Uganda: War wounds too deep to heal

By Bill Oketch, IWPR-trained journalist in Uganda

The day after a woman asked that the traditional justice ceremony of mato oput be conducted for rebels who killed her brother, I thought about the rebels who had killed two of my brothers.

I too wanted to hold these rebels accountable for their action.

Like the woman I had interviewed for a story on the mato oput ceremony, my brothers were also killed by the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, fighters in northern Uganda.

She knew who the rebels were, but I didn't know where to begin or how to approach the rebels. The more I thought about it, the angrier I became.

When I had interviewed the woman, however, I had momentarily forgotten that I had suffered as much or more than anyone else in the war: I had lost two brothers compared to this woman's one.

As I continued with my interview, I broke down and was comforted by a journalism colleague. He didn't know why I was so distraught.

I have carried a lot of bitterness in my heart ever since the LRA committed atrocities against my family in 1998 in the Abella village, about 37 kilometres from Lira town.

The memories of my lost brothers haunt me so that I cannot forget about the LRA conflict that raged on for 20 years in northern Uganda.

No matter what others may say, I doubt that the traditional reconciliation ceremony of mato oput will ever help me to come to terms with my loss.

If the LRA rebels of Joseph Kony are allowed to pay compensation for my lost brothers, will this remove the tears rolling down my face? What I want are punishments that match the crimes the rebels committed.

Making killers submit to mato oput is just like thanking them for breaking the ribs and cutting the breasts and mouths of our beloved relatives.

For decades, the traditional rituals such as mato oput were used to solve minor crimes such as stealing in the neighbourhood or a conflict between two clans. Never was it meant to address mass rape, mass murder, and mutilation perpetrated by the LRA.

Mato oput is a very rare kind of traditional ceremony meant to solve conflict rather than letting it fester and grow, eventually bringing discord into the community, ethnic Acholi and Langi elders have told me.

For example, when clan A commits a crime against clan B, the two clans are in turmoil and confusion. Elders then step in and calm the situation by submitting the angry parties to mato oput. They mediate.

In the mediation there is dialogue, and essential to the dialogue is truth-telling. The person who committed the crime must confess the truth of what really happened, why and how it happened.

When the elders establish the truth, the clan that committed the crime must accept the guilt.

One thing that must be noted is that in mato oput, the perpetrator is not looked on as just one person, but as a clan. The reason is that if the person who belongs to clan A has killed someone from clan B, the entire clan must face retribution.

So in the ethnic Acholi culture, the two clan elders will sit down and reach an agreement. The leader of the clan that committed the crime will apologise and seek for forgiveness, accept the guilt and tell the truth of really what happened, and finally beg to be forgiven.

The forgiveness is not a blanket one, however. The clan that lost a person will demand specific compensation for the loss.

The Acholi have a standard of compensation. For instance when a woman is murdered, at least 16 cows are supposed to be paid as compensation to the victim's family.

When the 16 cows are accepted, then a cleansing ritual is conducted. This final cleansing is the mato oput ceremony and is the final step of the reconciliation.

But mato oput ceremonies are not enough to heal the wounds caused by 20 years of war waged by the LRA in northern Uganda.

This ceremony was designed for small-scale crimes, although the Acholi communities argue that when a person comes back from LRA captivity, then confesses the truth of whatever he or she has done, such a ceremony can be appropriate.

But in the situation of northern Uganda, it's very hard to know who the perpetrators are. Of course the victims are clear, the Acholi, Langi, Iteso and Madi ethic groups living in northern Uganda.

We realise that the government has been blamed for failing to protect civilians during the LRA raids. Tens of thousands of people died in crossfire between the government military and the LRA. So the local people in the north were victims of two enemies: the state and the LRA.

The pattern of voting in northern Uganda shows clearly the bitterness in the hearts of the people. In the 2006 presidential election, all of the regions most affected by the war voted against President Yoweri Museveni, which amounted to a rejection of his handling of the war.

Given the amount of damage and suffering inflicted in the north, some people also argue that it is not right that the LRA leaders be tried by the International Criminal Court, ICC, and live comfortably as the cases are tried for years and years.

And, some say, it is inappropriate that the maximum they face is a sentence where they might live out their days in the comfortable confines of an international jail cell.

The magnitude of the killing in the north is beyond sin. These are not minor crimes, they are crimes against humanity.

Due to the absence of justice system that can try former LRA fighters, however, many communities are turning to mato oput to atone for crimes committed against northern Ugandans. Some hope this will restore unity in the region.

Another challenge that surrounds mato oput is that elders are very poor. They cannot afford to transport themselves everywhere they are needed to conduct all the ceremonies.

The clans also are so poor that people are still living in camps. Since the mato oput system is based on compensation, the inability to pay limits the process.

And, of course many people feel mato oput is only an Acholi ceremony, and may not be right for some of the other ethnic groups that were victimised by the conflict.

While the mato oput ceremony may be a step toward healing some of the wounds of the past, it does not answer all of the questions that surround the complex issues of justice for war crimes in the north.

Who should be apologising to whom? Why? How and when? These are big questions that should be answered.

As for myself, such ceremonies will never be adequate compensation for the loss of my two brothers.