GULU, Uganda (AFP) — Two eggs, a large stick and an alcohol-filled gourd are what some believe it will take to heal the rift between the rebel Lord's Resistance Army and thousands of their victims in northern Uganda.
Along with two lambs, the items are the ingredients for a local forgiveness ritual known as "mato oput". The tradition is native to the Acholi ethnic group, who have suffered the brunt of the rebels' 20-year war with the Ugandan government.
The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) murdered, raped and mutilated thousands of civilians, abducted children to work as soldiers and sex slaves, and forced the displacement of two million others during the vicious, drawn-out conflict before a ceasefire was called in July 2006.
Acholi villagers accused of being traitors to the LRA or government spies were routinely rounded up to be tortured or killed. But many refugees now say they are ready to reconcile with their former tormentors through mato oput.
"We have been using mato oput to solve conflicts for many years," says Binayo Ogaba, 85, an Acholi elder, sitting outside a stone hut in a crowded refugee camp on the outskirts of Gulu, one of the conflict's hardest-hit towns.
Along the dusty roadside at a public ceremony, the "victim" and "perpetrator" stand facing each other, holding a long stick between them. Acholi elders instruct the two to never fight again, and then the two parties crush two eggs on the floor with their feet.
The eggs signify innocence, and by stepping on them, both are supposed to be purified.
Next, the elders pour a local gin into a gourd on the ground underneath the stick. Both victim and perpetrator kneel down and drink from the gourd at the same time. The perpetrator then brings out compensation that has been agreed upon to pay his victim's family.
Mato oput loosely means "to eat together". At the ceremony's culmination, two lambs are placed in opposite directions in front of the participants. The animals are slaughtered into parts, and each party exchanges the heads, then rears, of their lambs.
The lamb is cooked over a fire that evening and both parties eat from the same plate, in a final act of reconciliation.
"I have not seen any people fight again after the ceremony -- there are laws against that and we would take them to the government courts," Ogaba says, as children and brightly-clothed women carrying timber stop to listen.
Yet critics of mato oput say the ritual is not punitive enough to absolve the rebels of their brutal tactics. The LRA's leaders -- including notorious "spiritual commander" Joseph Kony -- face 33 indictments for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC) based in The Hague.
Not surprisingly, LRA leaders unanimously favour mato oput as opposed to any weighty sentences that could be meted out by the ICC.
"Mato oput falls short of the international standards required, though there are some parts that could be beneficial," says Peter Onega, a Ugandan High Court judge. "Under the traditional system, they don't talk of punishment, so that's where the formal judicial system comes in."
But Ogaba argues that the ritual is enough. "We believe mato oput can be used on a mass symbolic scale. People will be satisfied because they have already forgiven the LRA."
Ex-rebel Kenneth Banya is banking on that forgiveness. He surrendered to the Ugandan army in 2004 and has returned home to Gulu after receiving amnesty.
He has also undergone mato oput with his victims after returning to the North.
"The people said, 'Death for death doesn't help, so we forgive you,'" says Banya, 53, who was abducted 18 years ago to lead the LRA's political wing in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.
"Acholis are different people. They don't believe in revenge."
Several former LRA fighters have undergone the ritual since receiving amnesty, Banya says, and have since been welcomed back into their communities after asking for forgiveness.
"Most people say, for the sake of peace, even Kony can be given amnesty," Banya says.
The LRA says it will not sign a peace accord until the ICC charges are dropped. As a result, the Ugandan government has raised the idea of establishing a national tribunal to try the rebels itself.
Internal Affairs Minister Ruhakana Rugunda says the government is investigating how to implement a tribunal, but cautions that the ICC will only consider dropping its charges if Uganda implements an internationally acceptable court.
"We would like to see them account for their crimes, but we are not obsessed with seeing them march off to a foreign prison," says Norbert Mao, lawyer and chairman of Gulu district.
But he adds: "To think that the traditional system is enough would be to deceive ourselves."
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