In war-torn northern Uganda, warrants for rebels seen as threat to peace

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 4, 2006 

GULU, Uganda—An unusual feeling washed over the hills of northern Uganda last month. It was hope. For the first time since the start of a terrifying insurgency 20 years ago, peace talks between rebels and the government were making progress.

"We have been suffering for so long. We need this," said a withered Anna Alwoch, 65, who watched the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army kill her husband in the first days of the war before shoving a gun in her chest and threatening to rape her. Instead they sliced off her upper lip.

Now, however, the talks have broken down and hope has given way to anger—not just at the cultlike LRA, architects of one of Africa's gravest humanitarian crises, but also, and more surprisingly, at the International Criminal Court, based 4,000 miles away in the Netherlands.

Tasked with prosecuting crimes against humanity, the court has issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony, the LRA's messianic leader, and his top deputies. A self-styled spirit medium, Kony and his commanders forced thousands of children into their army and, at the point of a gun or blade of a machete, unleashed them on their own people, forcing them to torch villages, chop off limbs and kill all who resisted.

If ever the label "war criminal" applied, say prosecutors, it's in this case. But the warrants have created an impasse. Uganda has offered the rebels amnesty if they put down their weapons, but Kony has said he won't come in from the bush so long as the threat of a war-crimes trial hangs over his head.

He failed to show last month at a designated rebel assembly point as required under a truce with the government. The truce expired two weeks ago, and on Wednesday Uganda resumed military operations against rebels still hiding in the north, dealing another setback to the peace process.

Despite the ongoing negotiations, the court's prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, said last week that he wouldn't lift the warrants, warning that if he did, "the crimes will start again."

Whether the talks can be resurrected seems more than ever to hinge on the actions of the fledgling international court, whose quest for justice is increasingly at odds with the war-weary people of northern Uganda, who'd rather have peace.

"If the court doesn't withdraw its case, the LRA will continue to terrorize us," said Julius Odong, a tribal leader in the beleaguered town of Gulu, where hundreds of thousands of people who've fled their villages to escape rebel attacks now live in dank huts in overcrowded government camps.

What's now Africa's longest-running conflict began as an insurrection by the Acholi ethnic group in 1986, when the rival southern rebel leader Yoweri Museveni seized power in a coup. Kony, who says he's possessed with mystical powers, drew Acholi military men into the bush and indoctrinated them, telling them they were bulletproof, and sent them into the villages to recruit fighters.

The campaign has decimated the Acholi people, who account for the vast majority of the war's tens of thousands of casualties. The Acholis blame the southern-dominated government for letting the conflict fester, but they also see it as a homegrown problem with a homegrown solution.

In the Acholi culture, murder isn't dealt with by execution or imprisonment, but by an elaborate reconciliation ceremony known as "mato oput." Literally, it means sharing a bitter drink derived from a local tree. The ceremony requires the guilty person to repent, seek forgiveness and pay restitution.

To many Acholis, it's a sensible way out of a war that's pitted children against children—and, occasionally, against their parents—and scarred a generation of girls with rape. Thousands of abductees and some top commanders have been welcomed back through traditional ceremonies.

Even former abductees say that if Kony came home, repented for his actions and paid compensation to his victims, they would forgive him.

"I would welcome him," said Patrick Okelo, 29, who was abducted at gunpoint and spent five years with the LRA before escaping while on a reconnaissance mission.

"How we see it, evil cannot be paid back with evil."

Acholis are desperate to return to their villages, where they can farm such crops as cassava and beans rather than subsist on food rations. Today, some 1.6 million people are packed into the government camps, overwhelmed by hunger and disease, which aid agencies say kill 900 people weekly.

But analysts say that mere reconciliation won't satisfy the international community, which is trying to end Africa's long history of impunity for heinous crimes.

Earlier this year, the court charged a former Congolese militia leader, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, with enlisting thousands of child soldiers. Next year, former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, captured in exile, is expected to face trial in a special court in the Netherlands on charges of ordering the murder, rape and mutilation of thousands during Sierra Leone's civil war.

Caty Clement of the International Crisis Group, an independent research agency that studies global conflict, said the war-crimes indictments pressured the LRA's chief sponsor, Sudan, into withdrawing support from the rebels, forcing the LRA into negotiations.

Uganda's amnesty offer also has helped facilitate peace talks, Clement said. Ugandan officials say a cease-fire is a prerequisite to seeking justice, but if the government doesn't do it, international authorities will likely step in.

"Ultimately, the LRA will have to be dealt with," Clement said. "There has to be substantial accountability and punishment."

Some longtime rebels say the elusive Kony—who's evaded capture for two decades and until recently had been seen in only a handful of photographs since the war began—is determined to avoid international prosecution.

Francis Ochaya, who served 12 years with the rebels, including several as a personal escort to Kony and his harem of child brides before escaping to Gulu in March, said he often heard Kony discussing the war-crimes case with his No. 2 man, Vincent Otti.

"Both Otti and Kony said they won't come out if the case is still there," Ochaya said. "They don't fear any punishment from the people. They only fear the court."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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