"There can be no peace without reconciliation, no reconciliation without forgiveness, and no forgiveness without giving up all hope for a better past." I’ve heard this wisdom—and challenge—credited to South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Whatever the source, it has been resonating in my mind and heart as I get to know a remarkable group of young people in northern Uganda.
This part of the country has been wracked and ravaged by a civil war for the last 21 years, with violence directed largely at the civilian population. An estimated 20,000 children have been abducted by the rebels, and over half a million people forced by the army away from their land and into Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. Every family has experienced loss, and atrocity stories are as common as dirt. Because the ethnic group in the area, the Acholi, is out of favor with the current government, there has been virtually no popular opposition to the war outside of the north. The cease-fire and current talks bring a blessed relief from daily danger, but no one is confident yet that the peace will hold.
Our family came to the town of Gulu for three weeks to support a remarkable Ugandan friend, Abitimo Odongkara, in the school she started twenty years ago for war orphans, and in her desire to contribute to the healing of her Acholi people. What we received was a lesson in forgiveness.
We felt incredibly privileged to be introduced almost at once to a group of about thirty 19 to 29-year-olds with whom she had been meeting for several months. They were eager to learn what we could share about peer counseling. The practice of taking turns listening to each other in groups of two or three gave us precious access to the internal lives of these young women and men. All but one or two of them had never known a time of peace. Many were war orphans. Some had seen their parents and siblings killed. Some had been abducted and forced to serve in the rebel army when they were as young as nine. Individually and collectively, they had all been deeply traumatized.
The stories were compelling, but what shone out was their humanness. They were eager to forgive, eager to let go of the past and look toward the future, eager to love. They soaked up the idea that people are good, that no one mistreats another unless they have been mistreated themselves, that we can heal and reclaim our ability to love and connect. They wanted this for themselves, but even more they wanted it for their people. They were eager to listen and to love.
Before we came, I had searched the internet for evidence of Friends in northern Uganda and found a British Quaker Service in Gulu. They have been supporting the peace process, documenting self-help healing efforts in the IDP camps, and supporting a group of young mothers who were returned abductees, now raising children of rape and counseling other young women in the camps. I had made an arrangement in advance to meet with the staff, who turned out to be two attractive and dedicated young men, one from Britain and one from Kenya, neither Quaker. (Their administrative person, a local, said that if Quakers would talk more about their faith, they’d get more converts!) The Kenyan, Martin Ogango, who was supporting this young mothers group, had been searching for ways to get them more counseling resources, and was delighted to take up our offer to share with them what we know of peer counseling.
Here was another remarkable group of human beings—young mothers, all with horror stories of their own, eager to be of use to their sisters. "How can you listen," one of them asked, "if what you hear makes you cry too?" They were relieved to hear that clinical detachment is not the goal. If you can show your caring as you cry along, then you’ll both get some relief. Again, there was no interest in airing old grievances, no thought about retribution. They just wanted to heal, to help others heal, to be whole again.
During the time we were in northern Uganda, the peace talks were in the news. A major sticking point was the refusal of the rebel leader, Joseph Kony, to agree to a peace that would leave him liable to prosecution for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Now I don’t think anyone doubts he is guilty, and several prominent human rights groups are eager to have him tried. But the people of northern Uganda, the ones who have lost their parents and their children and their access to the land, are ready to forgive. They are ready to give up all hope for a better past, and look toward the future. The idea of holding their hopes for peace and livelihood hostage to some abstract concept of paying for one’s crime seems like a criminal miscarriage of justice.
As we head home, I hold these young men and women who have been through so much in my heart. I feel blessed to have had this opportunity to help in some small way to increase their capacity to listen and to love. I can only hope that their passion to tap into the healing power of forgiveness, and to be part of the healing of their people, will stay with me forever.