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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 March 2007, 14:06 GMT
Uganda's war victims live on hope
A fire in a displacement camp in Uganda

By Karen Allen
BBC News, northern Uganda

It is a scene of utter devastation: a camp for people who have fled Uganda's most feared rebel movement - the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) -is ablaze just a few kilometres away from the town of Kitgum.

Round mud huts with straw thatched roofs have been reduced to ashes, and people are frantically trying to salvage a few possessions.

Groundnuts blackened with smoke are strewn across the ground and lose pages of a child's science text book have been singed by flames.

People on bicycles in northern Uganda
People are gingerly returning back to ancestral lands, returning to the safety of the camp at night
For at least 50 households in this camp, they have lost everything they own.

This after 20 years living under the shadow of the LRA, forced to flee their homes.

In the past the LRA rebels were blamed for torching entire settlements. This time round the fire at the camp is an accident.

A child has knocked over a cooking stove and with strong winds, the flames have quickly spread.

Camp leaders are urging people not to despair, reminding them that in the past two decades they have lost so much more.

Choice

Each and every one of them has seen a loved one snatched or killed by the rebels, infamous for their brutality. All have been made homeless.

Huts in a displacement camp

The tens of thousands of people packed into camps like these face a difficult choice: either risk the cramped and dangerous living conditions like these, or return to their villages and face the lingering threat of the LRA.

Yet many are certain that peace is the closest it has ever been.

Some are gingerly returning back to their ancestral lands commuting daily and returning to the safety of the camp at night.

It is impossible to judge just how many of the 1.7m people who have been displaced are making this journey, but it is an upward trend.

United Nations envoy Joachim Chissano, Mozambique's former leader, has just made a second visit to rebel leaders across the border hiding deep in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

His mission was to persuade them to resume peace talks in Juba, stalled by disputes over power-sharing and accusations of bias.

Abduction

Meanwhile, a few hundred kilometres away in northern Uganda, John Otuu and his son Bosco spent the day tilling the 10 acres of land they abandoned 12 years ago.

We are all tired of war everybody is tired of it and we just want to be able to move on and return home
John Otuu, camp resident

The hope is that in the coming months, they will move back to the land full time - despite the horrors of Mr Otuu seeing his 13-year-old daughter abducted by the rebels.

"I strongly believe that through negotiations we can get genuine peace... we are all tired of war everybody is tired of it and we just want to be able to move on and return to our ancestral home," he says.

Like a considerable number in the Acholi community, Mr Otuu's family believes reconciliation with the LRA is the only option.

Achievable, they argue, using traditional means of justice called mato oput rather than criminal prosecutions.

Games

The International Criminal Court has indicted Joseph Kony, the head of the LRA, and his top lieutenants for war crimes.

A girl in a displacement camp in Uganda
Most families have a child who has been abducted

Yet the overwhelming sense on the ground is that this could prove counterproductive and alternatives need to be considered.

So increasingly Acholi leaders have acted as mediators to try and get the LRA and Ugandan government to return to the negotiating table and reach some kind of deal.

There have been games played by both sides which have brought into question the desire of each to achieve genuine peace.

The Ugandan authorities accuse the LRA of being behind recent attacks on Ugandan transport vehicles heading across the border from Sudan, even though there are strong suspicions that Sudanese rebels or bandits may have been to blame.

In January, meanwhile, the LRA stormed out of negotiations demanding fresh location for the talks, accusing Sudanese mediators of bias.

Yet despite all this there is an overwhelming sense of optimism amongst the people who have endured this 20-year civil war.

Progress

Norbert Mao the elected representative for the district of Gulu, has been instrumental in trying to bridge the gap between the rebels and the Ugandan government which is politically unpopular in this part of the country.

This is the only time the LRA has put its signature on any document - namely the cessation of hostilities agreement and we want that truce revived
Norbert Mao
Gulu's peace representative

He points to the falling numbers of youngsters attending rehabilitation centres for ex-LRA child soldiers, as evidence that the rebels are running out of steam.

He insists that pressure from the people of northern Uganda will ultimately result in peace.

High hopes, despite failed attempts at resolution to this conflict in the past.

"This is the furthest we've ever gone in this peace process," he says.

"This is the only time the LRA has put its signature on any document - namely the cessation of hostilities agreement and we want that truce revived."

It is hard to say whether the genuine desire for peace amongst ordinary Ugandans will be matched by the actions of the LRA and the Ugandan government.

There may be positive signs of a resumption of talks, but the level of mistrust that persists cannot be underestimated.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Rare footage of the child soldiers of the LRA



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