonyo, remains one of poorest parts of the East African country, and many residents say the government did not do enough to help the area recover after the LRA insurgency ravaged lives and the economy. Most homes in the area are made of mud and wattle, not the brick and concrete common in other parts of Uganda. Kidnap victims who eventually left the LRA were unable to return to school because they were too poor or too psychologically damaged, creating legions of young people who while away their days in bars.

Also read: Sacked Ugandan bus driver bid to kill 50 passengers

Most of the survivors of the attack have returned to their ancestral homes. The dry expanse of bush and farmland is now sparsely populated, with just a few dozen people still clinging to the site.

One of them is Okweny, the woman whose children and husband were killed during the attack. Five grandchildren now live with her. About 300 meters (yards) from her home, a village is slowly taking shape with a half-dozen shops lining a dirt road and offering kerosene for lamps, soap and other essentials for sale. Jobless young men show up early to sip a local homemade beer. It is hot, humid and dusty.

The 55-year-old Okweny, who never remarried and still wears her wedding band, grows cassava in her garden and sells it at the roadside, making $3 on a good day. She saves as much as she can to buy livestock. A few goats roam her dirt compound, feeding on cassava peel.

"Time has helped us to recover from what happened, and also prayers have helped us to come out of this suffering as the world abandoned us," she said.

"I feel that Ongwen should be pardoned," she added.

Okweny's spirit of reconciliation comes in part from personal experience — her own nephew was abducted by the LRA as a teenager in 2002 and hasn't been seen since. She believes that all boys who were abducted, including Ongwen, should be seen as victims of the conflict and forgiven.

"Even my nephew should also be treated like that if he ever comes out, because they did not join the rebellion willingly," Okweny said, speaking in Acholi through a translator.

Maria Kamara, a field outreach official with the ICC, said it is unlikely that victims will appear as witnesses in Ongwen's ICC trial.

That's fine with Ogwang, the former Barlonyo camp leader, who would rather forget what happened here.

But he does not want Ongwen to ever forget.

"Maybe they can bring Ongwen to Barlonyo," he said, "because we want him to see what he did here."

- AP


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