A post-conflict paradox of northern UgandaPosted in News
By Jasper Kubasek
I woke up on the morning of our second day in Palabek in the house of two priests. Sitting just below the border with South Sudan, the one-road town is the largest in northern Uganda’s Lamwo district. The small inn where we normally stay when working in Lamwo was full, but fortunately GRG has a good relationship with the priests, so for approximately $1.50 per night I was given a cement room, a metal-framed bed, a light bulb, and one of the warmest welcomes I will probably ever have.
Having awoken a bit early, I wandered around the compound to the back garden—everyone in Uganda has a garden—which is about the size of two tennis courts. Father Norbert found me here trying to pass the time. His mannerisms, smile and confident approach showed me that he was interested in conversation.
We began walking along the edge of the garden, and he pointed out the cassava plants, banana suckers and beans and told me all about his big plans for the garden’s future. Genuinely interested, I learned a bit about Ugandan gardening. Eventually, we began to talk about the land, how fertile it was and the history of the place where we stood. This was when the conversation took a turn. After a pause, he told me, “You know, this whole area where we are right now used to be part of an Internally Displaced Persons [IDP] camp.” I had been generally aware of this but didn’t know it was exactly where we stood or, indeed, that it actually encompassed the numerous acres of land that surrounded us.
Father Norbert first visited this camp as a young priest during the decades-long conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels. His recollection is haunting. In an effort to prevent the LRA from kidnapping more children for their rebel army, the government forced the people who had been living and farming throughout the region to move into the camps. The government, however, lacked the ability to support the camps and was largely unable to protect the people in them. Famine, disease and depression became the norm for the entire population of Lamwo. Sexual violence within the IDP camps is partially responsible for the HIV/AIDS epidemic that plagues northern Uganda today. Father Norbert recalled the desperation he witnessed: how there had been at least two suicides a day in the camp. Rebels would often overpower guards—or sneak past them—to kill and abduct in the night. To this day, thousands of children remain unaccounted for, their families not knowing whether they are alive or dead.
Against this backdrop Father Norbert told me that he had recently spoken with a woman who had been abducted from the region. Kidnapped as a young child, she had spent many years in LRA captivity as one of Dominic Ongwen’s ten wives and was mother to three of his children. Under pressure from counter-LRA operations, LRA leader Joseph Kony had ordered his soldiers to release their wives and children so that his troops would have more mobility in the jungle.
Ongwen is one of five LRA commanders indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). His initial arrest warrant cited three counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes. On September 18th, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda expanded the case to include 60 additional charges. Among the charges are murder; enslavement; torture; use of child soldiers; intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population; and inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering. Just saying the name Ongwen can bring tears to the eyes of some GRG group members, reminding them of friends and family that he took from them.
When Father Norbert asked Ongwen’s wife what she thought of the LRA commander, she spoke fondly of the man, affectionately calling him “Brigadier.” She claimed that he treated her very well and hoped that she would be able to see him again. Father Norbert told me one of her children was Ongwen’s spitting image.
Under threat of punishment and possible execution by Kony, Ongwen surrendered to US troops a few months ago. Before rising through the ranks of the LRA to become one of its most infamous commanders, Ongwen himself, like his wife, was just a 14-year-old kid in the wrong village at the wrong time. When his ICC trial begins in January, his own status as a forcefully abducted former child soldier will likely be his strongest (and maybe his only) defense.
At this point in the conversation, Father Norbert’s story was interrupted, and I had to take my leave. It was time for me to move into the field to work with the very people who once lived in the camp that Farther Norbert had described, now joined by formerly abducted LRA soldiers who have returned home.
Our conversation had a powerful effect on me. It shed light on some of the complexities of the LRA conflict and the current situation. As Ongwen’s situation demonstrates, despite the horrible atrocities that were committed, it is not so easy to draw the line between victim and perpetrator. Ongwen is both. Given the magnitude of his crimes, can being the former excuse the latter?
After speaking with a number of formerly abducted individuals and other community members, I found myself even further conflicted. A woman who had spent years both in the camp and in rebel captivity told me, “Imagine that you have a son, that he is kidnapped from your family at the age of ten, and that his abductors subject him to a culture of cruelty, arrogance and violence, brainwashing him while forcing him to commit terrible crimes for years until he grew into adulthood. Would you blame him for those crimes, or would you blame his captors?”
A former child soldier abducted at age 14 who spent 11 years in Kony’s LRA ranks spoke frankly. “Ogwen should be forgiven. I was abducted and forced to serve Kony. Now that I am out, I am so grateful to have had the chance to learn from my community and to rebuild the life that was taken from me. Ongwen was younger than I was when he was taken. Why should I be forgiven and him not?”
Some community members suggested a small punishment, like five years in prison, while most I spoke with seemed to agree that Ongwen should be granted Amnesty just like thousands of other soldiers who had escaped from the LRA. An older women told me that Ongwen should be brought before the public, and that as long as he showed remorse for his crimes, he should be welcomed back by the community and given a second chance.
As for the notorious LRA leader Joseph Kony, those who had just advocated amnesty in the case of Ongwen were in agreement—the man should die.* Given the significant set of terrible crimes that they both stand accused of by the ICC, this stark difference in opinion is telling. The people of northern Uganda endured more than two decades of brutal conflict and mass atrocities, but when it comes to accountability, there is no clear solution. Victims of crimes demand justice, but perpetrators are so often also victims.
Amidst all of this uncertainty, there is one undeniable truth: the healing process for the people of northern Uganda is far from over.
*It should be noted that the views expressed in this blog are attributed to specific individuals interviewed and do not in any way seek to represent official opinions of GRG or the general population of Uganda.