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Seeking redemption


GULU, Uganda - While the world's wealthiest nations ponder debt forgiveness to rescue the most troubled countries in Africa, here in this small town in Northern Uganda, a very different kind of forgiveness is a lot closer to the human experience.

The Acholi tribe that dominates this area calls it a cleansing ceremony. In the last few years, the candidates for "cleansing" have been both the victims and unwilling enactors of some of the most heinous brutality imaginable.

Lilly Atek, 23, once beat to death a 10-year-old girl and has participated in the fatal beatings and shootings of others. She wants to be forgiven.

Geoffrey Torac, 28, has beaten to death several people. He asks for forgiveness.

Francis Olanya, 18, has killed too many people to remember the number. Once, he was forced to kill a man and drink his victim's blood. He asks forgiveness.

They were all abducted at a young age by a rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army. The younger, the better for Joseph Kony, the messianic cultist who has led the LRA in 19 years of civil war in Northern Uganda, asserting that he wants the country to be ruled by the Ten Commandments.

To shape these children into obedient soldiers, Kony uses a combination of early indoctrination and fear. Many escapees have told similar stories of being ordered to beat someone to death within a week of their abduction, to instill fear in them and others.

They tell of frequent beatings they were subjected to and assaults and killings they were forced to participate in. They also describe deprivation and forced raids on farming communities to get food and new recruits. Those who have been lucky enough to escape, such as Atek, Torac and Olanya, have described these experiences in detail.

Atek was abducted when she was 14. She escaped 15 months ago with her three children, each of them fathered by a different LRA commander. The first two fathers were killed in battle. She escaped with the help of her third husband, who also later escaped. They live now in a small grass hut in Gulu.

Atek was often beaten, for "any small mistake I made." And she was ordered to beat to death others for their mistakes, including a 10-year-old girl who had given wrong directions to a group of LRA fighters.

"It is their policy to give you someone to kill soon after you are abducted," explained Torac, who also is living in Gulu.

In addition to beating to death helpless people who fell into the hands of the LRA, the youths were taught to fight with automatic weapons against the Ugandan army here and against anti-government insurgents in neighboring Sudan. The Islamic fundamentalist government of Sudan equipped the LRA to fight its insurgents.

When they were old enough - between 14 and 16 being regarded as the age of maturity - girls like Atek often were given as wives to LRA commanders, some much older than they, some not much older at all, abducted themselves at an early age.

Over the years, more than 20,000 youths have been abducted by the LRA. Thousands of these former child soldiers, practically all of them with blood on their hands and horrific experiences on their minds, have managed to escape. They are trying to recapture their youth and the affection of their families and communities, the very communities they helped to terrorize as soldiers in the LRA.

Now they want forgiveness. And, difficult as it may seem, they are receiving it in rituals that are as ancient as the Acholi tribe itself, with the help of Christian churches whose missionaries have been working in the area for centuries.

"They are all our children," says Sister Pauline Acayo, a 39-year-old nun who runs a peace-building project here for Catholic Relief Services, a Catholic humanitarian agency. "There is no other way."

Government forces in Northern Uganda have been strengthened by President Yoweri Museveni, and the killing, abduction and pillaging by the LRA has diminished. But an estimated 90 percent of the residents of Northern Uganda still lives in camps to which they fled during the war. Perversely, the LRA mostly raids, kills and abducts the very Acholi people they say they want to liberate.

Atek has been forgiven for the brutality she inflicted on others, including young people she was ordered to beat to death, one of them just for whistling while he worked.

And when other escapees and defectors from the LRA return home in peace, including the ones who made her commit such atrocities, they will be forgiven, too. For, by the time they come home, victims such as Lilly Atek may already have proclaimed forgiveness.

The tradition here of forgiveness and the ceremony that's part of the process are far older than the 19-year civil war in Northern Uganda, though this war has put tradition to a severe test.

There are three parts to the Acholi "cleansing" ritual. The supplicant steps on an egg, "which symbolizes clean life not yet contaminated by sin," explains Sister Pauline. Then they jump over a farming tool, "which symbolizes you are to be productive." Finally, the sinner passes through the leaves of a pobo tree "whose slippery bark catches dirty things."

Sister Pauline says that so many of the LRA's soldiers have been "coming out of the bush" lately, there's a problem with the egg part of the ceremony. "We've had as many as 800 at a time," she says. "We can't give up 800 eggs, so they have to use the same egg."

The Christian part of the ceremony brings a priest, sometimes a Catholic bishop, who blesses the returnee and offers up a prayer of forgiveness. Christianity is widespread in Uganda, a former British colony where Catholic and Protestant missionaries built and still maintain some of the best schools. Practically all people in Northern Uganda have Christian names.

The simplicity of the reconciliation ceremonies belies the gravity of grief and fear that pervades Northern Uganda at the end of the second decade of the civil war between the government forces and the LRA.

In addition to living in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps, tens of thousands of Acholi - mostly the children known as "night commuters" - parade every evening to various shelters in Gulu and Kitgum, leaving behind the IDP camps for safety from the LRA behind the walls of schools, hospitals and other secure institutions.

Other parts of the "cleansing" process for the returning LRA soldiers are more sophisticated than tribal ritual. Sister Pauline says her program follows up with counseling, not only for the returnees but for the communities to help them overcome the visceral desire for vengeance.

"We have discussions," she says. "We train paralegals, we show videos about reconciliation. We must have this to help with reconciliation, so the returnees will not feel like returning to the bush."

Speaking through an interpreter, Torac, who at 28 is older than most of the returnees, said that when he returned home, "I was traumatized. I could not sleep. I wasn't used to sleeping in an enclosed area.

"The elders told me I should go through the cleansing ceremony and I did that. A goat was slaughtered for a feast after the ceremony. After this, I felt released. I started going back to church. I sing in the choir. I am married now with two children. I live in peace."

What the people of Northern Uganda want is peace, an end to the war that has destroyed their homes and their livelihoods and led to the abduction of their children and their transformation into killers.

The Museveni government has contact with Kony through intermediaries, and the hope still exists that some day he will give up the battle. If he were to be found and killed, the larger war might end, but thousands of his entrenched followers, who have reaped profit and power from the war, would somehow have to be persuaded that they could re-integrate into their communities.

The tribal custom of forgiveness and all the reconciliation apparatus that accompanies it would be put to the ultimate test if that happens.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and editor at The Sun who has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services.

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