NAIROBI, 12 March (IRIN) - Following recent peace moves by the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), there is hope that finally an end may be in sight to the bloody insurrection in the north of the country.
Following LRA leader Joseph Kony's unilateral ceasefire announcement on 1 March, President Yoweri Museveni announced a five-day truce in two northern locations to allow formal peace negotiations to begin. So far, the LRA seems to be responding positively with no reports of abductions or killings since 10 March, and meetings are planned between the government peace team and LRA commanders.
Yet little is known about the reasons for, or the background to, this latest peace gesture. To a large extent, the rebel group has remained an enigma throughout the years. The LRA, which has its roots in extremist Christian and local traditional religions, says it is seeking to create a state based on the Biblical Ten Commandments.
Unlike most other African rebel groups, the LRA does not have an official spokesman or a public relations machine, and Kony makes extremely rare public announcements.
PROTECTING CIVILIANS FROM EACH OTHER
The conflict in northern Uganda pits a rebel army - most of its members under 18 and forcibly conscripted - against its own community.
While the Acholi rebels of the LRA purport to be fighting to overthrow Museveni, their agenda and motivation are somewhat obscure. They have in fact continually turned their weapons on their own people in Acholiland - looting from them, destroying their villages, raping the women and abducting more "recruits".
Typically, the abductees are taken during guerrilla-style attacks on villages or so-called "protected camps" for displaced people. The vast majority (aged from 8-14) are forced to carry looted food and then released within 48 hours, while the older boys (14-18) are kept as "recruits", and the girls are shipped off to rebel bases in southern Sudan to act as "wives" for the combatants.
CONTROVERSIAL MILITARY STRATEGY
In March 2002, the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF) launched an aggressive offensive against the LRA - dubbed 'Operation Iron Fist' - which allowed the army to cross into southern Sudan to root out the rebel group from its bases.
Ironically, instead of making the region safer for civilians, the military operation led to large numbers of the LRA returning to northern Uganda in June and July, with accompanying intensive retaliatory violence, and a considerably deteriorated humanitarian situation.
Jane Lowicki of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children told US congressmen last month that "many people living in northern Uganda feel the cycle of violence created by Operation Iron Fist is the worst sustained violence experienced in the history of the war".
George Omona, a programme manager in Gulu with the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development (ACORD) told IRIN that Operation Iron Fist had "escalated the conflict".
Whereas before, the LRA soldiers had camps in southern Sudan and were able to cultivate their own crops, since their return they had to loot for food, an MP for Gulu district, Norbert Mao, told IRIN. This had increased both the numbers of attacks and abductions of children to carry the food, he said.
Last year, about 7,800 abductions were recorded, while the previous year there were less than 100, UNICEF confirmed.
In a bid to respond to the upsurge in violence, the Ugandan government last October ordered displaced people in certain areas of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader to congregate in "protected camps" within 48 hours, in an effort to find safety.
A total of 53 of these are currently in existence - 33 in Gulu, seven in Kitgum and 13 in Pader - hosting a population of over 780,000. Many more people are camping near urban centres at night, and returning to their homes during the day to carry out daily activities.
But many observers note that these camps - which are improvised and have no perimeters - are regularly attacked or infiltrated by the LRA. In its latest report on Uganda, Human Rights Watch said "the camps provided little or no protection from the LRA, and residents were vulnerable to abuse by the UPDF and individual soldiers".
Many blame the army for failing to adequately protect them. "The thousands of government troops recently placed in the north and in southern Sudan have been largely ineffective at protecting and rescuing children," Lowicki told the US congressmen.
Norbert Mao said the failure was primarily due to a lack of manpower, and widespread corruption. "The rank and file see their senior officers advancing materially, while they do not have basic necessities and they are demotivated," he said.
Army spokesman Shaban Bantariza told IRIN that since the beginning of Operation Iron Fist, over 6,000 minors had been "rescued" from the LRA. "We have rescued thousands, killed hundreds, and over 90 percent of Kitgum district is peaceful," he said.
"Operation Iron Fist has been more than 80 percent successful," he added. "They may be hungry and not have enough medicines [in the camps], but they cannot be captured in hundreds and massacred."
But for every "rescued" child, many more have been abducted, Mao pointed out. "It doesn't make sense to talk of the rescued as an achievement," he said.
Meanwhile, food, healthcare, water, sanitation and shelter are all in short supply. This is compounded by the fact that almost all humanitarian organisations working in the area have been forced out because they are unable to protect their staff from attacks.
"There are more displaced people, there is a higher number of malnourished people, security on the roads has got worse, and people are 100 percent reliant on food handouts from the World Food Programme because they can't cultivate. This is a direct consequence of Operation Iron Fist," Mao told IRIN.
Despite the criticism, the UPDF is persisting with Operation Iron Fist, and will probably continue to do so until a bilateral ceasefire has been negotiated.
But pressure is also mounting to find a non-military solution, in the wake of the disastrous humanitarian situation. "The whole of civil society is very critical of the military operation," said George Omona of Acord. "This conflict can only be solved through dialogue."
Cultural and religious leaders in Acholiland hope that this time the government and the LRA are genuinely committed to making the compromises necessary for peace.
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