By Francis Nono (Published 22nd June 2018)
As northern Uganda marks 12 years of relative peace through the Juba Peace Initiatives, we should be singing about the contributions of key local peace icons and personalities who contributed to this remarkable attainment.
The same is true, not just for northern Uganda, but for the many other parts of the country that also experienced conflicts/wars in the past, including West Nile, Teso, Central and South-Western sub-regions.
Often it is the more visible personalities who get all the recognition for their efforts in struggles to bring peace. For instance, in the case of northern Uganda, Betty Bigombe’s names automatically pops up whenever peace actors are mentioned.
But in the background, far away from the limelight, are always ‘unknown’ individuals, who in their own ‘small’ but important ways, have also contributed to the peace process and indeed may have laid the foundations for the actions of more recognized actors. But because these ‘unsung heroes’ do not have the name recognition of their more luminary colleagues, no one remembers their vital contributions, let alone recognizes it publicly.
As a Transitional Justice practitioner, I can safely say that the relative peace in northern Uganda that we have been enjoying from 2006 to date did not come on a silver plate. A whole range of initiatives were undertaken by various individuals who were committed to seeing the region peaceful, both as individuals and groups. Their efforts were enormous, and thus worthy of recognition and remembrance.
As a matter of fact, during the LRA conflict, especially at the peak of the rebellion when there were high rates of abductions, massacres of unarmed civilians and numerous ambushes, certain individuals, with permission from the Government, made various efforts to reach out to the rebels. Others even took it upon themselves to make risky efforts on their own, without such permission from the Government to reach out to then not-so-friendly rebels in a bid to pave the way for peace.
All these efforts through various avenues such as exchange of letters and series of meetings with the rebels at local level were being made with the same objective of seeing a peaceful northern Uganda. To me, this was the foundation for the Juba Peace Process, and surely we must recognize these seemingly forgotten personalities on that account.
In 2014 through my work engagement with Refugee Law Project, I had the privilege of traveling in the same car with the Most Rev. Archbishop John Baptist Odama, this as we drove from the Bishop’s home to Bomah Hotel Gulu, where he presided over the closure of the 4th Institute of African Transitional Justice (IATJ) event organized by Refugee Law Project.
During our discussion in the car, what struck me most was what he said: “I had offered my life to see a peaceful northern Uganda. Whether I was to be killed in the struggle, I was ready to die for peace”. This was so powerful and indeed His Grace is a hero to the people of northern Uganda and his contribution should be highly recognized and documented. I am excited that he has been recognized for his role both during and after the conflict, along with several other eminent personalities like Retired Bishop MacLeod Baker Ochola, Acholi Khadi Al Hajji Sheik Musa Khalil and many others.
The unsung contributions of such individuals who were not directly involved in the peace process but yet took personal risks to keep things moving at the peak of the rebellion should really be recognized. Those, like the head-teachers who moved with their displaced schools to ensure our children were able to study amidst conflict; civil servants who made sure service delivery was in place amidst ambushes; nurses and doctors who spent most of their time treating war injuries; priests and nuns who housed displaced people at various parishes; and many others, these surely are unsung heroes who deserve to be recognized as well.
While Sister Rachele Fassera, then Deputy Head-teacher St. Mary’s College Secondary School Aboke, was correctly awarded and recognized many times for her role in trying to rescue the abducted girls, a teacher - John Bosco Ocen, who accompanied her, should have equally been awarded and recognized.
Other names like Rwot Joseph Oywak Ywakamoi of Koyo Lalogi chiefdom in Pader; Rev. Fr. Rodriguez Carlos (Spaniard priest then ministering in northern Uganda) Italian priest, Fr Tarsisio Pazzaglia ‘Luyaromoi’; the late Hon. Haruna Ndema (RIP) of West Nile; and many others, should be considered. I am sure the same is true in other regions of Uganda that have gone through conflict in the past.
The 2015 Independence Day celebrations held in Gulu district, during which awards of peace medals were given to various individuals, could have been an opportune moment to have recognized and awarded the contribution of such personalities.
Through documentation initiatives at the Refugee Law Project/National Memory and Peace Documentation Center in Kitgum, we have started a process of documenting the contribution of different personalities in their quest for peace so that generation after generation remembers the roles they played. For this, a Wall of Fame displaying names and information on some of these local key ‘Peace Icons’ has been established at the National Memory and Peace Documentation Center in Kitgum.
I therefore urge the Presidential Awards Committee and the Local Government authorities in northern Uganda as well as other regions of Uganda, through their respective District Reconciliation and Peace Team (DRPT), together with key stakeholders to come up with agreeable criteria to: compile list of names and recognize the contributions of these peace Icons who sacrificed their time and lives for the relative peace northern Uganda is currently enjoying since 2006 to date.
It would not only be unwise but also ungrateful to simply wish away or totally forget the ‘small’ but vital contributions of these unsung heroes.
The writer is a Community Outreach Officer at Refugee Law Project