GULU, 9 June (IRIN) - Michael Okello clearly remembers the day that the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) stormed his home in the northern Ugandan district of Gulu, killed his parents and abducted him.
For one year the LRA forced him to fight on their side in the brutal 19-year war against the Uganda government. He managed to escape in 2003 and returned to Gulu, 380 km north of the capital, Kampala.
"The only way we can ever finish this war is by talking with the rebels and solving it peacefully," Michael Okello, now 17, said. "Fighting has failed."
Like Okello, many people in the worst affected districts of Gulu and Kitgum said, in separate interviews, that they supported an ongoing peace initiative led by former minister Betty Bigombe rather than a military approach to ending the war.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, however, told IRIN in an interview at his office on 28 May that he was not a believer in negotiations with "terrorists".
"There are those who believe in the magic of the peace talks - which I do not believe in," Museveni said.
"However, I do not want to be obstructive to those who wish to pursue this avenue - if you believe that you can convince evil to stop being evil, go ahead," the president added. "But in the meantime, I do not want to give up my option [the military option]."
Bigombe said on 29 May that efforts to reach a negotiated settlement in the conflict, which has devastated much of Uganda's northern and eastern regions, were still on course.
"I am in regular contact with [LRA leader] Joseph Kony himself, and we are trying to negotiate a possible meeting in the near future," she said.
"Both parties are showing strong commitment to the peace process," she added. "Not that there are no little hurdles here and there. For instance, the rainy season has made communication very difficult - but we are making good progress."
Bigombe is a former minister for pacification of the war-ravaged northern region and since 2004 has been involved in the latest in a series of attempts to end the brutal conflict. She presided over a failed peace initiative in 1994.
HOPES FOR NEW ACCORD
According to Bigombe, a fresh truce was in the offing. She added that Museveni had approved a draft ceasefire agreement she had presented to him.
"My hope is that within the next two weeks, a new ceasefire agreement will be signed, which will allow the peace talks to progress," she said.
"The negotiations have had hiccups, but that is the norm in any peace process," Lars Erik Skaansar, the UN envoy to the peace process, said. "We remain optimistic that this terrible conflict can be brought to an end through peaceful means."
In November 2004, the government ordered a unilateral cessation of its military offensive against the LRA, which led to an agreement with the rebels to sign a general ceasefire.
On 29 December, the government's representative to the talks, interior minister Ruhakana Rugunda, and the LRA's spokesman, Brig Sam Kolo, held a face-to-face meeting, following which Rugunda said he had a "positive impression" of the talks.
However, hopes that peace was finally within reach were dashed when the LRA refused to sign a draft memorandum sent by the government. Shortly afterwards, Museveni announced an end to the ceasefire and a resumption by the Uganda People's Defence Forces of "full-scale operations".
The government was criticised by some at the time for a lack of seriousness in its approach to the talks, and for not giving Kony enough time to read and sign the draft memorandum of understanding.
For its part, the government accused the LRA of never having been serious about the talks, and of merely using the ceasefire period to regroup in preparation for the resumption of hostilities.
The signing in January of a comprehensive peace agreement between northern and southern Sudan brought new hope to the rapidly crumbling peace process.
Kony, a self-proclaimed mystic who claims to be fighting to replace Museveni's government with one based on the Biblical Ten Commandments, is widely believed to operate from bases in southern Sudan. With stability restored to the region, it was hoped that better cooperation between Uganda and Sudan could force Kony to surrender if he felt he could no longer seek refuge in Sudan.
John Garang's southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army promised to help end the rebellion and said that southern Sudan would never achieve peace until northern Uganda had done so.
"We are determined to achieve peace in northern Uganda, so that all our people can put their lives together again and engage in development," Garang said in January.
Museveni, however, said the agreement had not had a significant impact on the situation in northern Uganda.
He said: "What has had an impact is our [own] struggle against those killers," he said. "We have fought them all along. What helped was when, in 2002, the Sudan government stopped supplying [LRA leader Joseph] Kony with guns and allowed us to operate inside Sudan - to me that was the second most important thing.
"The third element was the strengthening of the army, buying better equipment so that the army can operate better. Then there was the element of the dialogue. Some of the people that Betty Bigombe dialogued with eventually came out. For example, Sam Kolo [former LRA spokesman]. So there has been some marginal gain [from the negotiations]."
Kony is still believed to use southern Sudan as a launching pad for cross-border attacks, and the LRA have scaled up attacks against southern Sudanese civilians. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees recently reported that more than 4,000 southern Sudanese had fled to northern Uganda in fear of LRA attacks.
In February, the government once again declared an 18-day truce in a limited area of northern Uganda. Although the ceasefire held for the stipulated duration, it ended with no major achievements for peace. The government used the period to encourage members of the LRA to surrender and offered amnesty to any rebel who renounced the insurgency.
DIFFERENT STRATEGIES TO END THE WAR
The peace process was dealt a heavy blow when LRA spokesman Kolo became the highest-ranking member of the LRA to surrender to the government. Vincent Otti, Kony's second in command, has since replaced Kolo as chief negotiator for the LRA in the peace process.
