Johny Lacambel, a local radio presenter, offers his two guests some soda before asking the tall dark male with an amputated limb to lead in prayers as the programme begins. The trice-weekly Dwog Paco, the local Acholi language for “come back home,” is credited with touching many hearts and convincing a number of rebels to surrender.
The amputee is Charles Otim Mono, 33, a Lt-Col in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that has been battling government forces in the north of the country for the past 18 years.
A girl with a pensive look sits next to Otim, seemingly amused by what is going on. She is Lilly Acira, a rebel fighter, who, like thousands of children in this region, was kidnapped at the age of 10 years to join the rebel ranks.
The two were guests for the one-and-a-half hour programme on local radio, Mega FM, whose coverage beams across northern Uganda and some parts of southern Sudan. It is used for former rebels to talk directly to their colleagues still in the bush about how they have been treated and the existence of the amnesty given to them by the government.
Acira describes rebel life as being underlined by hunger, which has forced rebels to feed on leaves; isolation and some times death, before she appeals to friends still hiding in the bush to give themselves up.
“To our commander Anywa, Evelyn your wife is with us, but she got injuries in the arms and the breasts,” Acira said. “You need to come out and meet her.
“And to you Vincent Otti (LRA’s second in command) — I am your sister,” she continues. “We come from the same family. One of your wives was injured during a helicopter raid. I talked to her a few minutes before she died and the fate of two of your other wives and the escort is not known.”
The army and the radio management bring captured rebels on air. Sometimes they are surrendered rebels or those rescued from rebel captivity. So far, the highest-ranking LRA rebel that the programme has hosted was Brig Kenneth Banya, who was the third in command in the LRA hierarchy. The Ugandan army captured Banya in July.
“When you listen to the children, they are more passionate and they talk to the heart about their experience in captivity and as rebel fighters,” said Lucy Lapoti, an interpreter for Irin.
Army spokesman Major Shaban Bantariza calls it “communicating appropriately”.
Lacambel calls his programme the only peace talks with the rebels, who have eluded efforts to peacefully end the brutal rebellion that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and whose main victims are children and women.
“The impact has been good. It undermines LRA’s propaganda that suggests we kill those we capture, rescue or those who surrender to us,” Maj Bantariza adds.
Scores of other LRA members — from adolescent foot soldiers to senior commanders — have been sneaking away in recent months. The military says that at least 1Â 000 LRA fighters, including 84 commanders, have defected since January, which is dramatically weakening the LRA.
The army’s Children Protection Unit (CPU), housed in a dilapidated building in Gulu, is where all those rescued, captured or surrendered people are taken for screening before they are rehabilitated. When Irin visited the unit, 10 juveniles as young as 12, including two girls, were being screened.
“I was abducted in 2002 when the rebels attacked Anaka camp,” Joel Oloya, 13, said. He took advantage of the darkness after sunset to crawl back home.
Relief agencies estimate that 20Â 000 children have been abducted by the LRA to serve as fighters since the movement began. Most of them are used as porters or sex slaves for rebel commanders. — Irin