GULU, 9 June (IRIN) - The Acholi community of northern Uganda has endured the brutal abuse of its sons and daughters by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) for nearly two decades, but it has chosen to forgive the perpetrators of these atrocities.
"The Acholi are a peace-loving people. Traditionally, we do not practise the western forms of justice. If someone shows remorse for their crime, we forgive them," Achaye Jakeo, a traditional chief who lives in Pabbo camp for internally displaced persons in the northern district of Gulu, said.
The UN estimates that up to 80 percent of the LRA's soldiers are children who have been abducted from local communities - principally the Acholi - in northern and eastern Uganda.
In an elaborate ceremony called "mato oput" - which in the Acholi language literally means to drink a bitter potion made from the leaves of the oput tree - the prodigal sons and daughters receive forgiveness and are welcomed back into their communities.
"Mato oput involves the man or woman accepting responsibility for their actions and repenting for their crimes against their brothers and sisters," Baker Ochola, bishop emeritus of the Anglican diocese of Kitgum, told IRIN.
"They then ask for the forgiveness of their community and pay reparations - sometimes in the form of a goat or a cow - to those they have wronged," Ochola added. "Finally, they rejoin their community without cruelty or victimisation."
The ceremony is conducted by a council of elders. The guilty party crushes a raw egg to symbolise a new beginning and then steps over an "opobo" (bamboo stick) to represent the leap from the past to the present.
At the climax of the rite, both the guilty party and the wronged party drink a brew made from the herbs of the oput tree to show that they accept the bitterness of the past and promise never to taste such bitterness again.
The idea of reintegrating former rebels into the very communities they have terrorised has been hailed as a noble one, but Jakeo explained that it is the only way to prevent the otherwise inevitable breakdown of society.
"The LRA are not a foreign group - they are our sons and daughters, brothers killing brothers. Many of them were forced to go into the bush and become killers. How can we go on as a community if we do not forgive them?" he asked.
Many former combatants who have gone through mato oput, however, said the forgiveness is superficial.
"We go through the ceremony and we are told we have been forgiven. But the truth is people can never forget what we have done," Jacqueline Auma, 14, said. "People still call me a killer, and few of my peers will even talk to me."
Ochola was confident, however, that despite some initial reluctance to welcome the ex-combatants back into the fold, they would be reintegrated into their communities in time.
"Of course human nature finds it difficult to forget, even after forgiveness, but eventually they will accept them. It is the best way for both the victim and the offender to heal," he said.
President Yoweri Museveni said if LRA leader Joseph Kony surrendered, he would have to go through the ritual.
"If Kony came out, we would have to do what in Runyankore [a Ugandan language] is called 'okukaraba' or in Acholi 'mato oput', which means blood settlement," he told IRIN in an interview on 28 May.
[ Waiting for elusive peace in the war-ravaged north: http://www.irinnews.org/S_report.asp?ReportID=47568 ]
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