The Ugandan government has come under increasing international pressure recently to pursue the peace process more energetically. In February, the thinktank International Crisis Group (ICG) said the global community should increase its assistance in mediation efforts.
"The peace process should be pursued actively and quickly. It remains the most promising way to end a conflict that still has the potential to run a long and deadly course," the ICG said.
The LRA has fought against the government since 1986. Notoriously brutal, it regularly uses torture, mutilation, murder and abduction - particularly of children - as weapons of war.
The conflict has ravaged the north and east of the country, killing tens of thousands of civilians and forcing more than 1.4 million people into crowded camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
In 2004, Museveni's government invited the International Criminal Court (ICC) to probe atrocities committed by the rebels against civilians.
"The involvement of the ICC in hunting Kony is very important, mainly because it enables us to deal with Khartoum," Museveni said in the 28 May interview. "Khartoum is fully aware of the consequences of dealing with somebody under the ICC's indictment. If Kony is in Uganda or in the areas of Sudan where Khartoum has allowed us to operate, then we do not need assistance - we shall catch him ourselves."
He added: "If Kony goes deeper into Sudan, beyond where Sudan has allowed us to pursue him, we need the ICC's assistance to get the Sudanese government to cooperate with us and help us to get him."
In an interview with IRIN, ICC prosecutor Louis Moreno-Ocampo said: "The government of Uganda referred the situation in northern Uganda to the ICC in December 2003 [....] The ICC brings an independent and impartial justice component to the collective effort to end the violence in northern Uganda."
Opinion leaders in northern Uganda disagree, arguing that the ICC probe has complicated the fragile peace talks and the government amnesty programme for the rebels.
"We, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative [ARLPI], do not question the existence of the ICC, or its principles," Archbishop John Baptist Odama of the Gulu Catholic Archdiocese, said. "However, we feel that the presence of the court here, and its activities, are in danger of jeopardising efforts to build the rebel's confidence in peace talks."
The ARLPI and other leaders in the region maintain that peace is the only way to end the conflict. The leaders have stated repeatedly that the ICC's effort to attain justice while peace still eludes the region risks, in the end, achieving neither justice nor peace.
The activities of the ICC, Odama added, were in direct contrast to the government's offer of amnesty to any rebel who denounces the rebellion.
In 2000, the government instituted an Amnesty Law, effectively pardoning any rebel who denounced the insurgency and voluntarily surrendered to the army.
"How can we tell the LRA soldiers to come out of the bush and receive amnesty when at the same time the threat of arrest by the ICC hangs over their heads?" he asked.
WAITING FOR PEACE
For displaced people and the children still in rebel captivity, peace is all they yearn for. Aid workers say many of the children in captivity know no other life beyond fighting for the LRA or sexual slavery.
The UN estimates that up to 80 percent of the LRA's fighters are children, and that over the years, the rebels have abducted more than 20,000 children, thousands of whom have died or remain missing.
"The conflict has destroyed lives, communities and rich cultural traditions," Jan Egeland, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said during a visit to the region in 2004. "This conflict is fought by, with and against children."
Children who have managed to escape from LRA captivity tell horror stories of the extreme physical and psychological violence with which they were initiated into the ranks of the rebel army. The girls return with children born out of rape or forced marriages to LRA commanders.
Adults, too, have been forced to abandon their homes. According to Nahman Ojwee, the chairman of Kitgum district, 450 km north of the capital, Kampala, 255,000 of the district's total population of 280,000 currently live in IDP camps within the district.
Each victim has a story to tell. Mary Acen, 43, for example, sought refuge in Pabbo IDP camp 18 years ago because it was near the government army base in Gulu, northern Uganda. At that time, the rebellion was in its early stages. Acen told IRIN that when she moved to Pabbo, she never expected to spend so many years away from her home.
"All my children have been born in this situation, lived in camps all their lives," she said. "They do not know anything but a life full of fear of rebels. They do not know their land."
HARSH CAMP CONDITIONS
Relief workers point out that the humanitarian needs in the camps are enormous.
Overcrowding, poor hygiene and sanitation, insufficient water, disease and insecurity are prevalent throughout the camps in northern and eastern Uganda.
Ugandan officials and aid workers say the war could be inching towards an end. The LRA's troop numbers, made up largely from abductions, have been severely reduced by the encampment of most of northern Uganda's population.
Museveni said his government had drawn up a programme to reconstruct the region. "Our plan is contained in a 12-point document that we have developed. It deals with relief as of now, when people are still in the camps, and then when the conflict ends. When all the ringleaders have been accounted for, reconstruction will begin.
"This will involve reconstructing the region's infrastructure - providing roads to improve communication so people can take their produce from the villages into the towns and bring back agricultural inputs such as oxen and ox ploughs. Provision of schools, water points, clinics and income-generating activities are all part of the planned reconstruction," the president added.
A Chronology of events in the northern Uganda conflict: http://www.irinnews.org/S_report.asp?ReportID=47576
Some Key Players in the northern conflict: http://www.irinnews.org/S_report.asp?ReportID=47577
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