Forgiveness for Uganda’s former rebels

For the past 18 years a rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has abducted more than 20,000 children. One and half million civilians have been displaced and an estimated 100,000 people killed. But while the Ugandan government says it can defeat the rebels using the gun, others hope for a more peaceful resolution.

I’ve just watched 392 people line up and then, one by one, step on a raw egg.

I was in a squalid camp for thousands of people displaced by the war in northern Uganda.

The occasion? A cleansing ceremony to forgive and welcome home the men, women, children and even babies who had been with the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

An old man in a jacket and tie stood next to the egg and ensured that all 392 people stepped on it with their right foot, occasionally helping a young mother rummage through the colourful bundle of sheets and blankets to locate her baby’s foot.

I learnt from the paramount chief, Rwot Acana, that for the Acholi population of northern Uganda, the egg is a sign of innocence, something which has life but is pure and has not yet been contaminated.

So by stepping on the egg, the former rebels are being forgiven, told they are innocent and welcomed home.

Almost all the rebels in the Lord’s Resistance Army were abducted as children and were forced to carry out atrocities on their own communities.

The same communities are now showing such extraordinary forgiveness.

Safe presence

In a bar in the centre of Gulu town I watch a game of pool.

A grey-haired man prepares for his first shot, his face creased up with concentration.

He pulls back the cue two or three times and then lets rip, missing every single ball on the table.

But it is not surprising that the old man is hopeless at pool. He has been in the bush with the rebels for the past 17 years.

But thanks to an amnesty, Brigadier Kenneth Banya is now free to practise pool as much as he likes, despite the fact that he was considered to have been the brains behind some of the rebel attacks and attrocities.

Eight months ago in the village of Barlonyo I watched two brothers cover their hands in plastic bags as they picked up the charred remains of their own mother.

They buried her in a shallow grave which they then covered in the bricks from her destroyed home.

This rebel attack claimed over 200 innocent lives.

Now how on earth can you forgive the people who attacked Barlonyo or even those who ordered the attack?

Well you can when it was your own son or daughter who did it, after being abducted, brainwashed, and forced to either kill or be killed.

Brigadier Kenneth Banya claims he was abducted by the rebels but many do not believe him.

To put it mildly, he is not your average LRA rebel.

“Before my time in the bush, I was trained as a pilot in Moscow,” he tells me. “Then I went for more training in Dallas,” he adds looking up from the pool table.

A man comes up to shake him by the hand and offers a warm welcome.

People in northern Uganda feel safer knowing that some of the rebel leaders are not out there plotting more attacks.

To put a Ugandan slant on the expression “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” you could say “a Banya in the bar is better than a Banya in the bush.”

Thankful anticipation

While reporting from northern Uganda, there have not been many uplifting moments.

But after interviewing Brigadier Banya I headed to the airstrip on the edge of Gulu town for some good news.

Dozens of children who had spent years in captivity were being flown home from Sudan where the LRA rebels used to have bases and were trained by the Sudanese army.

Standing nervously at the back of the crowd that had gathered at the airstrip were two women, Stella and Betty.

“My sister Lydia is on the plane,” Stella told me. “I haven’t seen her since she was abducted from her secondary school, eight years ago.”

And Lydia’s aunt Betty had rushed over from Nairobi.

Soon Stella, Betty and Lydia are hugging – praising God and wailing – tears of joy rolling down their cheeks.

Some of the men and women on board were the hardened rebel fighters. But now back home they are no longer the enemy.

I have even seen Ugandan soldiers hug former rebels.

Now, at military training academies, I doubt they teach much about hugging the enemy. But here in northern Uganda this is another example of the incredible capacity for forgiveness.

On witnessing the cleansing ceremony and relatives being reunited, it becomes understandable why there is not much jumping for joy in northern Uganda when the military announces it has killed 23 rebels.

After all, there are still many more parents waiting for their abducted children to come home alive.

They can then step on the egg and be forgiven for whatever they have been forced to do.

From Our Own Correspondent is broadcast on Saturdays at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Oct. 25, 2004
Will Ross

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday October 27, 2004.
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