What Ugandans can teach each of us about justice

Odek village, the birthplace of Joseph Kony, founder and leader of the rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army.
Odek village, the birthplace of Joseph Kony, founder and leader of the rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army.
Image: Reuters
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Some people have seemingly impossible jobs. Shannon Sedgwick Davis is one of those people. She is a human rights lawyer and the CEO of the Bridgeway Foundation, a US-based philanthropic organization that aims to stop mass atrocities. Her mission is to bring international criminals to justice.

Or it was. Until she worked in Uganda, trying to stop the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a guerrilla military run by Joseph Kony, who terrorized the nation and surrounding region for decades, killing more than 100,000 people, displacing millions, kidnapping children and turning them into soldiers and sex slaves, and destroying trust among communities and families. As Davis explains in her new memoir To Stop a Warlord, published by Penguin Radom House in April, her quest to capture Kony and bring him to trial in the International Criminal Court in the Hague—where he was charged with war crimes in 2005—tested all her convictions and ultimately transformed her notions of justice itself.

The lessons Davis learned in Uganda are relevant to everyone. “I always thought that the goodness in the world would awaken me to my highest spiritual self,” Davis writes. “But it’s evil that has taught me the most.”

Entering the fray

In 2010, Davis met with Ugandan military officials to figure out how her organization could contribute to the fight to stop Kony. Traditionally, Bridgeway funded activities surrounding the fight, paying for humans rights workers to track Kony’s army’s actions, for example, or supporting victims by providing communications equipment that would allow villagers in remote locations to warn their neighbors when LRA forces were rampaging. But as the human rights lawyer discovered, these contributions were not enough to make a real difference and the institutions tasked with actually preventing Kony’s attacks had all but given up.

The LRA moved beyond Uganda and roamed across parts of Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, eluding efforts to defeat them. Kony’s army was marching into villages, looting, rampaging, and forcing children to kill their parents, abducting the young people into the army. The terror had been going on for more than two decades without abating and Davis asked the Ugandan officials she met how Bridgeway could help. They said they needed something the foundation wasn’t designed to provide—military training and equipment.

Initially, Davis resisted. She wanted to stop Kony’s army, but she couldn’t involve Bridgeway in military operations. She was supposed to be a humanitarian, not a general.

Yet everyone she spoke to, both in the US and in Africa, in government and nonprofits, supported an effort to end Kony’s reign of terror by trying something unprecedented. Eventually, Davis was convinced. She committed Bridgeway to actively participating in the fight to capture Kony.

With this decision, Davis—who lives in Texas with her two young boys and husband—found herself at the center of a military operation involving soldiers-for-hire, the Ugandan military, and American troops. She helped set up training camps and a special unit of Ugandan soldiers dedicated to capturing Kony, negotiated with generals and philanthropists alike, and found herself responsible for a small army. For years, as this operation was underway, Davis traveled back and forth from Texas to Africa while fighters she helped fund tramped through forests tracking and capturing Kony’s troops.

When those guerrilla forces emerged from the forest, Ugandan soldiers welcomed them. They shook their hands. They gave them clean clothes and good food and spoke to them respectfully. As a result, the captured soldiers often volunteered to help fight Kony’s troops or to help convince other LRA units to surrender. And when they were ready, the Ugandans brought these former LRA soldiers home, back to their villages, where the villagers and soldiers together held ritual ceremonies to officially mark the start of a new, hopeful era.

The soldiers had amnesty from prosecution, while the villagers would never forget what they’d seen these fighters do. But all were actively deciding to forgive, understanding that Kony terrorized everyone, and that his soldiers were also his victims.

What is justice?

Davis was shocked and impressed by what she saw in Uganda. To her, the point of the multi-million dollar mission that Bridgeway was helping to fund was to capture Kony and see him stand trial. And the units she helped the Ugandan army create did indeed arrest important members of the LRA.

But over time, Davis realized that something much more important was happening, too. Ugandan communities were healing. Individual lives were being saved. Families that lost everything were a little closer to whole again. Children whose childhoods were stolen from them began to envision a hopeful future. And Davis came to understand her mission differently.

Over the years that Davis worked with Ugandans, she saw “so many different versions of justice,” she writes. “Each instance of amnesty and retribution had forced me to grapple with the humanity of the perpetrators—and with my own.”

In that time, the lawyer’s view of justice had been transformed. She came to see restoring people’s lives and communities as more important than punishing the mastermind behind their woes. While Davis still longed to see Kony stand trial, the five-year fight to find him had changed her mind and heart. “I no longer thought retributive justice worked its own. I also had faith in the restorative kind,” she writes.

Restoring the world

Ultimately, Kony was never captured. But his army was crippled. One of his top five commanders, for example, Dominic Ongwen, who was abducted by Kony’s soldiers as a child, is now under prosecution by the International Criminal Court. Four other Kony commanders are dead. Meanwhile, soldiers continued to trickle out of the bush, seeking forgiveness, and finding acceptance at home. The Lord’s Resistance Army’s killing was reduced by 90% thanks to the unusual cooperation between a humanitarian foundation and the military.

In 2015, Davis grappled with abandoning the original mission, trying to decide whether to spend more money fighting Kony or shift the foundation’s focus to atrocities that had emerged in the interim. In the end, she determined that Kony, as an individual, mattered much less than she had originally imagined. She came to this conclusion after seeing how Ugandans handled their reunions with LRA soldiers.

Justice isn’t the legal process alone, the lawyer discovered. It is a thing that happens when whole communities join together to end suffering, when they decide to be for peace. “For a while we thought one man’s capture was the only version of peace and justice,” she concludes in her memoir. I learned that peace is bigger than the fate of one man. It is…the effort to tilt the balance in favor of life. And peace is embracing our shared humanity.”