‘I was ready to do whatever it took to bring peace’
Born into a poor community in 1950s Uganda, the eighth of eleven children, Betty Bigombe seemed to be destined to a life of carrying water and fetching wood. But her talent as a natural ‘problem solver’ was spotted while she was still at a school.
At that time, she says, ‘you finished education; the next thing on your agenda was to get married, be a good housewife.’ But she was determined to continue her studies, even getting into Harvard Kennedy School and graduating in 1979.
During her time in the US she did not lose sight of what was going on back home – which in early 1980s Uganda was a civil war against the rule of Milton Obote. ‘The war stayed with me all the time.’
Fast forward to 1986, the civil war is over, and former rebel leader Yoweri Museveni is now the country’s president and he wants Betty’s help. He knows that people in northern and eastern Uganda are vehemently opposed to his government and that war is likely to break out. He wants Betty to go there and quietly observe how his troops are handling the civilian population.
So Betty goes up North and reports back to Museveni that his soldiers are committing serious human rights abuses.
‘I made it very, very clear to him. He made changes. But it was already too late.’ The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, had taken up arms and was enjoying local support.
Betty recalls: ‘I was asked by the president to go to the North, live there and try to end the war by peaceful means, by persuading armed people to lay down their weapons. I thought all this was going to take me a couple of months.’ She was soon to learn otherwise.
Very calm face
Although she originates from northern Uganda and is of the same ethnic Acholi group as Kony, this did not help initially. ‘I was perceived as a traitor.’ Kony himself sent a warning: ‘Get out of here or else we’re going to kill you. This is not a woman’s job. This is a big insult to us... Get out of here. You’re not part of us anymore.’
She realized that instead of telling people to ‘stop fighting’ she needed to listen to their grievances. ‘This is something I learned on the job: that listening, being patient, even with the worst killer, helps a lot because in the process, you remove that mask of a killer, the brute.’
People came to see her ‘ready to kill, shaking, not blinking’ and she would put on ‘a very calm face’ so that slowly they would calm down and be ready to talk.
At first she met people in town halls. The breakthrough was when she decided to go and stay in the internal displacement camps, where the mothers, wives, fathers, uncles, aunts of the fighters were living. ‘The grassroots. They know exactly who is doing what; they know, who you can talk to and make a difference.
‘And that is how I lowered myself in… I said, if they wanted to insult the president, they should feel free. It was better than fighting. If they wanted to insult me, feel free.’
But then one day, several victims of the LRA turn up, limbs freshly amputated, bearing a blood-drenched warning letter for her from Kony. ‘Seeing people freshly cut, looking at human beings drenched in blood, and they could still talk and I could see their hearts were still beating, ears and arms cut off, it was devastating.’
She resolved to write a personal letter to the mothers, wives, sisters. ‘I used women to reach out to their sons or their husbands who are fighting, offering them amnesty and resettlement. If we could work together and end the conflict, they would get out of these squalid camps.’ Everyday children died from preventable diseases. This could stop.
It worked. There was a big defection from Kony’s camp.
But did she think someone as brutal as Kony would be capable of making peace?
‘At the beginning, I didn’t think so. But through talking and staying in camps, I got to know whether he could be talked to.’
Her first meeting with Kony’s commanders was at a secret historical location in Acholi land. ‘They cautioned me not to rush anything; if I did he would not trust me at all. It was a long process to convince him that I was not selling him out.’
‘He realized only I could save him’
One of the things that helped was that she had stuck around in spite of the threats, surviving ambushes, landmines. ‘I was ready to do whatever it took to bring peace.’
But there was something else: ‘He realized that if he came out, if the war ended, only I could save him, because President Museveni trusted me.’
At one of her meetings with Kony he asked her to spend the night. ‘My heart was almost coming off my chest, but I laughed and I said, “God is great. We are going to have peace now. Now, you’re asking me to spend a night with you. That’s a good sign. But I have to go because there will be a problem on the other side if I don’t go back to my base.”’
Against the odds, Betty was making progress: building trust, negotiating with different factions to sign a peace accord; getting resettlement and reintegration programmes established for combatants from the LRA.
But then, just as a major peace deal was about to be signed in 1994, Museveni made a speech that caused her efforts to begin to unravel.
Betty recalls: ‘Joseph Kony had written me this letter to say we’re going to sign the agreement on a particular date… I went with a big smile to President Museveni to tell him and that is when he said: “No more peace talks. That’s the end of it. He comes out in two weeks or we go in and kill him”.’
What had happened? She reflects: ‘I was naïve. I didn’t watch my back. In this kind of initiative, there are always spoilers, people who benefit from conflicts. In this case, the government soldiers were benefiting from the war in that they were selling vehicles, food, fuel, uniforms. The president was getting all these other reports that there was nothing genuine about the peace talks.’
‘I felt very much betrayed. Now that I’ve been exposed to many more mediation programs – in Colombia, in Sri Lanka – I do realize that there are always spoilers in peace processes.’
Asked whether her own president was one of the spoilers for having listened to those military commanders over her, Betty replies: ‘Yeah, of course. Absolutely.’
She did not give up though, trying again to make peace in 2004, her work paving the way for further talks in Sudan in 2006.
The LRA is a much-depleted force now, with Kony living in a contested enclave on the border between Sudan and Central African Republic, and no longer considered a threat by Museveni.
And Betty is on a different mission now, as special envoy to the government of Uganda in the peace process of South Sudan.
In partnership with the Oslo Forum. This article was adapted by Vanessa Baird from an interview by Adam Cooper in The Mediator’s Studio, a new Oslo Forum podcast from the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Listen to the full podcast.
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