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Net Tightens Around Northern Uganda's Brutal Rebel Militia

A Ugandan soldier posed in August with refugee children in Pagak, a camp for people who fled northern villages fearing rebel militiamen.
A Ugandan soldier posed in August with refugee children in Pagak, a camp for people who fled northern villages fearing rebel militiamen. (Photos By Per-anders Pettersson -- Getty Images)

In August, a force of 40 rebels made a bold daylight attack on trucks carrying food aid and medical supplies on a highway near Juba, a city about 100 miles inside southern Sudan. Then they burned a village, according to residents and aid workers.

"One war has ended and now we have another one to fear," said Joseph Abuk, 47, a teacher and father of six who lives in Juba, less than a mile from the scene of the August attacks. "It's like no one in the world knows or cares about the war in northern Uganda, and it's still plaguing us."

After those attacks, some of the rebels fled west into the forests of northeastern Congo, another war-scarred country without central rule. Fearing more regional instability, U.N. peacekeeping forces in Congo held a meeting with Lord's Resistance Army representatives, and Congolese leaders promised to find the rebels and return them to Uganda.

Meanwhile Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, vowed to pursue the rebels with renewed vigor and chase them into Congo.

Last month, Museveni asserted that most of the rebel fighters had left Uganda. American diplomats in Congo confirmed that 320 fighters and 80 family members had entered Congo from Sudan. The group was believed to be led by Vincent Otti, a deputy to Kony.

"There has to be an end to this war," said Lt. Col. Shaban Bantariza, a spokesman for the Ugandan army, in a recent interview in the capital, Kampala. The rebel forces, he said, "are now in the Afghanistan of Africa. Congo is a lawless place where anything goes. We need the international community's support to crush them."

The LRA, a shadowy guerrilla movement founded by a so-called voodoo priestess in the 1980s, reemerged in the 1990s under Kony, who claimed to be fighting a holy war against foreign occupation and sought to replace Museveni's government with one guided by the Ten Commandments.

Despite the religious avowals, the militia has been accused of numerous abuses and atrocities. According to UNICEF, its members have abducted more than 20,000 children to serve as soldiers, porters and sex slaves. In one widely reported incident in 1996, rebels raided a boarding school in northern Uganda and kidnapped more than 100 teenage girls to become militia wives.

The conflict has devastated the people of northern Uganda. Hundreds of thousands have been driven off their farms and are living in crowded camps, surviving on small rations of corn provided by aid groups. Violence, disease and malnutrition have claimed thousands of lives in the camps, according to the International Rescue Committee.

Every night, hundreds of terrified children, known as "night commuters," leave their villages to sleep in the region's town centers so they will be safe from rebel abductions.

In addition to the violence perpetrated by the rebels, civilians have also reportedly suffered abuses by Ugandan military forces, who have been accused of killing, raping and beating those they were supposed to protect. Human Rights Watch said troops had abused people living in camps with "near-total" impunity. Officials of the group said they hoped the International Criminal Court would also look into those abuses.

But Bantariza, the army spokesman, dismissed the accusations, saying any allegations of abuse would be investigated and any valid cases would be met with "stern action."

The impoverished northern region of Uganda is dominated by the ethnic Acholi tribe, which has historically had tense relations with the ruling elite. Many Acholi served in the armies of Uganda's former dictators, Idi Amin and Milton Obote. As a result, some observers said, Museveni did not move decisively to quell the conflict in the past.

"Before, there was no political reason for Museveni to stop the war. In fact, it benefited him," said Frank Nyakairu, a journalist who has covered the conflict for Uganda's largest newspaper, the Monitor. Now, he said, "this could finally be the beginning of the end for the LRA."

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