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‘The Cooling of Hearts’: Community Truth-Telling in Northern Uganda


Recent national and international debates on truth and reconciliation in Uganda have emphasized the importance of incorporating local-level mechanisms into a national transitional justice strategy. The Juba Peace Talks represented an opportunity to develop and articulate sufficient and just alternatives and complementary mechanisms to the international criminal model. The most commonly debated mechanism is the Acholi process known as mato oput (drinking the bitter root), a restorative justice approach to murder. Drawing on 2 months of research in nine internally displaced persons’ camps in 2007, we examine local justice practices in the region of northern Uganda to consider their potential, promise and pitfalls to realizing a successful truth-telling process. We find that although local mechanisms could help facilitate reconciliation in the region, truth-telling is but one part of a conciliatory process complicated by a national context of fear and the complexity of the victim–perpetrator identity at the community level. These locally informed insights help move forward the debate on such mechanisms in Uganda and add useful insights into community processes in the field of transitional justice more generally.

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  1. 1.

    Although the LRA and its leaders remain at large in Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Southern Sudan, its soldiers have not entered Uganda since signing a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement with the Government in August 2006.

  2. 2.

    The Amnesty Act 2000 defines an amnesty reporter (recipient) as any person above the age of 12 who, having taken up arms against the Government, pursues pardon and renounces rebellion.

  3. 3.

    When the ICC began investigating the situation in northern Uganda and subsequently unsealed indictments for five LRA commanders in October 2005, stakeholders and observers alike criticized the Government’s seemingly contradictory approach to transitional justice and conflict resolution in the North (e.g. see, Hovil and Lomo 2005).

    Its supporters regarded the Amnesty as a tool of restorative justice and conflict resolution, at odds with the retributive principles of the ICC. While local leaders had used the prospect of amnesty as a tool with which to build the trust and confidence of LRA leaders in the bush, critics of the ICC charged that the Court’s intervention compromised the peace process (e.g. see, Branch 2007).

    By 2006, the Government had amended the Amnesty Act in order to exclude the five ICC-indicted commanders from its provisions, and by March 2010 Parliament had enacted legislation to give the High Court of Uganda jurisdiction over crimes defined by the Rome Statute (1998) (e.g. see, Otim and Wierda 2010).

  4. 4.

    In a study of the Amnesty law, the Refugee Law Project recognized the limitations of the Amnesty—while popular—did not incorporate a process of truth-telling and, as a result, has a limited role in promoting longer-term reconciliation (Hovil and Lomo 2005).

  5. 5.

    For example, (1) the Coalition of Organizations and Institutions working towards sustainable Reconciliation in Uganda (CORU), active since April 2006, has drafted legislation for National Reconciliation which was endorsed by 150 participants at a workshop in February 2007 and calls for a regional approach; (2) The Northern Ugandan Peace Initiative calls itself a Portal for Reconciliation in Uganda (see, and also highlights local and regional practices; (3) Civil Society for Peace in Northern Uganda (CSOPNU)—a coalition of 50 national and international organizations issued a study on national reconciliation and is an active voice in reconciliation debates; and, (4) the Historical Commission on Memory and Reconciliation has held local-level consultations in Luwero and in northern Uganda.

  6. 6.

    Interview questions were written in English and translated into Acholi by independent professional translators. Each question was then translated back into English by translators to ensure linguistic consistency. Research officers were trained to use the same phrases and terms in the questions in order to maintain accuracy. The interviews were then given in Acholi, tape recorded, and translated into English by the research officers.

  7. 7.

    In all three case studies, victims reported crimes by both UPDF and LRA soldiers, such as torture, sexual violence and other brutal acts—including burying persons alive in pits and toilets by the Government army, or cooking people in pots by the LRA.

  8. 8.

    A wang oo is a central fireplace where extended families gather to hear stories and proverbs from elders and mego (female elders) on a nightly basis (Liu Institute for Global Issues, Gulu District NGO Forum, and Ker Kwaro Acholi 2005).

  9. 9.

    Respondents were purposively selected based on the identification of victims, with the assistance of a JRP focal point or a local leader (elder, LC or religious person). This approach was then combined with a random technique of selection through cluster and snowballing methods. Qualitative data was then coded according to discernable patterns and themes, analyzed and cross-checked by research officers to determine an objective set of observations and conclusions.

  10. 10.

    In each selected household, only one individual above the age of 15 completed the survey. Researchers alternated between male and female respondents to ensure equal gender representation was made. When a household or individual was unable to participate, the researchers selected the next available household or individual. This random method resulted in the survey being taken by 12 self-identified former LRA commanders, 36 former UPDF and Local Defense Unit commanders, 229 formerly abducted persons, 155 parents of formerly abducted persons and 711 community members. Data were then analyzed using SPSS.

  11. 11.

    In one instance, a parish priest lamented the lack of writing materials to be able to record atrocities.

  12. 12.

    Interview with mego, Corner Kilak camp, 14 March 2007

  13. 13.

    A ‘returnee’ refers to a person formerly abducted by the LRA.

  14. 14.

    Interview with elder, Corner Kilak camp, 13 March 2007.

  15. 15.

