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Stopping Rebel Attacks in Northern Uganda No Easy Task


For almost two decades, the people of northern Uganda have been subjected to random attacks by a rebel group the United States calls a terrorist organization.

Every night, record numbers of children in the Gulu district of Northern Uganda leave their villages or camps to escape being killed or abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army, which has been waging war for the past 18 years in the north.

These children find a safe haven at Noah's Ark shelter, as well as the grounds of the town's hospital and schools. According to United Nations estimates, more than 20,000 children have been abducted by the LRA since the conflict began and the task of stopping LRA is proving to be increasingly difficult.

The Ugandan army has launched offensives against the LRA, claiming to kill rebel fighters and commanders alike. But its failure to completely quash the rebel group has led many to doubt the army's ability to end the insurgency.

An official with the Catholic Archdiocese of Gulu, Carlos Rodriguez, explains that he and many in the north no longer trust statements by the Ugandan army concerning its progress in wiping out the LRA.

"There is something very funny, that in the last two years, we hear the figure 400. There are 400 rebels left, two years ago. One year later, they [army] kill 1,000 [rebels], but there are still 400 left," he said. "And now we still keep hearing that there are 400 left. Well if it is true that there are only 400 left, let them [army] prove that they can handle the situation, that they can protect people adequately so that people can have a normal life."

A combination of factors such as a lack of trust in the army, the fear that the LRA will kill those who try to expose and stop its activities, and the complexity of the conflict have led most people to reject a military solution.

Julius Tiboa, the program coordinator for Gulu Support the Children Organization, says over the past eight years, the group has rehabilitated more than 7,000 children held by the LRA.

"There are so many interested parties in this conflict - it's not one person. Many parties are involved, and it makes it difficult, really to stop this conflict. This conflict will never end by armed struggle - it will never. So I'm calling upon the government and the LRA to sit down and talk peace," he said.

There have been periodic, unsuccessful attempts over the past decade to bring the Ugandan government and the LRA together for peace talks.

Last November, the hopes of Mr. Tiboa and others were raised when the Ugandan government announced, and then extended, a partial cease-fire so that the two sides could meet.

The day before New Year's Eve, the government and LRA were on the verge of signing a cease-fire that would pave the way for future negotiations.

But the talks, spearheaded by former northern minister Betty Bigombe, collapsed New Year's Eve. At the time, Ugandan Interior Minister Ruhakana Rugunda told VOA the rebels withdrew to discuss the deal amongst themselves and did not report back to negotiators.

Talks revived briefly but again stopped in February, when LRA spokesman Sam Kolo, widely seen as the one who could convince the LRA to sign a peace deal with the government, left the group and surrendered to the government under the Amnesty Act of 2000 which pardons rebels who surrender to the Amnesty Commission and renounce violence.

But 12 LRA arrest warrants that The Hague-based International Criminal Court, or ICC, issued in February could override the government's amnesty program. The trial is scheduled to start in July.

Rwot David Onen Acana II is the chief of the Acholi people, the predominant ethnic group in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader districts where the rebel attacks are taking place.

Mr. Acana, one of several prominent northern Ugandan leaders who traveled to The Hague earlier this month for talks, is concerned that the ICC's arrest warrants could stall peace efforts.

"To me, that was the blow to the peace process," he said. "When that statement came, [LRA] Brigadier Sam Kolo called me, because we had assured them [LRA] that the ICC was going to hold on so long as they [LRA] are in dialogue with the government. And we also referred to the statement made by the president [Yoweri Museveni] who said as long as the LRA would come to dialogue, he'd also talk to the ICC to delay the investigation and prosecution."

Mr. Acana says he and other local officials do not oppose investigations and even prosecutions by the International Criminal Court, but, they say, justice should take place only after peace is restored.

"The people of Acholi value life so much. If somebody kills, then there has to be a stop to that. We like harmony within the community, and for the LRA that process is going to take place. We look at the relationship amongst us: how are we going to live? If you go to the court, fine, they are going to say, the other one was right, this one is wrong - the other one has won, the other one has lost. But for us, we want a win-win situation for everybody. You [LRA] are all going to come back and live within this community. You'll still remain an Acholi," said Mr. Acana.

Mr. Acana says as forgiveness and reconciliation are being achieved, it will bring a society ravaged by brutality for almost two decades back to some sense of normality.

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