- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

GULU, Uganda — James Okot, who was blinded in battle, no longer fights for the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army. Instead, he is struggling to find his place in a society the rebels have helped devastate.It has been a long journey from schoolboy to rebel and back again for the 18-year-old. Even if he finishes his education under a government amnesty program, he may have few options in northern Uganda.It has been a year since the Ugandan army undertook Operation Iron Fist, a campaign aimed at ending a 17-year-long rebellion by the Lord’s Resistance Army — a quasi-religious movement seeking to overthrow the government of President Yoweri Museveni.Mr. Museveni promised a quick and decisive victory.But the insurgents have proved resilient. When the Ugandan army attacked their bases across the border in southern Sudan, the rebels — estimated to number no more than a few hundred fighters — broke into small groups of five to 15 men and slipped back into Uganda.Efforts to start peace talks have failed.Under pressure from international donors, Mr. Museveni declared a cease-fire in designated areas March 10. He extended the truce several times, until March 31, when the government declared that the rebels obviously were not interested.Religious intermediaries said the rebels didn’t trust government troops to allow them to enter and leave the areas designated for talks.In the best of times, Uganda’s north has been an isolated and sparsely populated region where poverty and hardship are facts of life for the region’s estimated 1.7 million people.These days, it is a chaotic battleground where the army rules by day and the rebels by night. Nearly half of the region’s people live hand-to-mouth in bleak refugee camps, which the rebels raid with impunity.In February, rebels abducted 14 children from the Pabo camp, a sprawl of mud-and-thatch huts just outside Gulu, which is the region’s largest town. A week later, the camp burned to the ground in a fire of mysterious origin.The rebels have waged a brutal campaign since taking up arms in 1986.Claiming to fight for the rights of the region’s Acholi community, they have slaughtered more than 23,000 people, says the regional Civil Societies Organization for Peace, and abducted at least 14,000 children. The boys are turned into fighters, the girls into concubines.Mr. Okot was one of those boys. His story embodies the contradictions of the war and accompanying humanitarian calamity in the north.He was abducted from a village in 1994 and put through the rebels’ indoctrination process: They told him the government dominated by southerners like Mr. Museveni was oppressing his people, taught him how to use a gun and forced him to beat captives to death.The training took. Mr. Okot said he killed at least 10 persons with a club. He rose quickly through the ranks.From foot soldier, he became a guard for Joseph Kony, the rebel leader who believes his actions are guided by God. Mr. Okot was named to command a battalion and given two “wives” — girls who had been abducted.Most of the rebels’ victims have been Acholis. Mr. Okot says Mr. Kony told him they “had been corrupted by the government … and had to be killed.”Mr. Okot said he did not shy from the task. “I cannot say how many I killed with a gun — there were too many.”In May 2001, a band of rebels led by Mr. Okot was ambushed by soldiers. Mr. Okot said the details were hazy, but he remembered being hit by a bullet that tore under his eye, through the bridge of his nose and out the side of his face.He was captured and treated, and sent to the Gusco Reception Center in Gulu, a rehabilitation home for former kidnap victims. Like Mr. Okot, many of its residents are one-time fighters who are given a second chance under the government amnesty program.These days, Mr. Okot attends primary school in Gulu, picking up his education where he left off. Both of his wives have been freed by the rebels. He lives with one of them and their two young children.But when Mr. Okot tells visiting U.S. officials of his days with the rebels, there is nostalgia in his voice. His sympathies are clear.”We were fighting to free ourselves from the south,” he said. “Killing is wrong — I know that now — but the north is not treated right. There is less development, more people are poor.”It is a common complaint among Acholis.The Ugandan army “is not giving enough protection to Acholis,” said George Akana, one of the 24,000 displaced people living at the rebuilt Pabo camp.The populations of the refugee camps have swelled, and life there has grown increasingly desperate since the army offensive began a year ago.Two consecutive harvests have been lost because fighting has kept farmers from their fields, and camp dwellers depend on food brought in by the United Nations World Food Program.Supplies are short. At the camps that the World Food Program can reach — dozens are off-limits because of security concerns — daily rations have been cut by nearly a third.Malnutrition among children is a concern. In some camps, three of every 10 youngsters are malnourished and at least half of those cases are severe, the program says.”The rebels need to stop their disruptions,” Mr. Akana said at the Pabo camp. “But we need help from the government. We need schools, jobs, food.”

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