Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Northern Ugandans Fear Rebel Resurgence

The Lord’s Resistance Army is still raiding villages, but the Ugandan military says the rebels are close to defeat.
By Peter Eichstaedt
Fear clouds Tom Okeng’s eyes and his voice is strained as he recounts the attack on his village by ten rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army early last month.

While his children and wife watched in horror, Okeng was dragged from his thatched-roofed mud hut in the darkness of night, tied up with a rope, and stabbed repeatedly with a bayonet.

The rebels wanted money from him but settled for food, he says. Then they abducted a handful of villagers whom they would use as porters, cooks and soldiers to swell their depleted ranks.

When the band’s leader called for a pistol and threatened to finish him off, Okeng leapt up, struck at his captors, and stumbled into the darkness with bullets whizzing by his head.

Later that night, eight of the kidnapped villagers escaped when the rebels, who had by now separated into two groups, began shooting at each other in the belief that they had been attacked by a local defence militia.

“We all ran off in different directions,” recalled Lily Aburu, 40, who had earlier been yanked from her hut. “I thought it was the end.”

Aburu believes both she and Okeng were lucky. “If Tom [Okeng] had not taken the chance to run, he would not have survived,” she said.

For nearly 20 years, the mysterious Joseph Kony and his LRA have terrorised northern Uganda, southern Sudan, and most recently eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

More than 1.8 million people, about 94 per cent of northern Uganda’s entire population, live in 202 refugee camps created by the war, according to a consortium of aid groups called Civil Society Organisations for Peace in Northern Uganda.

A recent report from the consortium, which represents dozens of aid groups with decades of experience in the region, says that some 900 people die each week from the warfare or related problems, such as disease and injury. That is three times higher than the death rate seen in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

The LRA rebels survive by pillaging communities, kidnapping children to become soldiers and wives, and routinely killing and mutilating victims. An estimated 25,000 children have been kidnapped during the past 15 years.

The recent LRA attack on Orem - the second in a month - has left villagers wondering if this war will ever end, even though the Ugandan military says it is all but over.

According to the villagers, their assailants were well-armed and wore new camouflage uniforms. This suggests the LRA still have access to supplies, which many analysts believe come from neighbouring Sudan.

By day, Okeng’s wife Lucy and her neighbours tend garden plots of cassava, beans and millet around the village. But at night, they return to the nearby refugee camp, or hide out in the dense bush to sleep or keep an eye on their few remaining farm animals.

“Once the moon is full, they will come back,” says Okeng, nervously watching the waning daylight - the rebels move around at night.

But Ugandan officials say the villagers’ fears are largely unfounded. They dispute the extent of the problem claimed by the coalition of civil society groups, and argue instead that the LRA’s days as an effective fighting force are over.

Colonel Charles Otema, the head of intelligence for the Ugandan army in the north, says the rebels still active are just “a few remnants” of Kony’s army “who have resorted to thuggery”.

Otema describes the army’s activity as “mop up” operations, in pursuit of disparate bands of rebels. “If there’s an attack, we pursue them, we chase them and crush them.”

“In the villages, people are feeling safe, gradually,” said Otema, indicating that some people may soon leave the refugee camps and go back to their farms.

Recent reports suggest Kony may be in Garamba National Park, a jungle game preserve in the troubled northeastern provinces of the DRC.

Kony fled his previous stronghold in southern Sudan with a small force of his most loyal soldiers, many of whom were kidnapped as children and have known no other life, to join his second-in-command, Vincent Otti.

Otti commands some 200 or more fighters and has terrorised parts of eastern Congo since last year. In January, his fighters killed eight Guatemalan peacekeepers and wounded five more members of the 17,000-member United Nations force struggling to maintain order there.

Colonel Otema says Uganda wants permission from DRC officials to cross the border and pursue Kony and Otti. Once that authorisation comes, he says confidently, “end of story - we are talking months. These people cannot hold.”

The capture of Congolese militia commander Thomas Lubanga, who was turned over to the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague, has renewed hope that Kony and Otti could be captured.

Lubanga, alleged to have killed 2,000 civilians during regional conflicts in Congo in the late Nineties, faces charges of kidnapping children and forcing them to become child soldiers in his militia.

Last October, the ICC issued indictments for war crimes and crimes against humanity against Kony and four of his top commanders, one of whom is already dead.

Additionally, the UN Security Council has asked Secretary-General Kofi Annan to develop plans for the UN to help end the conflict in northern Uganda, just as it moves toward possible intervention in Sudan’s Darfur region.

But some LRA commanders close to Kony say he will never be captured alive.

Jackson Acama, 44, a former major in the LRA who was granted amnesty, says Kony is convinced he is a prophet and takes his orders directly from God.

“Kony does not care how many people die,” claims Acama. “He is doing what God tells him to do. Kony will never give up until people accept him as a prophet, or he is killed.”

Betty Bigombe, the lead Ugandan negotiator with Kony and the LRA, is hopeful yet sceptical, saying, “The LRA is weak now, but they always have regrouped and come back with renewed brutality.”

Bigombe speaks to the LRA regularly and insists they are willing to negotiate. But when asked whether the end is near for the rebel movement, she grimly responds, “It’s a long way off.”

Kony has only three options, she suggests: death, prison or exile.

But the last of these options is now is unlikely, following Nigeria’s recent agreement to turn over former Liberian leader Charles Taylor to be prosecuted for war crimes by an international court.

Despite mounting international pressure for action against the LRA, the residents of Orem doubt that peace is around the corner.

Okeng is mystified about why the LRA persists with its violence, but pressed to give an answer, he confides that he believes the people of northern Uganda are being punished. But why, and for what sins, he cannot say.

Robert Akona, 33, who is Okeng’s neighbour, shrugs when he is asked when the conflict might end. “I’m leaving it all to God and prayers,” he said.

Peter Eichstaedt is a senior editor in Uganda with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting - Africa.