Why victims’ continue to demand for accountability in spite of government pardons

Isaac Okwir Odiya

In the West Nile sub-region of Uganda, as may be the case in other parts of Uganda and the rest of the world, former combatants of a rebel movement and members of the very community to whom crimes were perpetrated are living a parallel lives. West Nile experienced rebel activities of the Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF) I and II which was characterised by the looting of civilians’ properties and killings, displacement and abduction among others. The rebel group is claimed to have started as a protest against bad government policies and unfair treatment to people of West Nile. Through peace negotiation, the Government of Uganda and the rebel group signed a peace agreement which returned the rebels back home. The rebels of UNRF I and II were pardoned by the Government after denouncing war and were resettled to their respective communities.

Community outreaches are one of Community Mobilisation’s core activities and helps to engage conflict affected communities to disseminate and discuss transitional justice issues in their communities. In 2012, we engaged community members of Lefori Sub-county, Moyo District in a community dialogue to discuss with them post conflict challenges and opportunity for reconciliation within their region. The dialogue was attended by former rebels of UNRF I and II and members of the community who suffered the brunt of the two rebels groups. The discussion presented a parameter of co-existence between former rebels and other members of the community characterised by victims’ grievances on towards the former rebels for the atrocities imposed onto them.

Victims claim that the rebels looted their properties, killed their spouses, disrupted the education of their children and displaced their communities. Because of this they are not able to provide basic requirements to their families. They also claim that the Government has pardoned and resettled people who perpetuated crimes against them, forgetting the losses they incurred. To them, the former rebels have been well resettled and the Government has pledged to give them more resettlement packages despite the atrocities they committed on the civilians. Victims are living a parallel life with former rebels whom they claim are the source of their suffering and state of helplessness. They hold former rebels responsible and want them to account for their losses.

On the other hand, the former rebels of UNRF I and II claim that they went to the bush in demand for their rights which were being violated by the Government of Uganda and while in the bush, they did everything possible to attract the attention of the Government to listen to them. The Government responded to their plea in a round table discussion during which Government delegates pledged to better their condition of living if they denounce war which they did and reported back home. They claim that the Government promised to pay them resettlement packages to start a new life but this promise has never been fulfilled. Just like victims are holding former rebels accountable for the losses they met during the war, former rebels are aggrieved towards the Government of Uganda for returning them home empty handed and not fulfilling their pledge.

To the former rebels victims fail to understand their point of view, blame them for wrongs committed during the conflict and as such have not fully accepted them in the community. Victims are disassociating them from development opportunities in the area and are not cooperating with them in community social events. All sorts of continuing evils and criminal acts in the community are blamed on them. Having been failed by the Government to properly resettle them into the community and following all sorts of accusation and abuses by members of the community, ex-combatant thinks they have been pardoned for easy prosecution at a later time.

In this context therefore, it is important to note that the principle of accountability for crimes committed during conflict and the needs for reconciliation are fundamental in a post conflict situation. The parallel life between ex-combatants and victims in West Nile is a result of lack of accountability and a mechanism to foster reconciliation in the region. The resettlement of former rebel into their communities was not systematic and instead should have been used to help to foster social acceptance and reconcile victims and former rebels in as far as their needs are concerns thus the approach used did not address the future justice needs of victims and ex-combatants. The resettlement of ex-combatants lacked the involvement of community members by way of participating in the peace process which is why the ex-combatants are not easily accepted home. This would have helped to connect members of the community with former rebels during resettlement and own the process of resettling former rebels back home.

To address the injustices causing pain among victims and ex-combatants, accountability should be made through a dialogue meeting in which apologies should be made to victims for the crime committed onto them. This would foster social acceptance of ex-combatants by way of forgiveness and enhance a mutual co-existence among members of the parties. The return of former rebels has promoted political stability with marked end of atrocities on the civilians in the region but what is required to be done is addressing obstacle to mutual co-existence after resettlement. Therefore stakeholders in peace making and conflict resolution should pay close attention to dialogue to reconcile victims of rebels’ atrocities and former rebels in West Nile.