Is the road to hell paved with good intentions?

Walking in the eerie darkness engulfing Noah’s Ark, a centre that children in northern Uganda escape to for fear of being kidnapped by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, it is easy to see why so many in the region are eager for peace.

Although a handful of the several hundred children who gather here every night are now singing sweetly for a group of visitors, the 19-year battle between government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has scarred their lives.

About 20 000 children have been abducted by the LRA, which has forced them to become soldiers in the rebellion—and sex slaves to LRA commanders.

As a result, fearful parents in rural communities send their children to towns in the evening, where they are thought to be less vulnerable to abduction.

In the case of Noah’s Ark, children ranging in age from four to 17 walk for as long as two hours in the early evening to sleep in tents at the compound, which is guarded by the army. They are amongst a group of people who have become known as “night commuters”.

Now, rebel attacks are on the rise again, a trend which some attribute to an announcement by the International Criminal Court (ICC) that it is on the verge of issuing arrest warrants for rebels who have taken the lead in committing human rights abuses. (LRA fighters are also accused of rape, murdering civilians—and mutilating people by cutting off their ears and lips.)

Those in the ICC’s cross hairs include the group’s leader—Joseph Kony—who reportedly wishes to form a government based on the Ten Commandments, his second-in-command, Vincent Otti, and four others. The ICC, inaugurated in 2003, is responsible for trying people accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

But, while some might view the court’s actions as an overdue attempt to bring the LRA to book for its atrocities, others believe the ICC initiative will simply prolong the agony in northern Uganda.

Five years ago, the government of President Yoweri Museveni passed the Amnesty Act to pardon the members of a variety of groups which had rebelled against Ugandan authorities since 1986 (when the LRA took up arms): 22 organisations in all.

Under the amnesty, former rebels are required to turn in their weapons. They receive a certificate indicating that they have renounced conflict, and are given assistance to resettle in their communities. So far the government has awarded amnesty to about 10 000 LRA soldiers.

The idea of amnesty complements the traditions of the Acholi people, the main ethnic group in northern Uganda.

“Culturally there is a lot of respect for life. You don’t repay death with another death,” explains Rwot David Achana, chief of the Acholis in Gulu district which is at the centre of fighting between the LRA and government.

Talks are also underway to end conflict in northern Uganda, although the peace process has appeared shaky since efforts to reach an agreement on December 31 failed.

Some fear that if the ICC is allowed to press ahead with its prosecution of LRA leaders, these negotiations would unravel completely as Ugandan forces went in pursuit of senior rebels to bring them before the court—and the LRA responded with increased violence.

“If the ICC issues arrest warrants now, what would happen to these ... processes?” asks retired colonel Walter Ochora, now an official in Gulu district. “It would mean the amnesty is gone.”

With this in mind, a delegation of Acholi elders and religious leaders visited the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, at his office in the Dutch city of The Hague earlier this month. They hoped to persuade him to delay action against LRA members until peace could take root in northern Uganda.

The prosecutor responded by issuing a statement that he was “mindful of traditional justice and reconciliation processes and sensitive to the leaders’ efforts to promote dialogue between different actors in order to achieve peace.”

But, says Christian Palme, a public information adviser at the ICC, Kampala’s decision to refer matters in northern Uganda to the court gives the ICC “full jurisdiction over grave crimes under the Rome statute for the ICC that have been committed by any party to the conflict in northern Uganda.” The Rome statute, which established the court, came into effect on July 1, 2002.

ICC proceedings may be initiated by a state which is party to the court, the United Nations Security Council or the chief prosecutor. Warrants for LRA members would be the first to be issued by the ICC for war crimes.

The Ugandan government referred its longstanding conflict with the LRA to the international court two years ago in a bid to “use every means to end the war,” says Internal Affairs Minister Ruhakana Rugunda.

Nonetheless, he adds, “The amnesty law is a blanket law for all,” including Kony.

Other authorities appear less accommodating. The ministry responsible for northern Uganda recently said that it supported the ICC’s wish to arrest Kony and his inner circle.

The situation is complicated still further by the fact that Ugandan forces are themselves accused of committing abuses such as rape, torture and mass killing in northern Uganda, and of being partially responsible for the displacement that has taken place in this region. More than 1,4-million people currently live in camps for displaced persons; these facilities lack proper housing and basic services.

While groups such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch have called on the ICC to ensure that all parties responsible for abuses in northern Uganda are brought to book, it remains to be seen whether the Museveni government will allow its troops to be tried alongside LRA leaders.

Zachary Lomo, director of the Refugee Law Project in Kampala, has conducted extensive interviews with people in northern Uganda about how best to end the hostilities that have plagued this region for so long.

“I went there with a legal mind that wanted accountability, but I was humbled,” he says.

“All these international rich people…They say ‘You must be so African. This guy does all these bad things, and you’re saying he should be forgiven?’,” says Lomo. “But you’ve flown from London. You’ve flown from Europe. You’re living comfortably. You live in your home. You’re free in the street.”

Twenty-five percent of northerners polled by Lomo want the LRA to account for its crimes.

Still, amongst that 25% there are people with strong feelings on the matter—such as Okello Laouries.

This 15-year-old night commuter, who has been a regular visitor at Noah’s Ark for two years, worries constantly that the LRA will attack her parents sleeping at home. Wearing a T-shirt that says “Beware of Landmines” and preparing just before daybreak to return home, the girl said children forced into the bush should be forgiven.

“But Kony and other rebel leaders who formed the group should be thrown into jail. He’s done a bad thing.”—IPS

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