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Sudan-Uganda: Elusive peace along the tong-tong road

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MOLI, SOUTHERN SUDAN, 4 June 2007 (IRIN) - Southern Sudanese military and official sources say the threat from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels has eased in eastern Equatoria, but widespread fear remains, whole villages are abandoned and a key road from Uganda to the Southern Sudan capital Juba is still patrolled by Sudanese and Ugandan troops.

The road cuts through thick bush - hiding one of the last known populations of elephants in Southern Sudan - and has been repaired and de-mined by international agencies. A steady flow of coaches, trucks, pick-ups and motorbikes moves during the day, mainly carrying products and people to and from Juba.

Thatched outposts of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) appear at irregular intervals and at the bridge over the river Aswa, while Ugandan troops are also on the road, notorious for years among local communities and aid agencies alike for ambushes.

Aid agencies remain cautious, however, many using armed escorts, while normal life is crippled by the LRA or fear of the rebels.

New life in Moli

The village of Moli, 50km north of Nimule, is dominated by an SPLA military barracks, and foot and vehicle patrols scout the area. Most of the villagers abandoned the area to avoid the LRA, known as 'tong-tong' ('chop-chop'), which began moving into Sudan from Uganda in 1994. A crumbling school has not been open since 1986.

Today, Moli is busy - but only with the comings and goings of the military and their wives and children. Local people say the military appear to be moving into a more formal barracks arrangement, perhaps indicating growing confidence that the LRA threat has receded.

A corridor has loosely been defined in the LRA peace talks allowing LRA forces and families to cross the road north of Moli unhindered on their way to a single assembly point in western Equatoria on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, the talks have a long way to go, and deadlines are unclear.

Joyce Aler, 5, playing at the pump, has heard about the 'tong-tong'.

"They shoot people, they look ugly, their clothes are dirty," she said, while her friend played with the stock of a broken rifle.

"No more tong-tong"

"The tong-tong are desperate," an SPLA commander told IRIN in the roadside village. The last incident - an ambush of trucks - was in late April, said Commander Bol Dur, the senior officer in the area. But since then, he claims, security has been stable and very few rebels remain. If LRA forces move peacefully towards the assembly points set out in the peace talks, "we will not touch them", he said. Their sources of support have dried up - "they are going alone", said Bol.

Hospital records in Nimule confirm the decline in LRA attacks in the area. In May, only three gunshot wounds were dealt with in the hospital, supported by the NGO Merlin, compared with 25 cases in April.

By comparison, the improved, faster road, increased traffic and a rise in the number of motorbikes, has led to about 25 hospitalisations per month for road accidents.

The LRA in eastern Equatoria

Estimates differ of how many LRA rebels remain east of the Nile. A UN humanitarian report on the situation in September, published on the World Health Organization (WHO) website, reported that 800 people, including women and children, had gathered at an LRA assembly point, Owiny Ki-Bul, and have since dispersed. A significantly larger number of LRA and their families are thought to be at the Ri-Kwangba assembly point on the Sudan-DRC border.

When the peace talks were under way last year, a dramatic drop in attacks was widely recognised - indicating the ability of the LRA to turn on and off the actions of its units.

But analysts have suggested that some of the attacks, ambushes and looting incidents in eastern Equatoria have been the work of bandits or other loose militia, and that the LRA - and its notoriety - has provided convenient cover for others.

Bol, claiming only a handful of LRA remained in his area, said the LRA were Ugandans, but admitted the possibility that they were "mixed" with Sudanese. The LRA's forcible abduction and recruitment tactics have been applied in Sudan as well as in Uganda.

Abductions of Sudanese children by the LRA have been reported in 2007 - humanitarian reports suggest at least six abductions have taken place in eastern Equatoria this year. In other incidents, the LRA temporarily abduct people to carry their loot and later release them.

Distinguishing who is the real LRA is difficult; a local official said "we have our colour the same". Bol said the real LRA are known for their "Bob Marley" hair, and speak Acholi.

Fear remains, fields untended

A local administration official in Pageri, a larger roadside village to the south of Moli, Odomtula Hillary Okumu, who was caught up in an LRA attack in 2004, claimed attacks in his area stopped three months ago.

But the area has been cut off from aid and other exchange and depopulated. "Most of the area is deserted," he said. Much of the population of Moli and Pageri have moved to Nimule, the main town in the area on the border with Uganda. Abandoned homes and buildings are a common sight along the road.

Bol admitted the local population had yet to demonstrate their conviction it was all over. "They are not sure whether they [the LRA] have gone completely," he said. Okumu said people kept to their homes and there was "no walking" at night - "we don't interact in social places", he said. "It's because of the threat ... people fear to go just 2km from their place."

Civilians in the area are cautious. "Currently we are staying safe," a health worker in Moli said. However, despite it being the season for planting crops, "we are not cultivating, because they [LRA] are just moving around. People are aiming to dig and to open schools," the health worker said.

"I don't see people going with hoes. They are afraid," said Leonard Lagu, acting field office manager for Catholic Relief Services, an NGO with agricultural and other projects in the area. "People have deserted their fields," he added.

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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]