Uganda: Tribal justice takes root

News and Press Release
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Frustrated victims of rebel war turn to mato oput healing rituals, in absence of formal judicial mechanisms.

By Bill Oketch in Gulu (AR No. 192, 10-Nov-08)

Sitting in her leaky mud-and-thatch hut near Gulu, Hellen Awor, 30, recalls the day rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, raided her village in northern Uganda and abducted her brother.

She later learned that he had been killed by the rebels.

"I cannot forget about my lost brother. I cry every moment I think about him," said Awor, as tears rolled down her face.

Awor says former rebels now living in the area killed her brother, and she wants them to face traditional tribal justice.

It's not the kind of justice she prefers, Awor told IWPR, but it's the only way she will be able to come to terms with the death of her brother - as more formal judicial processes are not available.

Awor wants her brother's alleged killers to face the mato oput ceremony, the ethnic Acholi traditional system of justice once reserved for local crimes that provoked clan feuds.

She is among thousands of people in northern Uganda who have waited in vain for justice since the effective end of the rebel war in 2006 when the LRA and Uganda entered peace talks.

Although a peace deal remains unsigned, the LRA has vacated northern Uganda, allowing the region to have two years of peace after two decades of conflict.

But LRA leader Joseph Kony's refusal to sign a negotiated settlement with the Kampala authorities means that there has been no progress on setting up a local war crimes court, a key element of the deal.

Equally frustrating for local people is that there seems little immediate prospect of International Criminal Court, ICC, indictments against Kony and several other top rebel commanders being enforced.

So as calm has returned to the region, many war victims have had little option but to accept tribal justice for themselves and relatives who may have been killed or mutilated by the LRA. They say that without mato oput, former rebels will never be punished.

Mato oput involves making a tea from the fruit of an oput tree. Clans of the victim and perpetrator also bring a sheep that is slaughtered and shared.

The sheep's blood is mixed with the oput drink and sipped by the two clans, in a symbolic expression of reconciliation and forgiveness.

The rituals are conducted by elders, and the ceremony also serves as a truth telling event for former rebels.

Sessions are held out-of-doors and are open to anyone willing to testify about events during the LRA's war. Locally elected officials also attend the gatherings.

"The bitterness in the oput tree signifies the bitterness in the hearts of both clans for whatever has happened, and a covenant [is] made that [the accused] shall never do it again," said Emmanuel Mwaka Lutukumoi, information and communication minister at the Acholi Cultural Institution.

Awor has accused a young woman who was abducted by the rebels, Jacquelyn Ajok, 18, and Onen Kenneth, 25, a former LRA fighter, of killing her brother during a rebel attack. "I expect the perpetrators to pay for their sin," she said.

Ajok claims Kenneth ordered her to kill Awor's brother after rebels abducted him ten years ago from a village near Pader.

"He told me I would also be killed if I didn't obey his command," said Ajok. "So I got the gun and killed him in fear of my life. This really pains me because I never thought I would kill a fellow human being.

"God should forgive me for this sin. I will never repeat it again. I want forgiveness for crimes I committed while I was still in the bush."

Ajok said she hopes the mato oput ceremony will persuade members of the community to stop discriminating against her and other former rebels.

"The community should note that we are not [bad] guys," said Ajok. "We were abducted and forced to join the insurgents. We did not kill our friends willingly. We were forced to do so."

Kenneth thinks that the traditional mato oput ceremony is appropriate justice for former fighters.

"This system is fit for grave crimes because we realise that when a person comes back from captivity, confesses whatever he has done, maybe he can be forgiven," he said.

"I want to be forgiven so that I can live in harmony with Awor. I did not mean to hurt her, but I was also forced to do it."

Awor wants Ajok and Kenneth not only to submit to mato oput, but to pay compensation for her lost brother.

"If those who killed my brother want me to forgive them, then they have to confess the truth of what really happened and accept to pay compensation for my lost brother," Awor told IWPR.

Charles Lukwiya, an Acholi elder who oversees mato oput ceremonies, said it is customary for someone accused of murder to give the victim's family eight cows as compensation.

The Acholi believe that when a person tells the truth of what he or she has done and begs for forgiveness, that person can be forgiven when the clan accepts compensation for the loss of the deceased, explained Lukwiya.

Awor thinks that if the ceremony is to be used extensively to resolve crimes committed during the rebel war, compensation should be standardised.

"If justice is to prevail, then the government should provide us with uniform reparations so that we are economically and socially repaired," said Awor. "We want money and farm implements."

Despite increasing calls for mato oput, some northern Ugandans do not take this form of justice seriously.

"This is nonsense," said Mathew Banya, 62, who lost two sons and four daughters to the LRA.

Subjecting former rebels to the traditional rituals will never heal the wounds caused by the LRA, he said.

"Those who committed atrocities should be killed," continued Banya. "Asking killers to say they are sorry, or making them drink the bitter fruit of oput tree is not adequate justice."

Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained reporter.