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Exiled Ugandan Spiritual Leader Looks to Homeland

Former rebel leader and self-proclaimed spiritual medium Alice Lakwena said she is ready to return home to Uganda after years of exile in a refugee camp in northern Kenya. The charasmatic leader, who claims to channel the Holy Spirit, sat down with Nico Gnecchi in Dadaab recently, near the Somali border in northeastern Kenya.

The compound of Alice Lakwena and the 46 followers who live with her in Dadaab is a little less dusty and makeshift compared to the usual homes that dot this refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. The self-proclaimed spiritual leader of the Holy Spirit Movement inhabits one of three brightly painted houses, complete with metal roofing. The housing that surrounds her compound are make-shift, mud constructions, packed with more than 140,000 refugees.

The spiritual leader is resolute in her spiritual mission.

"I am Alice Lakwena, the prophet of Uganda. On the first of January 1985 I received the spirit," she explains. "In 1986 the Ugandan government went to my place, they were asking for me and I was not there and they gathered all the young boys and young girls of my age and took them and went and slaughtered them in Gulu."

In the 1980s, Alice Lakwena, whose name means 'messenger' in the Acholi language of northern Uganda, started her Holy Spirit Movement in the Acholi territory of northern Uganda, where warfare and political killings had ravaged society for nearly two decades.

Analysts believe the movement has its roots in dissatisfaction among the northern Acholi people, who were favored by the colonial British and subsequent regimes, but lost influence after Yoweri Museveni, a southerner, became president in 1986.

Alice claims to bring messages from the spiritual world advising people, even though unarmed, to oppose government intervention in Acholi territory.

She began a quasi-religious style of warfare, instructing soldiers to rub their chests with nut oil to immunize themselves against bullets, and sing Christian hymns as they marched into battle. Her forces scored some early victories, and reached the Bugembe forest, just 80 kilometers from Kampala, before they were crushed by President Museveni's National Resistance Army. In 1987, after the defeat, Alice fled to Kenya, where she remains today.

Though her forces were vanquished, grievances in the region remained and was tapped by Joseph Kony. Like her, Kony claimed spiritual powers. He was said to be in contact with a "spirit general staff", including a Chinese ghost who commanded an imaginary jeep battalion.

At first, he enjoyed some popular support, but under him the rebellion has increasingly lost contact with its original ethnic power base. As support for the rebels has waned among the Acholis, many civilians in the north have joined self-defense militias, originally armed only with bows and arrows, to protect their villages from attack. The rebels reacted with fury to the establishment of these militias, regarding their members as "collaborators" who are punished with savage mutilation or death.

Kony has come to believe that only children are fitting recruits because their souls are "purer" than those of the Acholi adults who have "betrayed" him.

The strain between Kony and Alice Lakwena was apparent in this recent interview with VOA.

"Why should he kill people for his own interests, what for?" she asks. "They started when I was not there, later when we were here in Kenya. I don't know anything about it, my work is to treat people and heal. These two groups are the same, even the government has abducted so many children because these two people are in problems, both sides."

Alice vows to return to Uganda, but with one small caveat: She says President Yoweri Museveni must repay her after his government looted 3,000 cattle in her home town.

"We are discussing, I would like to go back home, I asked him to pay my cattle's. Yes! And he must pay me. And if he don't we fight because that is my own property," she says. "The Holy Spirit movement is not dead, it's alive. And we just don't surrender to anybody, I have no time for that, to surrender to Museveni, never will I. If he comes here for negotiations we discuss."

If all goes well in the current peace negotiations between the Ugandan government and the LRA, Alice says she will go home and work to towards peace and unity in her country.