Wednesday, October 20, 2004

GULU, Uganda

Through the dense brush of Uganda’s northern savanna, Patrick made a desperate flight for freedom. Kidnapped five years ago at age 13 by rebels calling themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), beaten regularly and forced to maraud through villages in a pack of boy soldiers, Patrick decided he would rather die than take part in another massacre.

“If I lost weight, I was beaten, and yet they never gave us food. We received beatings over petty things,” said Patrick, whose surname is withheld to protect him.

The 18-year insurgency, a chess piece in a broader conflict involving Sudan, Uganda and their respective rebellions, is wilting under a government onslaught, and a peace deal is in sight, the Ugandan government insists. It says scores of rebels — from adolescent foot soldiers to senior commanders — have broken away from the group in recent months.

But the Rev. Carlos Rodriguez, a clergyman mediating between government and rebels, is among many skeptics, saying international intervention is needed. “It will be very difficult to solve this problem with local resources,” he said.

The LRA is one of Africa’s most mysterious and murderous rebel groups. Its leader, Joseph Kony, claims to be possessed by a spirit sent by God to liberate humanity, but has no stated aim aside from overthrowing Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

The rebels make daily raids into villages in the north, chopping off arms, lips and ears and carting away a human loot of girls to turn into sex slaves and boys to replenish their ranks.

The rebellion dates to the late 1980s, when the Ugandan government began supporting the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Army in its battle with the government in Khartoum, and the latter gave the LRA bases from which to raid Ugandan villages.

Since then, aid agencies estimate, more than 30,000 children have been kidnapped, more than 23,000 people killed and 1.6 million — a third of northern Uganda’s population — driven into refugee camps.

After Sudan and Uganda normalized relations in 2001, Ugandan troops were allowed to enter southern Sudan and flush out Kony’s rebels. But the short-term effect was more misery for northern Uganda: LRA legions poured back into the country, slaughtering families and torching villages.

There are reports that senior Sudanese officials continue to buy the LRA’s loyalty with money and arms, but the Ugandan army has been making significant inroads against the rebels.

Last month, it announced it had captured Kony’s chief bodyguard and killed a senior commander and an intelligence officer during a raid on a rebel hide-out in southern Sudan.

“The rebels are being finished. … We are now dealing with the nucleus. We are shattering the nucleus of terror,” army spokesman Maj. Shaban Bantariza said after the operation.

But critics point out that the Ugandan army has made similar triumphant claims in the past after killing or capturing rebel commanders, yet the fighting continues.

The government “is not capable of ending this war by shooting it out,” said Zachary Olum, a northern Uganda lawmaker.

New York-based Human Rights Watch says that as Uganda has stepped up its war on the LRA, rebel kidnappings have multiplied fiftyfold from 100 children in all of 2001 to 5,000 between June 2002 and March 2003.

But as Kony deputies defect to the government side, the LRA has been dispatching envoys from rebel camps in the bush to talk to Mr. Museveni’s representatives.

In one positive sign, Ugandan diplomat Joseph Ocwet announced in late August that he had contacted three LRA commanders and discussed the prospect of initiating peace talks.

A big obstacle, however, is that there is little to negotiate; the LRA has no agenda beyond dreams of a nebulous theocracy. While talks founder, thousands of boys and girls snatched from their families have lost their childhood in horrendous violence and squalor.

Patrick is among the lucky ones.

One day in May, he simply decided he had had enough. He escaped near the village of Palac, and met some villagers. They took him to an army unit, which brought him to a reception center in Gulu, the main town in northern Uganda, for debriefing.

Days later, social workers managed to reunite him with his family.

Now he says he is eager to recover his five lost school years.

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