Ugandan refugees question rebels' mea culpa

The rebels whirred up a cloud of orange dust in the stifling heat when they came to meet their victims at Koch Goma Camp in northern Uganda. They had come this time not to kill, but to plead for forgiveness, and refugees cheered their arrival.

But now the dust has settled, and the 17 500-member camp is questioning the sincerity of November’s visit by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

The LRA murdered, raped and mutilated thousands, abducted children to be fighters and sex slaves, and uprooted nearly two million civilians during a brutal 20-year war between the Ugandan government and rebels. A ceasefire in August 2006 halted the conflict.

Led by former Kenyan exile Martin Ojul, a rebel delegation travelled to Gulu, one of the towns hardest hit by the rebellion, in mid-November to kick off its landmark country-wide tour to reconcile with its victims.

Yet rumours that LRA leader Joseph Kony killed his deputy Vincent Otti plagued the rebel group’s tour through the country.
Otti was regarded by many as a vital agent in peace talks.

While the team denied the allegations, local newspapers have reported the opposite.

“They should have told us the truth about Otti’s death, then we could have told them our feelings,” said Jennifer Adong (19). “The LRA is not trustworthy.”

Leadership

The LRA’s top leaders have been hiding in the bush in Garamba National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), while its fighters are scattered across the DRC and southern Sudan.

In late November, seven deserters from the LRA arrived in Uganda after surrendering in the DRC. The group said that Kony had ordered the execution of Otti.

“I was not happy when I heard that Otti was dead—he was the key figure in the talks linking the rebels and the people,” said Simon Ngeko (25), adding that he was impressed with the delegation’s visit, but he now thinks LRA leaders may be changing their minds about peace efforts. “They should be genuine in their appeals for forgiveness,” said Adong.

The rebel team met a feverish rally at Koch Goma Camp with high-pitched singing, wildly energetic dancing, running children and echoing drums. “I ask you to forgive us so we can rebuild—otherwise we cannot move forward,” Ojul told the large, excited audience.

In order to gauge war victims’ mood on punishment and forgiveness for the LRA, the rebel delegation planned town-hall meetings and visits to scarred refugee camps. Its reconciliation tour was completed a few days ago.

Peace talks

Peace talks in the south Sudanese capital, Juba, between the LRA and the Ugandan government have been plagued with interruptions, disagreements and threats from both sides.

The LRA has said it will not sign a peace agreement while 33 International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments against it still stand.

For help in apprehending the rebels, Uganda had called upon the Netherlands-based ICC, which charged the LRA with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

But even if the rebels succeed in gaining forgiveness from its victims, it will have little effect on the ICC, analysts have said.

“I don’t think this kind of suffering should continue,” Ojul said at the rally, sweeping a hand over the neglected land. The crowd of people before him, some who have spent their entire lives at the camp, nodded sombrely in agreement.

Survivors said that reconciliation is necessary in order for the LRA to disband and return home to live side-by-side with its victims—but reports of the LRA’s internal conflict dampened the hopes of Santo Ouma (45): “All we want is peace, but now we are doubtful if the LRA ever really wanted peace.”—Sapa-AFP

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