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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 June 2003, 12:28 GMT 13:28 UK
Uganda's atrocious war
By Will Ross
BBC, Kitgum, Uganda

Uganda's rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has become synonymous with torture, abductions and killings
Victim
The LRA use torture to instil fear

"They tied me and laid me down. They told me not to cry. Not to make any noise. Then one man sat on my chest, men held my arms, legs, and one held my neck".

"Another picked up an axe. First he chopped my left hand, then my right. Then he chopped my nose, my ears and my mouth with a knife."

23-year-old David was abducted by rebels of the LRA, who falsely accused him of being a government soldier.

While they were carrying out these atrocities, David pleaded with the rebels to kill him.

Instead they wrapped up David's ears in a letter warning people against joining the government forces.

Looting

The gruesome atrocities of the LRA are designed to instil fear in the civilians, but it is the frequency of the rebel attacks that is causing most alarm.

Children in gulu
Children are often abducted
On a daily basis the rebels are attacking to loot and abduct and the army is failing to protect the civilian population.

"It's under control," is the usual refrain from the military.

One military spokesman recently described the current wave of rebel attacks as "the last kicks of a dying horse."

But for the civilians living through the nightmare, the horse is very much alive and kicking hard where it hurts.

Abducted teenagers

Tens of thousands are not prepared to take the risk that the rebels may strike their homes. So they either sleep in the bushes or at dusk they walk into urban centres to sleep in the grounds of hospitals or on shop verandas.
Uganda army tank
The army has been unable to end the LRA rebellion

There is a fear that thousands of children sleeping in one location may soon become too tempting a target for the LRA, which is made up almost entirely of abducted teenagers.

Over 5,000 people seek refuge at St Joseph's Mission in Kitgum.

Desperate

Father Joseph Gerner, from Germany, heads the mission and has lived through the war in the north.

He describes the current situation as desperate.

"The rebels are all over. I would say practically the whole countryside is in their hands", he says.

"The army may be on the roads and in the barracks but they don't really have much say in the bush because there the rebels are completely free."

Two months ago there had been much optimism that peace talks with the LRA would bear some fruit.

Mistrust

However talks between the rebels and the presidential peace team never took place largely due to a total lack of trust between the two sides.

The chairman of Gulu district, Lieutenant Colonel Walter Ochora, says that the rebels' past crimes are preventing them from sitting down to talk peace.

"The problem of the LRA leadership is guilt. One commander, Vincent Otti, massacred over 300 people in his home area of Atiak", says Colonel Ochora.

Joseph Kony
Kony [r] rarely talks about peaceful end to the conflict
"Such a guy will not be free to live in Atiak," he tells me, adding that there are rebel commanders who want peace but not the overall leader, Joseph Kony.

I met several teenagers who had just escaped from LRA captivity. One had been in Joseph Kony's group in southern Sudan.

He told me that Kony tells the rebels that the government of President Yoweri Museveni will be overthrown within two years and has never spoken to them about finding a peaceful end to the conflict.

Uniformed Arabs

Alarmingly those escaping describe how supplies are being taken to Joseph Kony's rebels in southern Sudan.

"In May this year I saw some Arabs wearing military uniforms bringing in supplies of military equipment and ammunition in trucks," one 14-year-old boy told me.

This prompts the suggestion that contrary to agreement, the Khartoum government's links with the LRA have not been severed.

However the Sudanese authorities vehemently deny any support for the rebels.

Bandits

Now President Museveni seems to have completely turned his back on the idea of talking peace.

At the recent state of the nation address he declared, "We have given the bandits a chance of saving their wretched lives. Instead they continue to kill Ugandans. The killers of the people in the north will be killed."

LRA victim
The rebels chop off noses and ears
In Kitgum I watched two helicopter gunships fly out to an area the rebels had just attacked to the east of the town.

President Museveni speaks of new military hardware being the key to success against the rebels.

But the civilians hold a different view.

They say that when the helicopters attack, it's often the innocent civilians who are killed - especially those just abducted and tied together by the rebels.

Forgive

This situation has left civilians clueless as to the way forward.

In their eyes the military option has failed and will always fail and now that peace talks have flopped, few are optimistic.

The common call now is for the international community to focus on northern Uganda.

"Mr Bush and others should send their delegates here to see the situation on the ground," says David Ochola as he settles down for a night under the stars in Kitgum town.

Despite the terror inflicted by the LRA, civilians are largely ready to forgive in order to see the back of the 17-year-old conflict.

As Donald Lagonya studies for his A-level exams under a street light, he tells me: "If they come back home and stay together as brothers and sisters, even now I am ready to receive them."

"Mistakes are human and the rebels should not think they will be hated."


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