- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2002

GULU, Uganda When the sun starts to set, hundreds of men and women, some with children strapped to their backs or clinging to their hands, trudge into this sprawling town with bedrolls under their arms.

They find a spot under an awning or building overhang or inside a government building if they are lucky and cook dinner before lying down.

"I have come to sleep here because the rebels will abduct my children," Agnes Ayoo said while preparing porridge for her six children by the light of a lantern. "When we come here, we only carry supper and our beddings. Then we go back very early to tend the gardens and plant new crops."

Outside Gulu, in northern Uganda, somewhere in the tall-grass savannah where Mrs. Ayoo has her mud hut, rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army are hiding, deciding which village or refugee camp to attack next in their search for food and supplies. The rebels, who combine spiritualism with a deep mistrust of the government, have almost no contact with the outside world, and little is known about their politics.

After months of peace in northern Uganda, the shadowy group bent on ousting President Yoweri Museveni has stepped up attacks since Sudan let the Ugandan army cross into southern Sudan in March to strike rebel hide-outs.

The army claimed to have destroyed the rebels' bases in Sudan and sealed the border so the rebel gunmen couldn't get back into Uganda. But on Aug. 17 the army announced it was extending operations in southern Sudan for yet another month.

Led by self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kony, the rebels are infamous for abducting children. U.N. agencies suspect they have kidnapped thousands of children during their 15-year insurgency boys to become load bearers or fighters, girls to become concubines.

The rebels took Florence Adok six years ago, when she was 14. She had three children with her assigned "husband" before he was killed during the Ugandan offensive in the Imotong mountains of southern Sudan.

Sitting in a trauma counseling center in Gulu, Miss Adok stares blankly as she recounts her years with the rebels in the hard lands of southern Sudan. She has named her 2-month-old son, Oweka-Imotong, which means, "I am born alone under the mountains of Imotong."

Oweka-Imotong won Miss Adok her freedom. On the run from the Ugandan army, the rebels abandoned 108 women and children who could not keep up because they were ill or injured. She was in labor when the rebels decided to leave her behind as well.

"They told us that we can go home. I could not believe it. I am now a happy person," Miss Adok said, her two other children clutching her spindly legs. "But I am very worried about these children."

When Miss Adok returns to her home village, she will forever be known as the woman abducted by the rebels, the one who had three children by one of Kony's commanders. She said she will be honest with her children and hopes her neighbors will be kind.

"I will tell them because I cannot live with the truth hidden," Miss Adok said.

The rebels are spreading terror again across northern Uganda. They have kidnapped more people in recent weeks to replace those let go.

More than 300,000 people in northern Uganda have lived in refugee camps since 1997, but thousands of them are on the move, seeking more safety in Gulu or other towns.

Vehicles driving to and from Gulu must join military convoys to avoid ambushes.

"The situation is not good at all. All roads leading to and from Gulu to the north, northeast, west and northwest are unsafe," said Semei Okwii, assistant district commissioner for Gulu.

The upsurge in violence has prompted fierce debate in Uganda's capital, Kampala, 225 miles to the south.

"It is a contradiction for the government to say that it is winning the war with the rebels in Sudan, while the rebels are terrorizing civilians here," opposition lawmaker Ken Lukyamuzi said. "The government has not fully exploited diplomatic measures on the ground to talk to the rebels. They only opt for war."

The president, who had flatly refused to talk with the rebels, has now offered to negotiate with any who gather at three safe havens he has designated. But Mr. Museveni says the army will continue to hunt them elsewhere, and there haven't been any talks.

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