    Interview with young mother, Corner Kilak camp, 13 March 2007.

  16. 16.

    Interview with male youth, Atiak IDP camp, 27 February 2007.

  17. 17.

    Focus group discussion with ten male residents, Corner Kilak camp, 15 March 2007. Statement by an elder in response to question.

  18. 18.

    During peace talks, elders and religious leaders went to Garamba. Many were approached by young LRA fighters who requested they take their names and photo to inform their families that they were still alive.

  19. 19.

    Focus group discussion with mothers of missing children, Corner Kilak, 15 March 2007. Statement by a mother.

  20. 20.

    Interview with male youth, Corner Kilak camp, 13 March 2007.

  21. 21.

    It was reported that 70% of the population in northern Uganda has no access to monetary income and 95% lives in absolute poverty (UN IRIN 2006).

  22. 22.

    Interview with elder, Atiak camp, 27 February 2007

  23. 23.

    Interview with young male survivor, Atiak camp, 28 February 2007.

  24. 24.

    Interview with mego survivor, Atiak camp, 27 February 2007.

  25. 25.

    Liu Institute for Global Issues, Gulu District NGO Forum, and Ker Kwaro Acholi 2005.

  26. 26.

    Interview with elder resident and elder, Atiak camp, 26 February 2007.

  27. 27.

    Interview with elder, Anaka camp, 15 January 2007.

  28. 28.

    Interview with elder, Corner Kilak camp, 12 March 2007.

  29. 29.

    Nyono tong gweno literally means, ‘stepping on the egg.’ It is a ceremony meant to ritually purify persons who have returned home from an extended absence because of war, school, or other reasons.

  30. 30.

    Interview with elder, Atiak camp, 26 February 2007.

  31. 31.

    Name, date and place withheld for protection purposes.

  32. 32.

    These cases were identified during the course of the research by respondents or JRP focal points, and verified by researchers who then identified and interviewed eyewitnesses.

  33. 33.

    Interview with elder and resident of Atiak camp, 26 February 2007.

  34. 34.

    Focus group discussion with 10 male respondents, Corner Kilak camp, 15 March 2007. Statement by elder.

  35. 35.

    Interview with elder, Corner Kilak camp, 14 March 2007.

  36. 36.

    Interview with elder, Corner Kilak camp, 12 March 2007.

  37. 37.

    Interview with mego, Corner Kilak camp, 13 March 2007.

  38. 38.

    Interview with mego, Corner Kilak Camp, 13 March 2007.

  39. 39.

    Interview with male youth, Corner Kilak camp, 13 March 2007.

  40. 40.

    Cen refers to spiritual haunting whereby the ghost of a person who was killed violently or had their remains desecrated torments those connected to their death. Cen is contagious and can cause nightmares, visions, sickness, and even death. (See Baines 2007).

  41. 41.

    Interview with elder, Koch Goma camp, 8 February 2007.

  42. 42.

    These figures are taken from statistical estimates published by the Survey for War Affected Youth (SWAY). As of 2011, the LRA continues to abduct children and youth in Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Southern Sudan.

  43. 43.

    In conversation with Angelina Atyam, Co-founder of the Concerned Parents Association, New York, January 2004.

  44. 44.

    According to a random survey of over 2,500 persons in displaced persons camps by the International Centre for Transitional Justice and the Human Rights Centre, 40% of respondents had been abducted by the rebel LRA, 45% had witnessed the killing of a family member and 23% had been physically mutilated at some point during the conflict (International Center for Transitional Justice and the Human Rights Center 2005).

  45. 45.

    The Acholi sub-region, otherwise known simply as ‘Acholi’, 'consists of the districts of Agago, Amuru, Gulu, Kitgum, Lamwo, Nwoya, and Pader. As the bulk of the research for this paper was conducted prior to the creation of Agago (1 July 2010), Lamwo (1 July 2009) and Nwoya (1 July 2010) districts, we refer to these locations as parts of Pader, Kitgum and Amuru districts, respectively.

  46. 46.

    In a report later denied as inaccurate by the Government of Uganda, it was estimated 1,000 persons a week were dying of conflict-related diseases and violence (Government of Uganda 2005).


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Correspondence to Erin Baines.

Additional information

The word ‘cwiny’ in the language of Luo (of the group in this study) refers to the ‘nature’ or the ‘inside’ of a person, or that part which drives people to act in certain ways, and to be happy or sad. Thus a person can tell you ‘cwiny col’ to mean you are bad, or ‘cwiny yom’ (you are happy) or ‘cwiny cwer’ (you are feeling sad). Appeasing a person who is sad is referred to as ‘kweyo cwiny’, or the English equivalent of ‘cooling the heart’. Respondents often used the latter expression to describe the process of healing and reconciliation derived from truth-telling, acknowledgement and compensation, and so forms the title of the article. The article is based on a report of the same title by the Justice and Reconciliation Project.

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Anyeko, K., Baines, E., Komakech, E. et al. ‘The Cooling of Hearts’: Community Truth-Telling in Northern Uganda. Hum Rights Rev 13, 107–124 (2012).

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  • Community based transitional justice
  • Truth telling
  • Northern Uganda
  • Lord’s Resistance Army