Deep into the bush to find Uganda's LRA rebels
The rebel soldier sprawls on a rock, languidly pulls off his boots and reaches into a twine bag to grab a packet of biscuits.
“You’re just looking for war stories,” the 36-year-old Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel says when I ask him where he got a dozen scars around his ankle.
It’s true, I am, and he doesn’t take the bait.
It took three hours marching on a tiny trail of broken bush-grass in south Sudan’s landmined Owiny-Ki-Bul area to arrive at a small brook where a Reuters news team was to meet a senior LRA commander.
By the time we stop, one fighter who had barely broken a sweat is carrying three of our bags while I collapse ungraciously on the ground. “We normally walk more than 50km a day,” he says.
Ten fighters from one of Africa’s most dreaded rebel groups set up a perimeter as we wait for the major general to come.
Under a landmark truce with Uganda’s government, the area is supposed to be a safe haven, but the LRA is sceptical.
For two decades, the notoriously vicious rebel group has fought across northern Uganda and neighbouring south Sudan.
The only people to see the dreadlocked fighters were their victims and opposing soldiers.
Now, as fledgling peace talks go on, the secretive insurgents are gathering at two assembly points. We are the first Western media crew to visit Owiny-Ki-Bul in Sudan.
Pen vs AK-47
A commander escorting us to the meeting crouches and stares into dense grassland bush.
“When he starts crying, you have to follow him to find where the bees are,” he says, pointing to a small bird.
He finds a rotted tree where wild bees buzz.
Two low-ranking soldiers are sent to start a fire to flush out the bees.
Only the two commanders with us are allowed to munch on the prized honeycombs, crawling with bees that struggle to escape the sweet goo.
We begin marching again since the brook is not a safe place to meet Major General Accelam Caesar Otto, they say.
A small clearing has been hacked out of the bush, and we enter a ring of 70 soldiers. A short wooden chair is set out and a wool-lined coat is draped over it.
Caesar emerges from somewhere to our right. He answers all the questions with a smile, asking for more time for his troops to assemble to implement the truce.
Our talk is over in 20 minutes. We hike the three hours back to the camp as night falls.
Steaming red beans, rice and wheat flour await us upon return. Bags of food are piled under plastic-covered tents.
I see the logo for the United Nations’ children’s fund Unicef on plastic covers and ask rebels, notorious for the use of child soldiers, where they got them from. They just shrug.
We sit around a fire with the two commanders who accompanied us and eat out of a communal bowl.
It’s all smiles except when my sweat-soaked notebook comes out. I place it gingerly back in the bag. I was allowed to use it only three times—when I spoke to Caesar and to two of his handpicked colleagues.
If “the pen is mightier than the sword”, as the saying goes, is a pen stronger than an AK-47 rifle?
Deep in south Sudan’s bush surrounded by LRA fighters, this wasn’t the right time to find out. - Reuters