/ 30 April 2003

Afraid to come out of the bush

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has ordered the army to resume full attack operations against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, formally ending a limited ceasefire that was declared in March so that peace talks could go ahead.

The ceasefire covered Lapul sub-county, in the northern most part of Uganda, and was to enable the rebels to meet the presidential peace team for negotiations. Very little progress has been made since then and government officials last weekend reported that they have finally lost patience with the LRA.

The LRA rebels say they are fighting to replace Uganda’s government with a theocracy based on Moses’s Ten Commandments.

In a harshly worded statement issued last weekend, First Deputy Prime Minister General Salim Saleh said: “Following the obstinate refusal of the LRA to positively respond to … [the Ugandan army’s] limited cessation of operations … to allow them to make contact with the government peace team, President Yoweri Museveni has directed the army to resume operations in the area.”

It adds that this measure is to “stop the LRA from using the area as a safe haven, while continuing to murder and terrorise innocent people in northern Uganda”.

Speaking at his residence in Gulu, northern Uganda, after an emergency meeting with the president, Saleh said that they had “discussed the military preparations to increase manpower. We are now in a better position to fight.”

At the beginning of March the LRA declared a unilateral ceasefire, paving the way for talks with the presidential peace team. In reality, however, they have intensified their operations.

Saleh remarked: “On that very day [the ceasefire was declared] they launched an attack and killed some of our soldiers.”

The rebels have increased their attacks on civilian targets — looting

villages, killing civilians, ambushing vehicles and abducting huge numbers of children (60 from Lira district last week) to swell their ranks.

Father Joseph of the Catholic Mission in Kitgum, one of Uganda’s most troubled towns, said: “People are in a desperate situation. There is now a permanent attack.

They are looting everything. I don’t know what there is left in Kitgum to take. Kids are being abducted by the LRA every night. They just abducted some more 25km from Kitgum town centre.”

But representatives of the Acholi Leaders’ Religious Peace Initiative (ALRPI) — the sole mediators for peace talks between the government and the LRA — have urged both sides not to continue the cycle of violence that has devastated northern Uganda for the past 17 years.

They point out that child abductions, while horrific, are the LRA’s only way of recruiting — something which they would not need to do if a fully bilateral ceasefire could be implemented.

David Achana, Acholiland’s senior cultural leader and a key ALRPI figure, explained: “This method of recruitment is all they have. They say they haven’t reached an agreement with the government yet and until they do no one can stop them recruiting as they will.”

Religious leaders point out that as between 80% to 90% of the LRA are themselves abducted children, tackling the LRA militarily — as in last year’s launch of Operation Iron Fist to crush LRA positions in Uganda and Sudan — is also an assault on the victims.

In this bizarre, almost uniquely cruel guerrilla gang, the distinction between victims and perpetrators cannot be drawn, as abductees quickly become initiated as recruits, often by being forced to do dreadful things such as murdering their own relatives.

Even the Acholi people, who have borne the brunt of LRA attacks, don’t want the crisis to be resolved by a government military victory.

As Father Carlos Rodriguez, a mediator who has had contact with the rebels almost since the insurgency began, says: “Many of [the Acholi people’s] children are among the rebels. How would you feel if your child was there? You don’t want your child to be killed; you want him to come back home.”

Asked whether he thought Operation Iron Fist had achieved anything at all, Carlos replied: “To make things worse. It was the biggest mistake of this government. It has doubled the numbers of displaced people. Security is worse in the north than ever before.”

The main reason the talks failed, according to mediators, is a lack of trust between the two parties. The government think the LRA are just “using the peace talks to reorganise themselves”, as Saleh put it.

Meanwhile, the LRA think meeting places for peace talks are a trap whose purpose is to contain them in an area and then hit them. They have good reasons for this.

On two occasions in the past eight months, as Carlos points out, they have gone to designated areas only to be ambushed by the Ugandan army.

Trust aside, another factor apparently keeping the LRA from coming out of the bush is plain guilt.

As ALRPI coordinator Lam Kosmos says: “There is great guilt. This has turned to fear. They are afraid to come back because they are afraid of what they have done to their own people.”