Pader, Uganda – In a modest straw-thatched hut in northern Uganda's Pader district, lives one woman whose work — and story — represent the country's greatest prospects for resolution to a 23-year-long conflict against the Lord's Resistance Army. Her name is Alice Oboke; she is a 51-year-old self-proclaimed peace-builder who's experienced firsthand the ravages of war.
Abducted by the LRA in 1988 from the school where she taught and then sought refuge, Oboke was held at gunpoint and forced to join a small group of other captured civilians. Three of the group’s members were killed on their way out to the bush. Upon reaching a bridge, the rebel commander ordered the rebels to kill the remaining civilians. Oboke, who was eight months pregnant at the time, was badly beaten by one rebel soldier and left unconscious.
Two days later — upon regaining consciousness — she returned to discover her home had been ransacked. Local army soldiers escorted her to the hospital where she was treated for her injuries and then went into early labor. In her own words, the “baby went away. After delivering, five days later he went away.” The baby had suffered severe brain damage during the beatings.
More than a decade later — with northern Uganda still embroiled in a ruthless war — a recently widowed Oboke traveled to a local hospital to visit her uncle. Her husband had been killed by the LRA that same year on his way to work. At the hospital, she encountered the rebel who had beaten her on that fateful journey. Alone and starving in the hospital, without recognition of their previous connection, he implored Oboke to help him.
And something startling happened: she agreed, and then returned to the hospital each day for several months to bring him porridge and keep him company until he recovered. Oboke reminded him of their meeting a decade earlier. He thanked her for her kindness during his illness and visited her several times to request forgiveness. Oboke told him that she appreciated that he asked her personally for forgiveness. He said, “thank you for forgetting what I did to you.”
While Oboke did not forget, she has forgiven. He became friends with her surviving family and she visited him until he perished of AIDS last year. Oboke believes that “without forgiveness, peace will never come.”
That peace still seems far away. As the Juba peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government stall, resolution of one of Africa’s longest conflicts becomes harder. The Ugandan government threatens to once again resort to military means to defeat the LRA. Yet Oboke’s story reminds us that ordinary Ugandans are creating peace even in the absence of a peace agreement.
As a community-elected trainer with Mercy Corps’ conflict mitigation program in Pader, Oboke has been trained in transitional justice, conflict resolution, leadership and trust building — and is now imparting that knowledge to her community. With the view that “peace should begin from the home,” Oboke seeks to empower her community to embrace reconciliation techniques to resolve their disputes one household at a time.
Oboke encourages foreigners to advocate for peace in northern Uganda “so that young generations know what peace is. Children from infants to their twenties do not know peace. They pretend to play with guns and know little else.” With local leaders like Oboke, Ugandans may one day experience peace.
As Oboke says, “there is a joy in me when I talk about peace. It helps me forget very many bad things I saw.”