By Maria Kamara
Under the shade of a mango tree in the Lukodi community of Northern Uganda, local leaders, women representatives and youth leaders met with me earlier this month to discuss how they would like to mark the Day of International Criminal Justice on 17July. When I asked what their preferred location was for holding a commemorative event, almost all those present raised their hands: One after another, the participants echoed similar sentiments – it has to be Lukodi.
One elderly woman spoke particularly passionately and persuasively to make her case: “We have waited ten years* for our suffering to be recognised. The moment has arrived…and we have every reason to celebrate justice and the return of peace in this community”. After listening to the unanimous calls of community representatives to celebrate justice day with them, I was still slightly hesitant, so promised to confirm at our next meeting. I first wanted to hear more from other stakeholders outside the Lukodi community. I therefore engaged with partners in Kampala, Teso, Lango and West Nile sub-regions, who all agreed: this year’s Day of International Criminal Justice would be held in Lukodi.
At the next meeting in the community, I relayed the agreement, which was met with applause from all, a gesture of gratitude and endorsement. For the next two hours, my colleague facilitated discussions to draw up activities for the D-DAY – 17 July. The chairman of the planning committee suggested a series of activities: “We shall mobilise 700 people from our communities to participate in the brass-band led ‘March for Justice’ procession, drama and cultural dance performances, a traditional poetry recital, and a ‘Play for Justice’ football match".
Seven hundred? I enquired, as it sounded a bit ambitious given that we had not had such attendance in one go for any of our outreach forums in the recent past. My doubts didn’t derail these forward and positive people. “Yes. Seven hundred people”, they pledged.
Behind the scenes, we were marshalling the logistics to make the day as colourful as possible to match the expectations for the occasion: we printed T-shirts, caps and wrist bands with the text of this year’s theme, “Justice Matters”, sourced out service providers for the brass band, PA system, tents, chairs, and refreshments, identified football officials, hired buses, notified community leaders in the Gulu District about the planned activities and managed a host of other issues.
It is common practice in Uganda for commemoration events to be graced by a guest of honour, in recognition of symbolic and meaningful contributions they have made related to the occasion. Little surprise that when I sent out the invitation letters/emails/sms, a number of the invitees replied by asking, “Who is the guest of honour?” I wasn’t prepared for this question, but the spontaneity of my response was informed by the courage and resilience of the community I have interacted with for over seven years. Our guests of honour for this year’s celebrations are the victims and affected communities of Lukodi and surrounding villages, my response stated.
At 07:00 on 17 July, a torrential rain broke-out in Gulu. For a moment, it dampened my mood and my certainty of having an amazing event waned. I thought of the Lukodi people, and their never ending hope, and I brightened up. Banking on the weather clearing up, I dispatched two 60-seat buses – one to pick up participants at agreed locations from 10 villages surrounding Lukodi, another to convey Gulu-based participants as well as partners who had travelled from Kampala, Lango, Teso and West Nile sub-regions to grace the occasion.
I arrived in Lukodi at 09:30 and it was awe-inspiring. Over one thousand people, including religious leaders, the Resident District Commissioner (RDC), the Local Council Chairman V (LC5), local leaders, representatives of civil society organisations, women and youth organisations, teachers and school children had converged at the Lukodi market area to participate in the march and other commemorative activities. The number completely exceeded my expectations. Clad in uniform T-shirts, caps and wrist bands projecting twelve different words and phrases expressing varied meanings and appreciation of justice, the 30-minute procession around Lukodi village kicked off. The brass-band and traditional music, drumming and dancing created an atmosphere of excitement and euphoria.
Retired Bishop Nelson Onono in his opening prayers paid tribute to victims of mass atrocities throughout the world and urged all actors to galvanise efforts towards alleviating the suffering of survivors because “Justice Matters”.
The statements made by subsequent speakers, the RDC and LC5, community based organisations, and other representatives reiterated and affirmed that justice and accountability do matter and the Court should not relent in its efforts to execute its mandate on behalf of victims.
Next it was my turn to address the participants – armed with my never-failing strategy, I welcomed them in my well-rehearsed local Acholi-language greetings: “Apwoyo matek”. Thunderous applause filled the air; I paused, not wanting to interrupt their expression of appreciation. Then came the declaration everyone was waiting for, “The honoured guests for this occasion are… you”, stretching my hands towards where they were seated, “the people of Lukodi and surrounding communities”. At this stage, I humbly requested other dignitaries to kindly rise and applaud the communities (who remained seated). It was a passionate and gratifying moment for me, realising that I made the right decision to ensure the Day of International Criminal Justice would honor the affected communities.
The “Play for Justice” football match that commenced shortly afterwards was thrilling. It was another moment for all participants to connect and interact. Team Lukodi locked horns with partners involved in the field of human rights and victims’ advocacy. The kick-off was taken by Bishop Nelson Onono, who is also originally from Lukodi. And just as it should be, Team Lukodi scored, clinching the game and taking home the Justice Matters trophy.
If you had asked me at our first meeting under that mango tree only a few weeks ago, I could not have imagined a better ending to the story, nor a more powerful and meaningful way to commemorate 17 July. Lukodi and other communities affected by crimes have claimed the Day of International Criminal Justice as their own, and have affirmed just how much Justice Matters.
*Ten years refers to the period of the arrest warrants issued against top LRA commanders for crimes allegedly committed in northern Uganda. No suspect in the case had appeared before the ICC until early this year, when Dominic Ongwen was surrendered to the Court.