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The Woman Behind Uganda's Peace Hopes

Betty Bigombe, 53, now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, laid the groundwork for reconciliation in Uganda as a minister of state.
Betty Bigombe, 53, now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, laid the groundwork for reconciliation in Uganda as a minister of state. (Photos By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)

"I continued to talk to Joseph until late 2006," Bigombe said. "What happened then laid the groundwork for Juba."

But her story had begun much earlier, when she agreed to undertake an unorthodox and untested mission to head into isolated regions and live among disgruntled communities that she had been asked to win over, but that she wanted to save.

Since the start of the war, the LRA has kidnapped 25,000 children, forcing them to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. The conflict has displaced nearly 2 million Ugandans and scattered families into 200 holding camps without adequate food, water, sanitation or medical care. One in five infants die from preventable diseases such as malaria, respiratory infections and diarrhea because of the paucity of medical facilities and personnel in an isolated, inaccessible swath of territory, according to the World Health Organization.

Bigombe, whose father was a nurse, was one of 11 children and had a carefree childhood. The first sounds of gunfire came with the rule of dictator Idi Amin -- a period that changed the lives of all Ugandans. Underground opposition groups formed. One of her uncles hid in her dormitory to stay safe. She later married and became an ambassador's wife in Tokyo.

Bigombe was working on development projects in Africa when Museveni, who seized power in 1986, tapped her to work for him. He needed someone to help him connect with the north as he established his hold on the country.

She declined but later traveled to eastern Uganda and then to the north on limited assignments to survey the excesses of Museveni's army. Her main brief was to win over the disgruntled Acholi tribespeople, who had been given army appointments, education and assorted benefits under British colonial rule. After Museveni came to power, they fought to regain their privileges.

In 1988, without consulting her in advance, Museveni told Bigombe he was announcing her appointment as minister of state for the north. "Don't go," she recalled friends pleading. "He wants to kill you. Why else would he send a woman with no military experience?"

"Skepticism about my assignment took other forms," she added, "such as rumors I was one of his girlfriends and he could not get enough of me, so he had to keep me out of the way.

"I thought of the 2 million people who wanted to go home. They had nothing. I told myself my children will be safe. Not everyone saw it that way," she said. "It was a choice to put a smile on these poor souls' faces or give them hope for another day, but it was not risk-free."

Her husband, who died two years ago, had been appointed ambassador to Germany in 1989, so she knew her family would be cared for.

Bigombe's appointed staff members were afraid to accompany her, so she went north with two bodyguards. She drove trucks, navigating mined roads, and held on in terror as MiG-17s crash-landed in the wilderness. One day she scooped up an infant whose mother's arms had been torn off by a land mine. She recalled how she at first gagged at the thought of eating food prepared by soldiers because they did not wash their hands after coming out of latrines. Later she gave in to her pangs of hunger.

To get to know mothers whose sons had been abducted and who had fallen under Kony's spell, she roamed the camps, living with the women for several days.

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