World News

Forgiveness for ex-Ugandan rebels starts on an egg

GULU, Uganda (Reuters) - Dressed in a button-down shirt and pressed trousers, a once-fearsome guerrilla from Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) steps on an egg.

Six former commanders follow suit, walking barefoot on the now-broken egg, placed atop of two branches in a T-shape. Dancers chant nearby.

“Our sons, we’d like to thank you for coming back,” says Constantino Okot Ngomlokojo, chairman of the traditional courts for northern Uganda’s Acholi ethnic group.

In Gulu town -- the center of LRA leader Joseph Kony’s two-decade rebellion -- former rebels undergo the first of three cleansing rituals for a war that has become notorious for the use of mutilation, abduction and murder.

Rebels and Uganda’s government agreed in February on how to deal with war crimes committed during the 22-year war in the north that has killed tens of thousands of people.

But peace remains as elusive as the LRA’s self-proclaimed prophet leader, Kony, who has repeatedly failed to sign a final agreement, saying he wanted more explanation on a raft of deals signed at talks in neighboring south Sudan.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) wants Kony and two deputies for crimes like rape, murder and kidnapping. Rebels have vowed not to disarm until the charges are lifted.

Sitting beneath ancient mango trees at the ceremony, Captain Vincent Okema, formerly an LRA fighter for 15 years, said he had been waiting for this day for a long time but does not think peace will last.

“Kony is just deceiving people. He will not sign. I was one of his body guards and he told me that he will die in the bush,” said Okema, who left the rebels last year.

“I can’t judge people’s feelings about me, but I want to go back home.”


Washing sweet potatoes in a village near the cleansing ceremony, Pamela Acieng said rebels should be forgiven for abducting her husband for four years and killing his brother.

“For the sake of peace, we can forgive, but they must face justice,” the mother-of-four said.

Returning rebels do three cleansing rites before being accepted back into Acholi society. First a rebel like Captain Okema steps on an egg, which symbolizes purity, in a ritual in Gulu. He then returns to his village to do the same rite again.

Only later will Okema perform the “Mato oput” ceremony in which parties can confess crimes to their families, ask for forgiveness and pay damages.

“Anything they ask, I will do,” Okema says when asked if he will make a confession.

Kampala and LRA rebels have agreed to set up a special division within the High Court to deal with more severe crimes. Lesser offences will be dealt with by traditional justice.

ICC supporters say only a judicial process with stiff jail terms for grave crimes is acceptable.

In a refugee camp some 470 km (300 miles) north of the capital, 73-year-old Genecio Oryem said he cannot forgive the rebels who left him to eke out a meager living making ropes.

“I have lost all my children. I am an old man, I can’t go back to my village because I have no one to build me a home,” the frail man said.

Sitting next to Oryem in the camp of thatched mud huts, 80-year-old Angelina Akech agreed. “I don’t see the rebels so how can I forgive?”