Since my return from Uganda in late July, I’ve been following the sitution in northern Uganda with interest.
It is difficult to get reliable reports out of Uganda about the peace talks with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). While there have been reports of a peace deal, and even indications that up to 1,800 rebels have moved to designated areas, the talks continue. One hang up to total resolution is the international court indictments of rebel leader Joseph Kony and his commanders. Uganda is willing to grant amnesty, but the ICC hasn’t agreed.
While peace talks continue between the Ugandan government and the LRA, the Acholi people of northern Uganda, 90 percent of whom are displaced by 20 years of terror, pray for peace but find little reason for concrete hope.
There have been at least seven unsuccessful attempts over two decades to secure a peace agreement, and many were followed by spasms of LRA violence.
“People will stay in the protected internal refugee camps until they have enough confidence that the attacks won’t begin again, and that hasn’t happened yet,” said Doreen Achieng , a program director with Action for Children, a Ugandan social service agency.
Some residents are leaving the camps during the day to farm their land near their abandoned or ruined homes. But almost no one has enough trust that the current lull in attacks will last to live in their villages and face nights that so often have been filled with horror.
For now, most of the villages remain empty, the land dotted with the graves of more than 12,000 friends and family members killed by the LRA.
The challenge for the church is enormous.
“Ugandan church leaders struggle today to assure their flocks of God’s love when many cannot remember a time without deep sorrow,” said Conrad Mandsager, executive director of ChildVoice International, one Christian organization that is providing aid to child victims in the Gulu district. “The scope of the horror and death that the people of northern Uganda have seen and experienced is unfathomable.”
The government of Uganda, recognizing the fundamental victimization of the child soldiers, offered them amnesty last year, which made it more attractive for even long-time rebels to escape. Prior to the peace talks, the government extended the amnesty to Joseph Kony and senior rebel commanders who would abandon their rebellion. The offer, although not yet accepted by the senior rebels, is in accord with a traditional Acholi heart for forgiveness.
Most church leaders support the principle of Kony and his commanders being offered amnesty, viewing it as their Christian duty to forgive.
“In fact, we want them to return home and live a normal life like everybody else,” said Rev. Willy Akena, information officer for the Anglican Diocese of Northern Uganda in Gulu. “It would also be a testimony to those in the communities to know about reconciliation, and I believe many people will be changed as we expect that upon their return, they will publicly denounce their previous atrocities.”
Nonetheless, some churchmen don’t see the desire for peace as a reason for pardoning the ring leaders.
“The amnesty is not right for Kony and the commanders,” said one Acholi lay leader now in Kampala. “They are international criminals who the U.N. should apprehend in Congo, where the LRA has set up their camps.”
As in most areas of Uganda, there are Anglican, Catholic, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches in most communities. But in the north most stand empty, since almost all families have been forced by the violence to move to one of 60 protected internal displacement camps (IDP).
All families in a village do not move to the same IDP camp, however, so church and social communities are shattered, not just moved. Many pastors do their best to gather new congregations in or near a camp, but they are usually starting from scratch.
Spiritual interest remains high, and many small non-affiliated churches are being established in the camps. The lack of accountability and theological training has resulted in false teaching. “For example, part of the teaching is that people who are victims of atrocities are sinners and that the rebel activity is God’s way of removing sinners,” Rev. Akena said.