Feared Ugandan rebels emerge warily from bush

Just two steps into the tall grass and jungle at Ri-Kwangba, a remote border outpost, and the dreadlocked gunmen clad in worn camouflage merge into the leafy forest—invisible, protected and feared.

For nearly 20 years, Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels have relied on standard guerrilla techniques to wreak havoc and destruction across war-torn northern Uganda, staging quick and lethal raids before disappearing into the bush.

Their actions toward civilians—massacres, rapes, mutilations, abductions—has earned shadowy LRA fighters infamous reputations as brutal, bloodthirsty killers bent on promoting the alleged Biblical aims of their elusive leader.

Tens of thousands have been killed and nearly two million displaced at the hands of the hidden rebels in the conflict that is regularly described as one of the world’s worst, and most-forgotten, humanitarian crises.

But now, for the first time since LRA supremo Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed mystic and prophet, took over a regional rebellion in northern Uganda in 1988, the mysterious force is beginning, slowly, to show its face.

Despite several serious hitches, a landmark late August truce between the rebels and the Ugandan government is holding, keeping alive hopes for peace talks being mediated by the government of autonomous southern Sudan.

Amid mutual accusations, walk-out threats and erroneous media reports that have threatened the negotiations, LRA fighters are gradually emerging from hiding to gather at, or at least near, neutral camps in south Sudan.

“What you have to know is that we are many and we are assembling in the areas,” said Colonel Lubwa Bwone, the LRA commander at Ri-Kwangba, one of the sites where the rebels are to stay for the duration of the talks.

“We expect more to come,” he said, gesturing at the overgrown brush, shrubs and trees that flourish on the ill-defined border between Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Kony and the LRA leadership are holed up.

“We are 3 500 soldiers just here,” said LRA Captain Sunday Ocaya, pointing a grenade launcher at the dense Congolese jungle as rank-and-file fighters shift quietly in the background, caressing their assault rifles.

Estimates of the secretive rebels’ strength vary widely, with some observers putting their numbers at as few as 500 seasoned fighters and others at close to 10 000, while the real number is likely in the several thousand range.

But at present, there are few, if any, fighters occupying the exact sites at Ri-Kwangba and Owiny-Ki-Bul, the second camp near southern Sudan’s border with Uganda, but the LRA maintains they are nearby, wary of possible tricks.

Conditions at the camps are spartan at best with just five huts and scarce food and water at Ri-Kwangba and landmines at Owiny-Ki-Bul, a hotspot during Sudan’s 21-year north-south civil war that ended last year, the rebels say.

Kony and his deputy, Vincent Otti, both wanted on international war crimes charges, missed a mid-September deadline to appear at the camps and only about 50 rebels were present when reporters visited Ri-Kwangba late last month.

Several hundred had gone to Owiny-Ki-Bul, according to southern Sudanese officials who are supervising the camps, but Kampala says they are leaving and the LRA complains Ugandan troops are surrounding them in preparation for attacks.

The complaints have flown fast and furious over recent weeks, fuelling fears of the collapse of the peace talks, yet negotiators and mediators remain optimistic of a settlement.

“Progress is being made,” said Major General Wilson Deng, the southern Sudanese military officer in charge of a truce monitoring team overseeing the movement of the rebel fighters and their welfare at the camps.

“But work must still be done on confidence -building.”

The LRA, like many rebel groups negotiating peace, is reluctant to move to quickly, fearing a loss of leverage at the talks in the southern Sudanese capital of Juba, say Deng and others.

“To us, the conditions of laying down arms and a quick and expeditious completion of the peace talks are terms for a surrender and not a negotiated settlement,” said Krispus Ayena Odonyo, an LRA delegate to the talks.

Since getting a boost from the August 26 cessation of hostilities pact that took effect three days later, the negotiations have faltered with the two sides at deep odds over numerous issues, including the alleged truce violations.

While the teams in Juba argue over the war-crimes charges, the size and composition of the army, and future power- and wealth-sharing in northern Uganda, the rebels sit here nervously, but at peace.

“We are happily waiting to see the process produce the good result of peace,” said Bwone, as his fighters, faceless eyes peering from the thick forest, stare on.—AFP

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