You know my thing about Africa that I’ve mentioned a couple of times lately? Well, allow me to share a story out of the Congo and Uganda. Now, in Western minds, this part of Africa was long considered “the dark heart” of Africa. And unfortunately in the last few decades, there have been times when anyone who was paying attention would wonder if there wasn’t some sort of curse on that area.
The details of the back and forth that got and kept the conflict going are long and boring. But the basic outline of what happened is this:
A political uprising originally brought on, in 1986 and 1987, by genuine oppression (and thus serving objectives justified in the eyes of those who took up arms), so quickly mutated—by the end of the 1980s already—into a practice of radical violence, with no other aim, at the end, than its own perpetuation, beyond even the effective survival of the group.
(This quote and all others used from the excellent story Sign Warfare, by journalist Jonathan Little, Asymptote Journal, April 2014)
The way the conflict was fought was the sort of stuff you don’t say out loud when the kids are around and only in whispers in private. You don’t want it in their head that such things could exist. You wish it wasn’t in yours. So this conflict is the stuff of nightmares here. This is the conflict that gave us Kony 2012 and boy soldiers, the lost boys that some churches took in.
Today, the government, which triggered the original conflict by refusing to allow freedom for an oppressed, mistreated minority, is engaged in a manhunt to find the last 150 or so soldiers still fighting. 150. That’s it. They can’t just ignore them because they are so violent. 150 is so few, but they still have the power to kill thousands. And I’ll tell you what? If you ever have to make a bet on a face-off between a Navy Seal and one of the Congolese soldiers involved in hunting them down, I wouldn’t be too quick to write off the Congolese soldier. I’m just saying. They’re kind of bad asses.
But anyways, this isn’t your typical manhunt. What they really want is for the soldiers to desert and surrender:
[The combatants] who surrender are well-treated, they are interrogated but without violence, it isn’t necessary, once out of the bush they have nothing to hide; then they’re sent back to Uganda, where they’re granted amnesty, go through a program of psycho-social reinsertion and sometimes get some professional training, before being sent back home with a little money and a few household supplies, or joining the army, more or less voluntarily.
The biggest reason for the ongoing conflict at this point is that the combatants don’t trust the government. They think offers of help are a trick. Because it’s been that kind of war. But this time, it’s real.
That is amazing. This is not how human beings deal with their enemies. Especially enemies who are driven by a logic no higher than “we just kill for the sake of killing. It humiliates the government, that’s good enough for us.” Those are the enemies you kill. The ones that you and your people and generations to follow never forgive. The people who, at the very least, must be held accountable for their crimes.
What is going on in the Congo has never been done before. We’ve never ended our conflicts by forgiving and helping our enemy get well. Never. I am not saying that the government is now perfect or that this particular policy is the be all and end all. But this is something amazing which uses the logic of God’s Kingdom to defeat the power of the enemy’s kingdom.
Part of the reason that the people involved in the conflict directly are willing to do this for their enemy is because they never forget that these were once boys who were forced down a path not of their own choosing. Whatever evil they did, came out of the damage caused by what their leaders had put them through:
“He is a terrible person,” the Acholi politician Betty Bigombe, who has led several unsuccessful negotiations with the LRA, told me [about Ongwen] last year in Kampala. “‘Oh yes,’ he said to me, ‘we just kill for the sake of killing. It humiliates the government, that’s good enough for us.'”
Yet Vincent Okema does not hesitate to assert that Ongwen is innocent. “Dominic is a good person. If he had not been captured he will not be a bad person. The problem it is the one who has forced you, is the one who has captured you. Dominic was captured when he was young [at the age of nine], and he was forced to do all the thing. So the massacres he did, if he would have not been captured, how can he do those massacres? He cannot do it.”
Alright, not to get all political here, but can I tell you about the boys I met in juvi real quick? Like about the one whose uncles started giving him drugs at age 5 because little kids are really funny when they’re stoned. Or how about the kid whose father killed his mother in front of him and left him with her dead body. He was two and it was nearly three days before they were found. Or the guy whose mother sat on his chest and choked him until he passed out, waited for him to come to and did it again. Because he had told her that the babysitter was molesting him. That babysitter was the only one who would take all her kids on the cheap so his mom could finish school and get them the hell out of one of the most violent places on earth – a Chicago housing project in the 80s.
Those were the kids I met. Most of them are probably in jail right now, 20 years later. None of them ever got any serious counseling. There was no standard treatment plan or program to rehabilitate these kids. When they got out, they were sent right back into the same environments that created them. Even when there was physical or sexual abuse going on in the home. There were no aftercare services beyond the occasional check in with an overworked and under resourced parole officer. Certainly not any education or training. And resources? Pffft. As if. We did nothing for those kids. In fact, we had cut the little bit we used to do for them right when crime was taking off. Things like the play therapy. Because not being allowed to engage in play as a child is a typical characteristic of juvenile delinquents.
Instead, we decided that the answer to a kid in trouble was to ignore the fact that his upbringing was a disaster, do nothing to help him gain maturity or heal, offer him no training or resources and just make him so miserable that he’ll give in and fly right. Uh . . . cruel and inhuman much?
So perhaps that’s why it’s such a big deal to me to see the methods being used in this particular conflict to bring it to an end. I suspect that the people who came up with this plan and are implementing it would tell you that they are doing it because they know it’s the only way. We humans have tried every punitive measure imaginable and relied on domination and force to create “peace”. And it has never worked sustainably. Not in the jungles of Africa. Or the sandy lands of the Middle East. Or even with street crime in America.
I think humanity is getting tired of fighting. We’ve seen enough horror. If loving and caring for our enemies and those who hurt us is what it takes to never have to see the things we’ve seen, ever again, then that’s what we need to do.
I mentioned earlier that the area of the Congo where this is taking place used to be called “the dark heart of Africa”. Well, in the darkness of the human heart is where we meet God. It’s where the battle between God’s Kingdom and the enemy’s kingdom is waged. In the dark heart of Africa, which all of humanity comes from, some people just made a choice to follow God’s Kingdom ways. This is how it works. It’s how the world gets saved.
And it’s happening right in front of our eyes. Isn’t that amazing that we would be alive to see such a day?