Religion and reconciliation in post-conflict northern Uganda

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

It is a day I will never forget. Six members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had surrendered and returned home after years of fighting a bloody war against the government of Uganda. The crowd gathered to witness the homecoming consisted of those who themselves had endured horrific massacres, mutilations, mass displacement and the abduction of their loved ones, including upwards of 30,000 children forced into the rebel ranks. I didn’t know what to expect as survivors and perpetrators came face to face for the first time. Would the crowd demand their arrest? Would some seek revenge?

What happened next is not what I had expected. As the former rebels moved into the clearing of the compound where the crowd of survivors had gathered, they one by one stepped on a raw egg that had been meticulously laid on the path along with two types of branches by the traditional leaders. Known as nynyo tong gweno, this act signified a desire to begin the process of reconciliation, symbolizing the perpetrators’ acknowledgement of wrongdoing and their desire to be a part of the community again. Noise erupted from the crowd, but instead of the sound of insults and jeering, it was the sound of cheers and jubilation. Shortly afterwards, the Catholic Archbishop of northern Uganda, John Baptist
Odama, knelt down in front of the returnees, stating, “If in any way my contribution [to ending the war] was not sufficient or enough to make you better, please forgive me.” The moment was powerful and communicated collective responsibility, acceptance, hope and a desire to move forward together to achieve sustainable reconciliation and peace.

Religious leaders in Northern Uganda have been active in promoting peace and reconciliation throughout the region. Beginning with an idea to come together and pray, the religious leaders recognized they would have a greater impact working together rather than separately. Out of these prayer meetings the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), consisting of top clerics from the Anglican, Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox and Pentecostal faiths, was born. Guided by values and teachings that its participants share in common, ARLPI seeks to foster sustainable peace and reconciliation by transforming conflict using the path of nonviolence. As the Catholic Archbishop Odama states, “The world has torn us apart; it is our job to bring it together.”

With many based at the grassroots level, Ugandan religious leaders have been well placed to provide constant spiritual support and encouragement to those enduring through hardship. Religious leaders have organized activities such as building monuments to remember those killed in the conflict and annual peace prayers at massacre sites throughout the region. Many survivors of the conflict have told me that religiously-based
messages have provided a significant source of comfort to communities that have lived through ongoing conflict. One individual shared how the biblical story of Job narrated by a religious leader during a peace prayer event resonated with her personal experience and helped to provide a sense of hope that her plight was temporary. She insisted that “It’s only the word from the Bible that can console people. . . . . You will find that this type of suffering did not only start with me. Like for Ayubu [Job], all his family died so Ayubu was left with nothing and again God brought to him a lot of pain . . . but still Ayubu survived.” Reflecting on the unprecedented brutality and large scale of the violence that had torn through northern Uganda, one person with whom I spoke observed that “such kind of death would not be managed emotionally by anyone if there were no prayers.”

Promoting theology that insists that “we are all children of God,” religious leaders have also used peace prayers to provide a non-adversarial and supportive forum where both survivors and former rebels have an opportunity to give their testimonies and feel safeguarded by the presence of religious and other leaders well-known for promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. Former rebels heard stories of how the war had affected the survivors and survivors were able to hear directly from individuals once deemed as enemies to learn about how many of them were abducted and forced to fight and about the hardships they endured just to try and stay alive with the hope they would one day return home to their families. This sharing of stories has not only helped to provide a better understanding of the complex nature of the conflict, but also helped to highlight the blurred lines between victim and perpetrator, fostering the re-humanization of those who were once solely viewed as the enemy.

However, not all have been supportive of the role and influence that religious leaders have had in promoting peace and reconciliation.Critics argue that survivors are pressured by religious leaders to forgive, which promotes impunity and does not adequately address the unique needs of survivors. Some critics express the concern that the Christian understanding of reconciliation carries strong moral obligations, implying that in order to have a relationship with God, one must forgive one’s enemies. This concern is compounded by the fact that the Acholi word for amnesty, a process vigorously promoted by the religious leaders in order to encourage the surrender of the rebels, is kica, which also means forgiveness. Others argue that the widespread use of religious rhetoric in promoting reconciliation may only help to achieve non-violent coexistence, but not reconciliation. For example, in post-conflict Sierra Leone, Lisa Skoval perceived the rhetoric surrounding Christian reconciliation to be “formulaic.” She found that while people verbally stated they had forgiven and reconciled with their perpetrators, community members remained “fearful, careful, and diffident in their dealings with former combatants” (quoted in Govier, 2006). Such critiques certainly name valid concerns. For their part, ARLPI recognizes that ceremonies of reconciliation like the one descried at the beginning of this article are only the starting point. Sustainable reconciliation is a long-term process, providing opportunities for both victims and perpetrators in northern Ugandan communities to work side-by-side, rebuilding trust, restoring interdependence and moving towards a shared future together.

Wade Snowdon coordinates MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program.

Learn more:

Finnström, Sverker. Living With Bad Surroundings. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2008.

Govier, Trudy. Taking Wrongs Seriously: Acknowledgement, Reconciliation, and the Politics of Sustainable Peace. New York: Humanity Books, 2006.

Oloya, Opiyo. Child To Soldier: Stories from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 2013.

Peachey, Dean. “The Elusive Quest for Reconciliation in Northern Uganda.” In Critical
Perspectives in Transitional Justice. Ed. Nicola Palmer, Danielle Granville and Phil Clark, 287-308. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011.

Tutu, Desmond. No Future without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Related articles:

The church and peacebuilding in the African Great Lakes

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