By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 8, 2005
KAMPALA, Uganda -- It was one more incident in what has been called Africa's forgotten war -- a 20-year crusade by a cult-like militia that has driven more than 1.6 million people off their farms, killed tens of thousands and become notorious for kidnapping children into slavery and mutilating civilians.
Last Tuesday, fighters from the Lord's Resistance Army militia ambushed a civilian pickup truck in northeastern Uganda, shot the driver dead and hacked a passenger to death with an ax. A pregnant woman was also shot in the stomach, Ugandan officials said, but bothshe and her unborn child survived.
Despite the continued assaults, however, there are growing indications -- including unprecedented punitive actions by the international community and political developments in neighboring countries -- that the days of this bizarre and brutal rebel force might be numbered.
This week, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued its first-ever arrest warrants for five rebel leaders, a move diplomats and human rights groups called extremely significant. The names were sealed, but diplomats, who announced the warrants on Thursday said the list presumably included the group's leader, Joseph Kony, a reclusive, self-declared prophet.
Ugandan officials on Friday urged the Sudanese government to seize Kony, who is believed to be hiding in the mountains of southern Sudan. According to the Reuters news agency, Uganda's defense minister, Amana Mbabazi, told journalists here, "I trust the Sudanese, who obviously know where Kony is, will effectively execute that warrant."
Kony's troops, however, were believed to be hiding in the forests of eastern Congo. American diplomats in New York said Thursday that the Congolese government was sending two army battalions into the area and that U.N. peacekeepers had airlifted about 1,000 troops there as well.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said the court's action had sent a "very powerful message" that "would-be warlords" must be held accountable for their actions.
Richard Dicker, an attorney for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the action stamped the accused "not just as people associated with horrific acts but as indicted war criminals by an international court."
The tribunal, inaugurated in 2003, is the first permanent global court set up to try individuals for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Another potential blow to Kony's militia has been the negotiated end to a 21-year civil war in Sudan, whose government in Khartoum had long armed and sheltered the Ugandan rebels in retaliation for Uganda's support for anti-government insurgents in southern Sudan, according to the United Nations and human rights groups. Officials in Khartoum have denied arming the group.
After the Sudan peace accord was reached in January, the Sudanese military began allowing Ugandan troops to enter southern Sudan to pursue the rebels across the border.
Nevertheless, attacks by the elusive fighters continued. In the spring, they struck trading centers and camps for displaced farmers in the northern Ugandan town of Gulu, killing at least 17 civilians.
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."