Sunday, September 12, 2004

In troubled Uganda, a glimmer of optimism - Rebels respond to broadcast of amnesty offer

Gulu, Uganda: Radio host Lacambel Oryema passed out Cokes to his young guests before handing the microphone to a former sergeant of the Lord's Resistance Army, a fanatical organization that has been battling the government of Uganda for 18 years, Africa's longest-running civil war.

Richard Onera said he was kidnapped nine years ago when he was just 13. He described the hardships of rebel life -- hunger, isolation and fear -- and appealed to three of his friends still hiding in the bush to give themselves up.

"Nyero, Ogwal, Kobi," he said, "our battalion leader ... has already surrendered, why not you?"

Onera, who participated in a radio program called "Come Back Home," had surrendered just three days before the broadcast. He is one of about 600 LRA soldiers and commanders to defect since January, a dramatic sign that the nearly two-decade war with Uganda's armed forces may finally be ending. The radio show, which is heard across northern Uganda, is credited by many here with enticing scores of rebels like Onera to put down their arms.

The conflict began in 1986 after a revolt by soldiers from northern Uganda's dominant Acholi tribe. They were angry that a southerner, Yoweri Museveni, had seized power. Since then, more than 30,000 people have died in fighting between the LRA and government forces, and some 20,000 children have been kidnapped by the rebels to serve as fighters, porters and sex slaves, aid groups estimate. The ragtag militia is known for its brutality, hacking off limbs, lips or ears with machetes.

The insurgency, which is led by a self-proclaimed mystic named Joseph Kony who once said he would rule Uganda according to the Ten Commandments, has displaced about 1.5 million people, many of whom live in squalid camps.

The war has been a constant blemish on an 18-year period of relative prosperity in Uganda. During Museveni's tenure as president, Uganda has made a remarkable social and economic recovery after three decades of war and widespread human rights abuses under two previous dictators, Milton Obote and Idi Amin. Since 1990, there has been a 20 percent reduction in poverty, a surge in school enrollment, more professional security forces and a decline in HIV/AIDS rates.

Although sporadic attacks by the LRA continue -- official and unofficial estimates say there are anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand rebels still active in northern Uganda -- the mass desertions are the most positive sign that Kony, who reportedly controls his soldiers through intimidation and pronouncements of his divine powers, is losing the hearts and minds of his soldiers.

Kony himself barely escaped capture in July after Ugandan troops destroyed his headquarters in southern Sudan. Two of his wives have turned themselves in and four more were captured, Ugandan army sources say.

"It's the first time in the history of this conflict that groups of soldiers are coming out with their commanders," said Lt. Paddy Ankunda, a Ugandan army spokesman. "It's definitely a sign of weakening."

The Ugandan armed forces, which many observers say have prolonged the conflict through corruption and incompetence, have scored several military victories in recent months, including the capture in July of Kenneth Banya, the LRA's third-in-command. The military claims that 1,255 LRA rebels have been killed and 993 have surrendered since the beginning of this year.

In addition, a peace agreement signed in May between Sudan and another rebel group, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, promises to deny the LRA access to its longtime refuge in southern Sudan, across Uganda's northern border.

"The Sudanese are finally getting some control over southern Sudan, so the LRA will have no base of control," said Ankunda.

Phillip Okin, a coordinator with the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an organization that promotes negotiations between the LRA and the government, says LRA rebels are scattered, hungry and demoralized.

"The pressure is very high, very productive for peace talks," said Okin.

Nevertheless, Ankunda says the army has no plan to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict. "Our role is military," he said. "We mediate with fire."

According to recent interviews with LRA returnees, the increase in deserters is mainly due to the growing awareness among rank-and-file soldiers of a government amnesty program, which has been in effect since January 2000. Even though child soldiers are forbidden contact with the outside world, they have found out about the amnesty on transistor radios.

At Unyama, one of more than a hundred camps of mud huts scattered across northern Uganda, most residents greet talk of the war's end with guarded optimism.

"We just pray that (President Museveni and Kony) are coming together at last," said camp leader Raymond Lamoka.

Lamoka has good reason to hope for a quick solution. Many of Unyama's 24, 000 residents suffer from malnutrition, tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS and skin diseases. Hundreds of barefoot children with distended bellies roam alongside wide trenches teeming with sludge from overflowing latrines. Residents survive on donations from the U.N.'s World Food Program, which are delivered sporadically in armed convoys.

Unyama has also been attacked frequently by the LRA since 1996. As a result, many of its children make the hour-and-a-half walk each night to Gulu, the northern town that has been the epicenter of the war, to sleep in protected shelters, churches, and hospitals.

When the war does end, few here believe the wounds it has inflicted will heal quickly.

The Museveni government, which has been accused by its critics of downplaying the effects of the conflict, recently issued a report saying it will take at least 30 years to rebuild the north after the violence ends.

The government will also have to deal with an AIDS infection rate in the region that is four times the national average and prepare ex-rebels and the displaced for transition back to village life.

"Thuggery is a real fear," Okin says. "The war has gone on so long. So many have weapons hidden away."

Meanwhile, "Come Back Home" has inspired a radio station in the northern city of Lira to launch a similar program, and radio host Oryema continues to give substantial air time to rebel defectors.

"We don't call them rebels. We call them my brothers, my sisters," said Oryema. "For child soldiers guilt-ridden with the atrocities they have committed, this sounds so sweet to them."

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