- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2008

In the middle of Garamba forest, on the border of Congo and Sudan, rebels and soldiers who had fought each other for the past two decades - identified by notebook paper taped to their shirts - milled around for a week in April, waiting for the rebel leader to appear and sign a final peace agreement.

He never showed.

Peace talks between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) further stalled this month in the southern Sudanese city of Juba amid reports of new atrocities being committed by the LRA in Sudan and Congo.

But humanitarian aid workers remain cautiously optimistic that a peace agreement will be reached and that the people of northern Uganda will continue to rebuild after two decades of civil war.

“At present, what we’re seeing is that the possibility of the LRA becoming once more active in Uganda is not strong,” said Kristen Knutson, information officer at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

“The government has effective control over the entire territory of the country. The return [of Ugandans to their homes] is continuing and needs to be supported.”

The LRA is led by Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed prophet whose soldiers are known for pillaging villages, killing the adults and kidnapping children. The young hostages are then forced to participate in ritual killings or be killed themselves.

Both boys and girls are raised to become rebel soldiers known for maiming and killing people with sadistic acts that include cutting off victims’ ears, noses and lips.

Kidnapped girls have additional burden of being assigned to LRA commanders as concubines and bearing children while continuing to battle Ugandan government troops.

Through intermediaries, Kony has been in peace talks with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni since 2006.

But in April, Kony refused to sign the agreement and this month, his rebel group raided a Sudanese military camp on the Sudan-Congo border. They killed 23 people, including women ,children and Sudanese soldiers.

One person waiting to see Kony sign the peace agreement in Garamba forest was Jason Russell, a native of Southern California and founder of the humanitarian project, Invisible Children.

He is currently raising funds - mostly through presentations to American high school youngsters - to rebuild 11 schools throughout northern Uganda.

He said the project has thus far raised $3 million, but hopes to raise a total of $15 million in the next few years.

But until money appears for the schools, Invisible Children workers stay busy building latrines, showers and supplying books to schools in the region.

He said rebuilding schools in northern Uganda will give Ugandans confidence to move out of the displacement camps and back to long-abandoned villages to resume subsistence-level farming.

“One of the reasons they don’t want to leave is that they don’t have anything to go back to,” he said. “And they don’t have any promise for security because the war has been so unpredictable.”

He added that many people, now decade-long residents of camps, originally thought they would only leave home for a few months.

Other aid workers with World Vision, a Christian humanitarian aid organization whose supporters sponsor 112,000 Ugandan children, the United Nations and numerous other charities also continue to provide Ugandans with basic necessities, like water, sanitation and health care, as well as education and psychological aid.

One challenge aid workers face is how to help families rebuild, said Geoffrey Kalebbo Denye, communications officer for World Vision in East Africa.

“In Uganda, you are talking about a generation that has grown up without peace,” Mr. Denye said. “We have a generation who were born and have grown up in camps and have not received basic community knowledge necessary for survival.”

At the height of the conflict in 2005, 90 percent of northern Ugandans had fled their homes to escape notorious atrocities of the LRA, said Ms. Knutson, the U.N. spokeswoman.

Children walked miles every night to gather in cramped quarters for safekeeping from the LRA.

Since 2006, half of the 1.7 million people who fled to camps, have left to either return to villages or to transitional communities to live.

Kony faces 12 counts of crimes against humanity and 21 counts of war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

“It is the responsibility of the state to ensure that the arrest warrants are enforced,” ICC Outreach Coordinator Maria Mabinty Kamara told The Washington Times.

“The ICC does not have a police force to enforce the warrants. We are a judicial institution and from the point of view of the court, we are not an obstacle to the peace.”

Kony is insisting that the ICC indictments be dropped before he will agree to any peace deal with the Ugandan government.

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