The Difficult Path from War to Normal Life
KITGUM, Uganda With the announcement of a truce between the Ugandan government and the Lord's Resistance Army, the brutal rebel movement that has targeted civilians in northern Uganda for two decades, local people are hoping for an end to the conflict, which has killed tens of thousands and driven nearly two million, mostly members of the Acholi tribe, from their homes.
With the deadline approaching for the LRA to assemble in southern Sudan and reach a peace deal with the Ugandan government, I traveled across northern Uganda, visiting schools and health centers, markets and water pumps. I did not find many Ugandans interested in debating the fine points of how international justice is applied. People here do not care so much if justice comes before or after peace. Peace will lead to justice, they say. So, too, will justice usher in peace, by taking out of commission the very people waging war.
Northern Ugandans told me that there are fewer killings and abductions now than in recent years. The number of children commuting each night to sleep in a safe place in the town of Kitgum, for example, has dropped from 20,000 in 2002 to 3,000. But 90 percent of the rural population is still clustered in squalid camps, where they continue to suffer inhuman conditions.
The government in Kampala, which provides minimal military protection around these camps, says the settlements were established for the local people's safety. But with no infrastructure and a population density as high as Manhattan in some camps - the straw roofs of the picturesque round huts bump up against each other - the conditions are infernal.
The health situation is disastrous: A survey conducted by the World Health Organization in 2005 showed that in the three northern districts most affected by violence - Gulu, Kitgum and Pader - mortality rates for children under the age of 5 were 3.18 per 10,000 per day, three times the rate in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.
In Pader, one hour's drive on a bumpy road from Kitgum, I met in the shadow of two trees with a dozen local elders, all of them living in such camps. I hoped to hear a few opinions on the relative virtues of peace and justice, but the elders wanted to discuss the practical aspects of reintegrating into society hundreds or even thousands of children who have been abducted by the LRA and forced to serve as soldiers, porters or sex slaves. Their return to "normal" life is a real prospect if the truce leads to a permanent peace agreement.
The elders told me about the local child-protection committee, which oversees a reception center for formerly abducted children. International nongovernmental organizations locate families or relatives of the children, facilitate reunification and often pay for the education or vocational training of these and other children - orphans, teenage mothers and victims of child labor.
But the elders say that this is not enough. Without the traditional Acholi cleansing ceremony - which involves a series of rituals, from stepping on an egg to killing a goat, or even a cow, depending on the gravity of the misdeed to cleanse - no reintegration is possible.
It's easy to scorn such traditions. But I received a lesson from one 16-year-old who had been abducted by the LRA. He escaped from the rebels after six years, and is now the head of a household: He and his four younger siblings are orphans. His aunt paid for the goat, the ceremony was held for him, and now, he says, he is free from the memories of the atrocities he was forced to commit by the LRA's leader Joseph Kony. I listened, humbled.
An Acholi legislator wants to have the Ugandan Parliament discuss the possibility of adding two ancient reconciliation rituals to national law. And President Yoweri Museveni has reportedly suggested that "concerns about impunity" of the LRA "would be catered for under the Acholi traditional mechanism of apology, acceptance of responsibility and forgiveness, followed by rituals of cleansing, which the perpetrators of crime would have to undergo."
As there is momentum for a peace deal, then all means - legal, political and humanitarian, modern and traditional - must be used to help northern Uganda out of this madness.
Anna Husarska is a senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based humanitarian group.