The Lord's Resistance Army is a small, shadowy rebel movement, dismissed as brutal and cultish. Yet its impact has been enormous. According to one international observer in Uganda, the LRA has had a bigger impact on aid and policy than the donors. It directly affects three countries, Uganda, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the past decade, two million people have been displaced, an estimated 20,000 children abducted or killed, and millions of dollars have been spent by the international community to support 'protected' camps in northern Uganda.
Hope now lies with the internationally sponsored Juba Peace Initiative, mediated by Southern Sudanese Vice-President Riek Machar, in ending the 20-year conflict and resettling the displaced. Since August 2006, international mediators have managed to establish a cessation of hostilities and bring both sides to the table to talk. But it is a precarious process. Very little is known about the movement, or its demands. "The challenge is to find the LRA an exit strategy," said a participant at the peace talks.
Its ideology is vague. The LRA wants to remove President Yoweri Museveni's regime, and establish a system based on the Ten Commandments. But its political roots are more clear, grounded in the marginalisation of northern Uganda, where international human rights groups have recorded abuses by both the government and rebels.
The LRA is one of the movements that materialised after Museveni took over in 1986, when loss of political power in the north went hand in hand with violence. Northern Uganda - homeland of former presidents Amin, Obote and Okello - was seen by the new regime as an arena of rebellion. Former soldiers became a target of state repression and a vehicle for retaliation and resistance. Many former soldiers turned to violence and theft for survival, and became a burden to the northern communities. Critics of Museveni say a strategy was put in place that perpetuated low-level conflict for more than two decades. Neglect and repression kept the north divided and marginalised, critics say, so that it remained politically weak and underdeveloped.
As a result, despite the considerable brutality of the LRA against its own communities, it has some tacit sympathy from people who feel common cause as marginalised northerners. This ambiguity in the targeted population has been exacerbated over the years by the failure of the central government to find a political or military solution to the 20-year conflict.
"We had a government in Uganda that was so embraced when it came into power by the West [that] the conflict in the north was a blemish that many people didn't want to talk about. In that silence, the conflict escalated and became a real humanitarian disaster," explained Professor Morris Ogenga-Latigo, MP Agago County, northern Uganda.