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Thursday, 2 November, 2000, 20:03 GMT
Uganda's rebel war
By Caroline Pare
Northern Uganda is a beautiful, lush region. Acholiland, the land of the Acholi people, looks fertile and rich. But, appearances can deceive; look closer and the countryside is virtually empty. This area is the battleground of one of the world's most vicious rebel wars.
A rag-tag army based across the border in south Sudan, the so-called Lord's Resistance Army, crosses into Uganda in small groups about 15 strong. They are not intent on fighting Ugandan government soldiers, they have come to steal.
They attack their own Acholi people, rob them of what little they have, kill with regularity and, almost uniquely to this rebel group, abduct children to join their forces.
Eight thousand to 10,000 children - boys and girls - have been abducted over the 14 years this war has been raging. Six thousand have yet to be accounted for.
The children who have managed to escape the LRA recall the horror of abduction. Dennis, who was just 12 when he was abducted and stayed with the rebels for four and a half years, describes his life:
"They give you a big load to carry and you walk and your feet are swollen, cut by grass, but if you can't walk they will just kill you."
Patrick, who was with the rebels just three months explains why his life will never be the same: "While I was there we were forced to kill a young child. We were ordered to stamp on him and we stamped on him until we killed him.
"You had to stamp on him as may times as you could, if it seemed you were not doing it hard enough you were beaten. He was a 12-year-old boy who had tried to escape."
The children are forced to walk across the border to the rebel camp in south Sudan. There the boys are trained to fight, the girls get different treatment:
"They divided us into groups and allocated us to different men. We didn't know then that we were being given out as wives."
We met five girls who had all been "wives" to one man, George Komakech. He had twenty wives in total and the girls had four children with them.
"He would look after me well, but if I made a mistake he would beat me. If you didn't make a mistake he was good."
The girls had just been flown back from Sudan. They were the first returnees as part of a new, internationally brokered, agreement between the governments of Sudan and Uganda to try to bring an end to the fighting and get all the 6,000 children returned. It seemed at last peace was possible.
But it was only to be a matter of a day or so before the rebel attacks shifted up a gear. First a Catholic priest was killed on his way to mass then attacks began right in the centre of Gulu town which the government claimed was safe.
There were nine killed and 60 injured in an audacious attack on a downtown hotel then, just seven kilometres outside the town, 20 girls were abducted and leaflets were dropped by the LRA threatening to kill 200 people a month.
Little is known about the rebel leader, Joseph Kony, the man behind the atrocities, and it is clear that this is exactly how he likes it. He has created an aura of fear and mysticism around himself which is an image difficult to dispel.
One of the children describes Kony: "I've seen him. He's tall, thin, his hair is long. He weaves his hair in braids or dreadlocks. He's frightening. Kony looks like a killer. Actually he is a killer. He killed my mother and father before my very eyes."
But the five girls had a very different perception of him: "Kony is a God fearing man. He's a kind man because in his speeches he talks about the ten commandments of God. He teaches that you have to live well and love your neighbour. He said even in the Bible people died and if it is time for you to die, you must die. It's not Kony who has killed you but God, because your time has come."
A social worker, who has counselled returned children for many years, describes the picture she has built up of Kony over the years of hearing about him from the children:
"They are supposed to sing when Kony's there and Kony gets possessed and the children say that if he talks when he's possessed exactly what he talks about comes true. I believe that there is a deadly evil spirit that is misleading him. I'm not sure if they worship Kony or if they worship the spirit that is in Kony. Some people say the spirit lives in the human-blood that is why he wants as many people killed as possible. It feeds on fresh human blood."
Youssef Adek lives in Gulu and is known to have regular contact with the rebels including Joseph Kony himself. He is an apologist for Kony:
"He's a fighter not a killer. He's a leader of guerrillas. He's fighting the government and the government is fighting him. They're combatants. As for abducting children, well, they cannot just come out and declare that they want to recruit. This is their way of recruitment. And it's good for them just to continue fighting."
And he explained the cause Kony claims to be fighting for: "The way they treat people of the North is not good. Acholiland is being neglected, is being badly treated by the Ugandan Government. Economically there is a lot of worry that we are suffering because of this."
The government policy of keeping the people in protected villages has impoverished the area dramatically. It was once a rich, fertile, grain exporting region. Now, the fields lie empty and the population has been reduced to beggars.
Now, Uganda as a nation has received plaudits from western nations for creating one of the success stories of Africa. Indeed, since President Museveni came to power in 1986 he is credited for bringing peace that has enabled the country to prosper.
He is seen as a safe pair of hands by international donors. Some even call him the "golden boy". But what of the war in the north?
"Our friends, the donors have shifted, they are looking at stability beyond anything else. Human rights? No. Stability is everything. It is not blindness, it is pretence. They see it, they watch it as it is getting to genocide proportions under their watchful eyes."
That is the view of lawyer Jacob Olanya, an Acholi who feels Uganda's international friends are turning a blind eye to the problem which could endanger Uganda's existence. The country's history has been one of north fighting south - the Acholis were the ones who battled to the last against Museveni's guerrilla army in the 80s.
Norbert Mao is the MP for Gulu and he is very sensitive to the huge disparity between the relatively rich south of the country and the devastated north.
Mao is worried that unless the government can persuade the Acholi people that they are part of the new Uganda that's being built, and that they are not just being left to suffer as a punishment for their past allegiances, something bad could happen.
"Uganda now is not a stable country despite what the western media and the international community has told you. We are like a volcano under an ice-cap and when the eruption comes we are the ones who are going to suffer.
A region that feels neglected is bound to feel that they have nothing to lose and when you have nothing to lose then extremism starts sprouting and extremism can be expressed in many forms. I believe that even war is not out of range here. And it is not confined to the Acholi region alone."
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