- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2006

MADI KILOC, Uganda

Madalina Auma founded the village of Madi Kiloc this spring, with her husband, six children and about 2,000 other pioneers, who were willing to move from a squalid refugee camp into a wilderness overrun by terrorists for nearly two decades.

The people here are hungry as they await a first harvest from oversize gardens that surround the village — plots of an acre or more, all dug by hand, teeming with corn, sorghum, beans, tomatoes and peanuts.

Mrs. Auma recalls life in her long-abandoned village, five miles from Madi Kiloc, hoping to move back and farm her family plot as the Acholis had done for generations before the war.

“We never had to worry about food. We had problems getting money, cash and finding water. But we always had plenty of food,” said Mrs. Auma, 40.

Twice, she and her family escaped attacks by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but the dark mysticism of its leader, Joseph Kony, is never far from anyone’s mind in Acholiland, as northern Uganda is sometimes known.

Massacres, mutilation and child kidnappings define an ethnocidal war led by Kony for the past 19 years. He bases his campaign on a call to purify the Acholi people, a quasi biblical message of rule by the Ten Commandments, instructions he has said he receives from dead spirits, a guerrilla strategy that has baffled Uganda’s army and attacks that keep 2 million Acholis in a perpetual state of terror.

Mrs. Auma spoke with a reporter and photographer for The Washington Times in June, about the time peace talks were being set up between Kony and the government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

The talks, brokered by the autonomous government of southern Sudan, have since led to a cease-fire and hopes that one of Africa’s longest-running wars will end.

Before the talks began, Madi Kiloc became one of dozens of transition camps for those who were willing to gamble on a hefty detachment of Ugandan troops for protection.

In Juba, Sudan, Uganda and the LRA signed a deal last week in which LRA fighters are to assemble in camps along the Sudanese border, where they will be offered an amnesty and a chance to return to their families.

Mr. Museveni has even offered Kony and his top lieutenants protection from prosecution on war-crimes charges by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague if they release hundreds of captive women and children and lay down arms.

[The LRA will not agree to a final peace with the government unless the international war-crimes charges against its top leaders are dropped, the group’s No. 2, Vincent Otti, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying yesterday. Mr. Otti said LRA rebels would assemble at the two camps in southern Sudan and stay there for the duration of the talks under the terms of the truce that took effect last week but would not end their struggle while the charges stand.]

LRA fighters overran the area near Madi Kiloc twice in the past 10 years, in 1997 and in 2003. They stalked their human prey from the bush by day and attacked at night, their shoulder-length dreadlocks and bloodshot eyes as terrifying as their blazing automatic rifles.

“They burned the village, took away as many children as they could catch,” Mrs. Auma said.

She spoke as the noon sun approached and her husband and older children finished work in the garden. “We don’t have much to eat, so they don’t have the strength to work a whole day.”

A two-hour drive away, a detachment of Ugandan troops stands by as volunteers from the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) unload 38 tons of food, bags of grain and soy from six big trucks in a delivery to the Palabek Kal refugee camp.

Asked whether she had enough to eat, one beneficiary named Bendetta, 46, held up a plastic bag of cow peas. “Is this enough for a month? We’ll eat all this tonight,” she said.

The WFP recently reduced monthly rations to 60 percent of the daily minimum, making the transition from a life of dependence on food handouts to farming all the more urgent for about 1.5 million Acholis who remain in 200 refugee camps across northern Uganda — cut off from the land.

“Peace before justice” has become a mantra that one hears over and over whenever the peace talks come up in conversation, or whenever one brings up an outstanding ICC indictment against Kony and his top commanders.

The hope expressed by many is that Kony will just go away, perhaps like Idi Amin, Uganda’s dictator from an earlier era, who lived out his life in quiet exile.

Jesimira Atto, 63, another pioneer in Madi Kiloc, is willing to risk living here, despite having had three children killed by the LRA and six grandchildren abducted.

“If we can plant food, we will have enough to eat, but as long as Kony is around, we can’t do that,” she says. “If he’s not around and there’s no more killing, then we can go back.”

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