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Ex-Rebels Return to Crime

Pardoned former LRA members, who allegedly hid their weapons from the authorities, are being blamed for a series of gun crimes across northern Uganda.
Some of thousands of Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, fighters lured out of the bush in northern Uganda by the offer of an official amnesty are returning to violence.

Officials here believe that former fighters - armed with weapons they had hidden before surrendering to officials - are responsible for the rising number of violent crimes, despite their professed commitment to peace.

"Since the amnesty law came into action, over 30,000 LRA fighters have returned home,” said Walter Ochora, Gulu’s resident district commissioner.

“There are a few who came back with weapons and returned them, but many others are still hiding their guns. I appeal to anyone who is still hiding his gun to bring it to us, if not then we shall harshly deal with that person.”

Uganda’s amnesty law, introduced eight years ago, requires that a returning rebel fighter surrender to recognised local officials, renounce the LRA’s war and give up any weapons.

In some cases, however, the weapons provisions may not be strictly enforced.

An elder in Gulu, who spoke to IWPR on condition of anonymity, said that if the weapon requirements are considered lightly, it presents a danger.

"These people are given amnesty and made to give [up] their guns [voluntarily], but this practice requires an inexpressible level of trust,” said the elder. “It is therefore not wise for the government to think that every person who renounces rebellion can be fully trusted."

The recent cases of armed robbery involving ex-rebels who were granted amnesty are a clear indication that some of the former fighters kept weapons and intended to use them for criminal activity, local officials believe.

The cases have emerged as a delegation representing the LRA has toured northern Uganda to meet with various communities that have suffered extensively from rebel attacks. The so-called consultations have been criticised as insensitive and inappropriate, but are part of on-going peace talks about to resume in Juba, South Sudan.

During the past 20 years, an estimated 35,000 children have been kidnapped, nearly 100,000 have died from either war or war-related causes, and some two million have been placed in refugee camps.

The most notorious recent case of ex-rebels returning to crime came to light on October 22 when police in Apac arrested the former LRA operations director, Onen Kamdulu, and former ranking rebel commander, Major Thomas Opiyo, and charged them with aggravated robbery.

Four other former junior LRA commanders, Justin Odongo, Joseph Okot, and Bitek Okot and Patrick Ayella, were also detained in connection with the incident.

The suspects were arrested with three semi-automatic rifles along with 146 bullets and a loaded pistol. The weapons were allegedly used to rob local fish sellers in Apac near the northern town of Lira.

The suspects are in Gulu Central Prison until their trial in March next year.

The government last year granted Kamdulu’s request to keep a pistol, which he claimed he needed for his personal security, a move that was met with strong public criticism.

Samuel Oduny, a soldier in the Ugandan army, said that following the Apac incident, the government should review the way it handles former LRA fighters who have been given amnesty.

"Kamdulu's actions have greatly abused the amnesty offer given to him by the government,” said Oduny. “Why should the government entrust him with a gun after he committed many atrocities while in the bush?

"A person given a gun should be one of high integrity. For many years, Kamdulu knew nothing but using guns the wrong way on innocent civilians."

In addition to the Apac case, two armed robbers in Gulu recently attacked residents at Pece Lukung, which sparked a gun battle. The robbers were not arrested, but the incident only further deepened fears among displaced people about their safety once they leave refugees camps and return to their villages.

Celementina Akoko, a refugee from Atiak, said the current amnesty programme gives too much to the former rebels at the expense of their victims.

"These ex-rebels are being given money every month, yet we the victims are dying in abject poverty. The fact that they still rob with guns means they will continue killing us," lamented Akoko.

According to the amnesty law, anyone who renounces rebellion is given an amnesty certificate, an amount of cash dependent on the former rebel's rank, and a home kit consisting of a mattress, cooking pots and garden tools.

Akoko said the package should have made the former rebels grateful.

"How much do these rebels want from us?” asked Akoko. “I am unable to fend for myself because of bodily harm they inflicted on me, yet they want me to forgive them. But how many times should I continue forgiving someone who intentionally hurts me?"

A psychiatrist at in Gulu, who works with former rebels and did not want to be identified, told IWPR that anyone who has been part of ruthless militia for many years must undergo rehabilitation before being integrated into the community.

"Most of these LRA fighters are hosted in expensive hotels on [their] return, instead of rehabilitation centres,” said the psychiatrist.

"These rebels killed many people, depended on robbing and you don't expect them to abandon their acts by granting them amnesty only, without treating them.”

Margaret Odong, an official at Koch Goma in Amuru district, believes that the government should open counseling centres in the north so that the rebel cases of trauma can be treated.

"There are many people who are traumatised, mostly people who returned from the bush,” said Odong. She cited a growing problem of drug and alcohol abuse, increased cases of suicide and suicide attempts, as well as armed robbery.

Caroline Ayugi is an IWPR journalist in Uganda.

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