I searched for answers in the eyes of the three Acholi men huddled with me in the corner of an outdoor café on the leafy outskirts of Lira, a major city in northern Uganda. I had met the youngest of the three, Patrick, three days earlier and knew him to be a former child soldier, abducted at nine and in the ranks of the LRA rebels for ten years. Patrick, I learned, was piecing together a new life in the grip of Christian faith and good friends.
Patrick had brought me to the café in the early light of a July day to meet with the other two. Charles was a tall, handsome man with remarkably troubled eyes that I figured must be partially explained by the events that led to amputation of one of his legs below the knee. I had met Charles the day before but hadn’t found out how he’d lost his leg. I was trying to talk with a young woman named Janet, one of the “famous” Aboke girls who had been abducted by the LRA from St. Mary’s Boarding School ten years ago. She had spent most of the past decade in captivity. Charles was introduced to me as Janet’s husband, and as the first person I needed to talk to in order to meet her.
Now, with his crutches propped against the wall behind his chair, Charles leaned toward the man we had all gathered to see, known to me only as Mark.
Mark is a large, imposing man resembling James Earl Jones in stature and visage, particularly Jones’ role as Rev Stephen Kumalo in the movie version of the South African classic on reconciliation, Cry, the Beloved Country. Like Kumalo, he is a pastor. He is also Janet’s father, who Charles had explained mysteriously “held me responsible for what had happened to her.” That mystery was one of many to be unfolded around the table.
Mark was understandably protective of his daughter, no longer a young girl, but one who had begun to see too much of the dark side of life before her 13th birthday, when she was enslaved by the LRA and forced into a life of servitude.
As the café brightened, Mark explained his protective instinct, and much more.
Charles, the pastor said, had himself been abducted nearly 20 years ago, in the early days of the twisted rebellion. He was 17 at the time, and like an early adopter of a pyramid marketing scheme, he was soon one of the commanders in what was to become a ferocious and by any standard evil force that continually increased its ranks with abducted children, some 30,000 over the years.
As young abducted girls came of age, they were given to commanders as—you pick the term–wives, concubines, sexual slaves. It was a privilege soon afforded young Charles, and over the years he was presented with four women; a harem that bore him 10 children.
Janet, Mark’s daughter abducted at Aboke, was one of these young women, and by Charles she had two children in captivity, in the bush–as they say in Uganda.
“When Janet was rescued with her children by the military, and she came home, I wanted to kill the man who had forced himself on her; I wanted to kill him with my teeth, I was so angry,” Mark told me, with Charles, that man, sitting beside him.
Then Charles was captured in a firefight with the Ugandan military, by that time already having lost his leg in an earlier battle.
“Then something strange happened,” Mark continued. “God made it clear to me that I was to forgive Charles for what he had done to my daughter. And only God can give you the strength to forgive such terrible acts.”
Charles produced two wallet photos, one of he and Janet with their two children smiling with a white background, looking very much like the young family that went to JC Penney for family photos in a coupon deal. The other photo had the family, with Charles and Mark shaking hands.
“Not only did God tell me to forgive, he told me to reconcile, to make this man, the husband to my daughter, my son. I have done that.”
Charles looked admiringly at the imposing man and told how Mark meets with him regularly and gives him regular counsel and admonition.
“I’ve told him that he must give his life to Christ,” Mark emphasized.
I marveled at his ability to reconcile so decisively and at how this seemed to come easily to the Acholi, who are offering amnesty to the vilest rebels. Mark agreed that it was remarkable, but said it was also extremely difficult. “It is tough. Only in God’s power can you look beyond such offense and agree to love.”
I talked briefly with Patrick, as Mark and Charles discussed plans for later that evening. Patrick continued the description of the reconciliation between the respected gentleman and his son-in-law.
Mark stopped our conversation mid-sentence: “What is this that I hear you saying? My son-in-law? That is not right. No,” he said looking intently at Charles, “this is my son.”