Bridging gaps from the inside out

Uganda, September 29, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Inks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Two men from different clans face each other after a feud threatened to devolve into widespread violence. Peace Committee members stepped in and convinced the clans to engage in dialogue. Photo: Lisa Inks/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Inks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Matia and Odyek, two Acholi men once involved in a land wrangle, now farm together side-by-side after resolving their dispute through a Mercy Corps Peace Committee. Photo: Lisa Inks/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Inks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Peace Committees are comprised of men, women, and youth who are trained by Mercy Corps to mediate disputes and seek peaceful solutions to disagreements within and between communities. Photo: Lisa Inks/Mercy Corps

The people of Northern Uganda have been pummeled by the blows of conflict for so many years, they’re somewhat used to violence as a way of resolving disputes.

Not so if Peace Committees have any say. Mercy Corps’ Building Bridges to Peace (BBP) program has established these cadres of local leaders — including women, men, and youth — to mediate disputes that arise within and between communities in parts of Acholiland and Karamoja, in the northeastern part of the country. Building on traditional reconciliation practices, BBP supports community-selected leaders to take on the mantle of identifying early warning signs of conflict and resolving disagreements over land, livestock, ethnic tension and more.

Land shared, not grabbed

In 1973, a rash of violence in the northeastern sub-region of Karamoja pushed the Karamojong westward into neighboring Acholiland. The Acholi living on the border fled in the wake, leaving their land for the safety of the town center.

But recent reductions in conflict — facilitated by increased military security and support from non-governmental organizations like Mercy Corps — nudged the Karamojong, and in turn the Acholi, back home.

The homecoming, however, was met with confusion about the demarcation of land boundaries, and tension permeated the community. Marino Odyek and Onying Matia, former neighbors, were among the community members wrangling over land. Though Matia took his case to the Local Government court, which ruled in his favor, Odyek rejected the court’s decision and kept plowing.

The dispute carried on unresolved for five years, as interaction between the men petered out. So in October 2009, Matia approached Peace Committee member Obur Giatano because he had heard that the Peace Committees were training communities about conflict resolution. Matia hoped the Peace Committees could do what the local government had been unable to.

Obur led the Peace Committee and local elders directly to the site of the land dispute. There, Matia and Odyek and their families discussed their claims to the land and listened to the elders share their historical knowledge. After hours of negotiations, the two men agreed on a border and marked it on the spot.

Because the Peace Committees brought together multiple actors in discussion, Odyek said he could finally see how the land should be divided: “When [Matia] showed his piece of land and members of the community agreed, I also agreed to demarcate the land. I’m now digging on one side.”

Matia’s and Odyek’s children soon began to play together again. And Matia and Odyek began to farm together, side-by-side, which they still do almost every day.

Quelling inter-clan tensions

In another village, a different Peace Committee prevented the escalation of what community members say might have been grisly inter-clan violence. After Ochaya David of the Lokatop clan accidentally killed a member of the Kadeng clan in a motorcycle crash, Kadeng clan members began to loot shops owned by the Lokatop. Incensed by the death of their son, they threatened to kill David, who was badly injured in the accident, along with some of his relatives.

A Peace Committee leader of Lapono, Pader, heard the melee and arrived on the scene late at night. Using skills gained from Mercy Corps training, he pacified the group and convinced the Kadeng to allow David to go to the hospital. The leader of the Kadeng clan praised this intervention, admitting, “There would have been more killings if the Peace Committee hadn’t stepped in.”

The Kadeng and Lokatop clans came together the next day, led by the Peace Committee. After days of meetings, the Kadeng agreed to fetch David from jail and included him in talks between the two clans. The Peace Committee led dialogues and started the process of Mato Oput, the traditional Acholi reconciliation ceremony, to bring the communities together in understanding.

At the beginning of the first meeting, members of the Lokatop and Kadeng clan sat on opposite sites of a stream; by the end, the Kadeng had invited the Lokatop to their side, until all of the community sat on the same bank. Community members are now saving for the sheep, goat and locally-brewed beers that will contribute to the sacrifice and celebration of the final stage of Mato Oput.

For these communities, peace has never come in a tightly wrapped package. It does not materialize upon the inking of the treaty. So far it has come, instead, over time, and as the small and painstaking efforts of a few resolute people begin to add up.