Retired Ugandan bishop seeks restorative justice for former child soldiers
by Fredrick Nzwili
(RNS) A retired Anglican bishop in northern Uganda is agitating for restorative justice – which emphasizes forgiveness and truth-telling over punishment – in a region where the wounds of a brutal war unleashed by the Lord’s Resistance Army persist.
Bishop Macleord Baker Ochola II, 84, has been responding to community concerns that the modern court system may not deliver justice for the people who suffered in the complex conflict.
In 1980s and ’90s, the LRA rebels, led by Joseph Kony, terrorized civilians in northern Uganda, abducting children and forcefully recruiting boys as soldiers and girls as sex slaves.
Kony turned child soldiers into killing machines against their own community.
By 2005, the LRA had abducted over 60,000 children and killed more than 100,000 people, while displacing 2.5 million people.
Ochola buried the dead, walked with returning child soldiers and at one point was forced into exile.
The conflict took a toll on his family. His wife died in 1997 after a land mine blast hit a car she was traveling in. Ten years earlier, his daughter committed suicide after being gang-raped by the rebels.
But Ochola has refused to remain bitter, choosing to promote peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation among his people.
“If there is no process of reconciliation, there is no healing, and if there is no healing there is no restoration and justice,” said Ochola, who served the Diocese of Kitgum. “Healing and restoration brings transformation of life for those affected.”
The International Criminal Court in The Hague indicted five top leaders of the rebel group in 2005.
Last month, it put on trial Dominic Ongwen, a 41-year-old former rebel commander who was abducted at age 10. He faces 70 charges, including murder, attempted murder, rape, torture, sexual slavery and forced marriage. He is the first former child soldier to appear before court.
“In the name of God, I deny all these charges,” Ongwen said in court.
Ochola has been urging the court to carefully reconsider the circumstances under which children-turned-commanders were trapped in LRA captivity.
While he does not deny the court’s charges, he fears the court may not offer restorative justice but is seeking punishment or retribution. He is also concerned it will divide the community, which is in dire need of unity in the aftermath of LRA atrocities.
Like many other cultural and religious leaders in Uganda, he stresses a traditional justice system known as “Mato Oput,” which he thinks is more holistic.
Centered on forgiveness, it involves truth telling, compensation and a ritual in which food is shared and the accused drinks bitter herbs.
“It brings restoration to broken human relationships, transforms lives and heals the hearts of those involved,” said Ochola. “The court system, which is retributive, promotes polarization, alienating both sides.”
Mato Oput mirrors many of the forgiveness and reconciliation efforts central to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa and the Gacaca courts used in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.
Mato Oput is the justice system of the Acholi people of northern Uganda, the community most affected by the LRA conflict.
The LRA left northern Uganda in 2005 and is now believed to operate along the border region of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“The LRA is still at large and they are still fighting … so we must continue with the work,” said Ochola.
In 1997, Ochola was one of the founders of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an interfaith organization led by cultural and religious leaders that sought to peacefully end the LRA insurgency. ARLPI has been facilitating grass-roots and intercommunal reconciliation and peaceful coexistence.
One aspect of that is trying to help the government and LRA go through a process of truth telling.
“This would involve accepting full responsibility and making public acknowledgment of what one has done,” said Ochola.
One problem, he said, is the government’s lack of political will to dismantle the LRA.
In the case of Ongwen, Ochola had hoped the former rebel would be brought to the community for truth telling. Since that did not happen, Ongwen will likely refuse to accept responsibility.
“As a victim, he continues to be punished twice,” said Ochola.
Sheikh Musa Khalil, a northern Uganda Muslim leader and the ARLPI vice chairman, backs Ochola, saying that with Ongwen, the traditional system could have achieved more.
“It mirrors what is in the Quran and Bible,” said Khalil. “It’s based on forgiveness. We feel he should have been brought to us.”
The bishop believes a change is needed in the general wordview that when a child is abducted — as in the case of northern Uganda — he or she must take full responsibility in adulthood for any crimes committed while a captive.
“For northern Uganda,” he said, “this is wrong because the children had their humanity destroyed.”
(Fredrick Nzwili is a reporter based in Nairobi)