A small order of Catholic missionaries appears to have the best hope of being peacemakers in the West Nile bush war that is disrupting the lives of thousands of Ugandans.
The Verona Fathers missionaries are the only people who have the trust of both the Ugandan military and the guerrilla supporters of ousted dictator Idi Amin.
"If there are no talks between the two sides, the fighting will never end," one foreign relief official said. He noted that the missionaries are the only outsiders who can move freely in the remote salient between the Sudanese border and the Nile River controlled by the Amin forces.
Ugandan forces, supported by Tanzanian troops, have not been able to dislodge the Amin loyalists from there stronghold since the guerrilla uprising in October.
Father Markolino Mich, head of the Ombachi mission in this provincial capital near the Zairan border, said his missionaries have been told by the guerrillas that they are welcome to enter the area and say mass as long as they are not escorted by Ugandan soldiers.
The guerrillas threaten to kill the priests if soldiers are with them, Father Mich said. The priests travel unescorted.
The verona missionaries -- called Comboni Fathers in the United States, where they have a seminary in Cincinnati -- have gained the role of intermediaries by providing shelter and aid for Ugandans in the countryside during the nation's many manmade and natural disasters.
The order has 400 priests, brothers and nuns in the country, almost half in the drought- and battle-ravaged provinces of West Nile and Karamoja, on opposite sides of Uganda.
Many have been threatened in the violence that has plagued Uganda for the last decade. A nun was killed during the West Nile fighting last October and four priests died during the 1978-79 war that ousted Amin.
Amin expelled 17 missionaries and others were denied visa renewals. President Milton Obote, who was ousted by Amin but was returned to elected power last December, kicked out 10. The Catholic Church and Obote have long been at odds. Father Joseph Bragotti, a Verona missionary in Kampala, said the order is waiting to see what relations it will have with the new government.
Last October many of the missions in West Nile were inundated with people fleeing their homes in fear of mounting violence. About 1,500 were crowded into small Moyo mission until Christmas.
In Karamoja, where thousands starved to death last year in a severe drought, the embattled missions for months were the main channel for distribution of food used by international relief agencies until they could establish their own services. The use of missions as food distribution centers made them prime targets of the Karamoja raiders who terrorized the area stealing food and cattle.
Another reason the missionaries have developed close relations with the local people is their mastery of the numerous languages of this tribally divided country. They have been responsible for converting many of the approximately 15 tribal tongues into written languages. Several have written textbooks and dictionaries translating the languages into English. When some of the Verona Fathers fled the more remote West Nile missions for Zaire during the October fighting they communicated with priests and missionaries across the border in Lugbari, a language common to eastern Zaire and western Uganda, since the clergyman spoke no other common language.
The order was founded in 1867 in Verona by Bishop Daniel Comboni. Africa is the main area of concentration with 1,800 missionaries in 16 countries, 400 in Uganda where the fathers began their work at the turn of the century.
The Verona Fathers along with the Catholic Church in general have been accused of being over-involved in politics in Uganda, a country that is 45 percent Catholic. The major opposition political organization, the Democratic Party, is closely allied wih the church. The fathers do not hesitate to criticize the government of Obote, whom they accuse of antichurch actions during his earlier administration.
At a meeting of local and military officials with a United Nations group in Moyo late last month, Father Osmundo Bilbao made it clear that he felt Ugandan troops had stolen a truck from a school. The order does not pussyfoot in it pronouncements either. A bulletin posted at Moyo mission talked of "frightening experiences" at some missions.
"People seem to have been reluctant and afraid to stand by the missionaries. We cannot allow ourselves to be intimidate; we must react as a body and put pressure on the security forces and the government officials to restore secruity and justice," the document said.
The order, however, has also shown sensitivity to charges that missionaries often steal the limelight from the indigenous people. A bulletin dealing with rehabilitation in West Nile said: "Our engagement should not be limited to 'our' missions, but should be planned and accomplished together with local officials. The Ugandans should be actors of the moral and material reconstruction of their own country and not mere passive onlookers of several expatriates' dedication and sweat," the statement concluded.