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KITGUM, 9 June (IRIN) - Peter Otim was forced to join the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in 1995. Rising to the rank of Lt, he fought against the Ugandan government, killing and maiming several civilians along the way.
"In January, I gave myself up to the UPDF [Uganda Peoples' Defence Forces], but rather than being arrested or tried for being a rebel, I was given amnesty," said Otim, proudly displaying his certificate of amnesty.
In 2000, the Uganda government passed a blanket amnesty law, designed to provide total immunity from prosecution to any rebel who voluntarily surrendered to the government.
"The act was passed in a deliberate effort to try and find a peaceful way of ending the conflicts and rebellions the country has had," Justice Peter Onega, chairman of the Amnesty Commission, said in his paper, "The Amnesty Process: Opportunities and Challenges".
"Battered into a position of submission, aggravated by the fact that many of the rebels inflicting atrocities on them were their own children forced into rebellion, elders and religious leaders from the [worst affected] Acholi region began to advocate for amnesty," Onega explained.
Since the Amnesty Act was passed, more than 15,000 former combatants and abductees of the LRA have taken advantage of the law.
To obtain an amnesty certificate, the ex-combatant must sign a declaration denouncing the rebellion. In exchange, the recipient also receives a resettlement package, which includes a lump sum of 263,000 Uganda shillings (US $150), as well as a mattress, a blanket, a hoe and some seeds.
"I am hoping to use the money I will receive to go back to teacher-training school and eventually hope to return to the teaching profession I was in before I joined the war," Otim said.
The law is retrospective, with the amnesty dating back to 26 January 1986, when the government of President Yoweri Museveni came to power. Males and females over the age of 12 who were in captivity or combat for more than four months are eligible.
The LRA, led by the elusive and self-proclaimed mystic Joseph Kony, has waged a brutal campaign against the government for the past 19 years. The UN estimates that the insurgents have abducted more than 20,000 children to fight in the war and killed tens of thousands of civilians in the northern and eastern regions of the country.
The journey to forgiveness
Josephine Ajara, now 21, was abducted by the LRA in 1996 as she and her family sat down to breakfast one morning.
"First, I was forced to raid IDP [internally displaced persons'] camps for food. After a few months, I was taken to Sudan and became a soldier. I had to participate in the war," she explained.
Ajara served as a private in Kony's army for four years until her escape in 2001.
"One day, Kony's spirit came over him and told him that 600 abductees would escape that day," she said. "Three others and I decided to run away that day. We were followed by 50 soldiers, who had been told to chop us up into little pieces should they find us."
The UN Children's Fund returned Ajara from Juba, southern Sudan, to her home district of Kitgum, where she was handed over to the Ugandan army, who brought her to a reception centre for former abductees and combatants. She was later taken to the Kitgum branch of the Amnesty Commission.
"In the bush, we had heard about the amnesty, but Kony told us it was a lie and just a method of killing us when we came out," she said. "We were told we would be killed with a slow poison when we came out - for months I was very careful about what I ate, fearing the government was trying to poison me."
Ajara received her resettlement package and opened a kiosk in Kitgum town with the money. She planted crops and now sells food to her neighbours in Labuje IDP camp, where she found her family upon her return.
At Labuje, she was taken through "mato oput", a traditional Acholi justice ritual in which she accepted responsibility for her crimes and her family made reparations to the families of those she had harmed during her time a spart of the rebellion. Afterwards, she was reintegrated into her community.
However, Ajara said, most people had not really forgiven her. She has a three-month-old child whose father refused to marry her on the grounds that she had participated in the rebellion.
"Many people still think of me as a killer, and it is difficult for them to accept me back into the community," she observed. "When the men get drunk, they even begrudge me the money I was given by the commission, saying their own innocent children have nothing while I, a killer, got government support."
Despite the horrors she was subjected to in the bush, Ajara said she firmly believed that Kony should be forgiven if he surrendered because it was "the only way for us to get peace."
Challenges to amnesty
Although more than 15,000 people have been granted amnesty under the act, a shortage of funds has meant only about 4,000 have received the resettlement package that should accompany it.
"Just 278 out of more than 1,800 amnesty cases in Kitgum district have received the packages," admitted Raphael Makoha, head of the Kitgum branch of the Amnesty Commission.
"We do not have the funds to give them when they return, and we do not have the capacity to follow them up and ensure they are getting on well when they leave us," he added.
On 13 May, the World Bank launched the Uganda chapter of the Multi-Country Demobilisation and Resettlement Programme. The project - estimated at $4.2 million over a two-year period and intended to support the amnesty process - is expected to go a long way towards funding the backlog of cases, as well as helping future amnesty recipients.
Stigma remains a huge challenge for former abductees and combatants. While they are accepted by their communities on a superficial level, they still endure abuse from their peers and are deeply mistrusted.
More support was needed, Makoha indicated, for psychosocial therapy for returnees and local communities.
"We are trying to sensitise the communities, to tell them that most of these people were forced to commit these crimes. But stigma is difficult to overcome, especially where murder and other such atrocities are concerned," he said.
Many abductees who were tortured or forced by the LRA to commit horrific crimes against civilians suffer from severe trauma. Although they receive some counselling at reception centres immediately after leaving the LRA, many continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress or other trauma-related disorders, effectively rendering them unable to function in normal society.
"It is difficult to put it out of my mind," Ajara said. "The memories, the nightmares, they remain with me at night."
The amnesty programme was given an additional boost on 7 June when Museveni said Kony was entitled to immunity if he surrendered, in contrast to his previous statement that the LRA leadership should not be eligible.
Ultimately, Onega maintained, the amnesty process has provided Uganda with a unique and affordable opportunity for a peaceful resolution of the conflicts that have "torn the country into pieces".
[ Waiting for elusive peace in the war-ravaged north: http://www.irinnews.org/S_report.asp?ReportID=47568 ]
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