Forgiveness is first step in return to humanity

July 19, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

THE POWER of forgiveness is practically inestimable in any culture. This much is obvious in parts of Africa beset by conflict, senseless death and atrocities.

Three weeks ago in this column, I related the story of Sunday Lalam, a 16-year-old girl from northern Uganda who escaped and returned to her community after five years of captivity in the hands of a rebel force calling itself the Lord's Resistance Army.

While with the LRA, Sunday said, she was compelled to commit unspeakable atrocities, including beating to death so many people she did not know the number. Murder by beating is one of the sadistic ways devised by Joseph Kony, the LRA leader, to punish disobedience and to instill terror in others who might consider disobedience or escape.

Mr. Kony's war is nominally against the government of President Yoweri Museveni on behalf of the people of the Acholi tribe who dominate in northern Uganda.

But many, if not most, of the LRA victims have been Acholi tribal villages and people. So much so that 90 percent of the people of northern Uganda have fled to camps for internally displaced people. Some "soldiers" as young and younger than Sunday Lalam, have been forced to kill their own parents. Sunday told of having to beat to death a youngster from her own village.

She escaped the LRA last month and, pregnant with the child of an LRA commander to whom she was given as a "wife," is being helped by a group called the Concerned Parents Association to return to her community near Kitgum, one of the northernmost towns of the region.

Just how does a community that has been terrorized by the LRA accept and welcome such a child soldier back into the community?

"Not easily" is one answer. "Simply and beautifully" is another.

The answer lay in Gulu, a town to the south where David Oneno Acan II, the paramount chief of the Acholi tribe, presides from his office in a small stucco building on a hill overlooking the town. He is the orchestrator of what is known as a "cleansing ceremony," an ancient, primitive ritual in which someone who has behaved badly is forgiven after stepping on an egg, over a farm pole and through some branches from a pobo tree.

The paramount chief was not in when I visited, but Sister Pauline Acayo, who runs a peace-building project there for the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, introduced me to his deputy, Albert Achiri.

"The ceremony started long ago," said Mr. Achiri. "It heals trauma. It is a belief we have."

"The egg represents life without sin," explained Sister Pauline. "The farm pole represents productivity. The pobo branches trap dirty things."

Sister Pauline said that the Catholic Church also participates in a fuller ceremony in which a priest blesses the candidate, either at the beginning or the end of the tribal ritual.

So many young men and women have been escaping or defecting from the LRA lately that there may be scores at a single ceremony, which presents an egg problem. "We can't use a fresh egg for everyone, so they all step on the same egg," she said.

Does it work?

Lilly Atek, a 23-year-old returnee who bore the children of three different LRA commanders to whom she was given, said it does.

Ms. Atek, who was abducted by the LRA at 14 and escaped 15 months ago, lives in a hut near the headquarters of the paramount chief. Like Sunday Lalam, Ms. Atek was compelled to beat to death many people, including a 10-year-old girl who had given wrong directions to a group of rebels.

After she escaped, with the help of the last commander to whom she was given, she had recurring nightmares. "I kept seeing the past and the people I had seen killed in front of me," she said.

After the cleansing ceremony, she said, "I was accepted back into the community. I prayed a lot. I no longer see the visions of the past."

The re-entry process involves more than the forgiveness ritual. The returnees require extensive counseling, livelihood training and moral support. The communities to which they are returning need to be prepared so forgiveness overwhelms the visceral desire for vengeance.

But it all starts with forgiveness.

G. Jefferson Price III was a foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun. He recently was traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services.

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