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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 September 2006, 12:44 GMT 13:44 UK
LRA victims seek peace with past
By Karen Allen
BBC News, northern Uganda

Ben Ajok
Ben Ajok, like many, does not want to see LRA leaders stand trial

Twenty kilometres from a camp near Gulu in northern Uganda, 25-year-old Ben Ajok has started to build a new house near the site where, six years ago, he saw his father and his brother killed.

He is one of the growing numbers now heading home after the rebels of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army agreed a ceasefire deal a fortnight ago. He is hopeful that the LRA rebels and Ugandan government will bury their differences and move on.

"I think they must now come back home mix with us - not stand trial," he says.

Favourite punishment

At least 400 LRA rebels have made their way to assembly points in southern Sudan as part of the ceasefire deal.

The news came from mediators at peace talks in Juba where the government of Uganda and representatives of the insurgents are trying to navigate their way towards ending this brutal 20-year civil war.

They were taken by the LRA, some when they were still very young. I think they must now come back home mix with us - not stand trial"
Ben Ajok

Two million people have been displaced in the conflict, and many who survived the vicious machete attacks and shootings have had their lips cut off - a favourite punishment of the rebels notorious for their use of child soldiers.

Vincent Otti, the second in command of the LRA, is said to be at one of the assembly points just west of the river Nile.

He has told the UN's emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland in a tense series of telephone calls that he wants him to press for the arrest warrants against the LRA leadership to be dropped.

Mr Egeland has influence, but not the final say in the course the International Criminal Court takes; and without its own police force to arrest the rebel leaders, the ICC would have to rely on the military for help.

What makes the position even murkier is that the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, has offered an amnesty to the LRA leaders if they secure peace.

It is a blunt contradiction perceived by many observers as a snub to the international community, who have grown impatient with the president's handling of the conflict.

Mr Egeland has stopped short of criticising the international court, but has agreed to act as an informal mediator in return for the release of women and children held by the LRA.

He said that "they are committed to ending the war in northern Uganda.

"Vincent Otti is now engaging with me in a pretty heavy exchange and I've asked for the release of women and children.

"I have some assurances that this will happen."

Alternative to revenge

No deadline has been set for women and youngsters to be released, but it is seen as an important bargaining chip by all sides - not least because more evidence is emerging that the LRA has young, recently captured children in its ranks. A group of them on the move were witnessed by the BBC in northern Uganda.

Mr Egeland came to the peace talks with a stark message from the victims of the LRA.
LRA rebels
One of the world's most brutal conflicts could be drawing to a close

During a traditional campfire gathering in northern Uganda over the weekend, men and women who fled to the safety of camps that pepper the countryside told him bluntly they prefer reconciliation over revenge.

They do not want to see the LRA's leaders in the dock, fearing that it will simply delay the passage to peace. Acholi culture offers an alternative - traditional ways of righting past wrongs.

"I'm prepared to forgive," Ben Ajok adds. "I don't want the rebels punished. They were taken by the LRA, some when they were still very young."

The LRA has already entered the history books as one of the most brutal rebel movements ever, perpetrating killings in what the UN famously termed one of the most "neglected conflicts" in the world.

It might be hard to comprehend this hunger for reconciliation. But with the prospect of leaving behind two decades of terror, then maybe not.

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