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On the eve of elections, Uganda is a tale of two countries

ATIAK, Uganda—As the midday sun bakes the dusty landscape, men in fraying shirts and women with infants on their backs sit under giant mango trees, cross-legged and fidgety, waiting for their names to be called.

A short distance away, a team of aid workers unloads a truck piled high with sacks of beans, corn and porridge mix, stacking them in neat rows. During the afternoon, more than 300 tons of United Nations food aid will be handed out—the only guaranteed meals here for the next few weeks.

This scene plays out each month in Atiak, one of the largest camps for displaced people in northern Uganda, where Africa's longest running civil war has driven nearly 2 million people from their homes and made them dependent on emergency food aid to survive.

For 20 years, a cult-like rebel group known as the Lord's Resistance Army has terrorized northern Uganda, kidnapping at least 25,000 children, killing or mutilating thousands of villagers, torching homes and farms, and decimating the economy. Nine out of 10 northern Ugandans live in government camps, where market shelves are empty and diseases such as cholera run wild.

But a half-day's drive to the south, past the rushing Nile River, Uganda is a different country: green and growing. Southern coffee plantations produce some of the world's most coveted beans while the capital, Kampala, boasts leafy parks, fine restaurants and Wi-Fi hotspots.

The progress of the southern half of this teardrop-shaped country—slightly smaller than Oregon—has earned Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, praise from the United States and other Western nations. And it's a big reason why Museveni, who took office shortly before the brutal insurgency began, is expected to win re-election on Thursday.

Nationally, Museveni is credited with reducing poverty, inflation and the rate of HIV infection, a scourge throughout Africa. But to many northerners, Museveni's presidency has brought only suffering and alienation.

"We have always said there are two Ugandas," said Norbert Mao, who has represented Gulu, the north's largest town, in parliament for the past decade.

"There is the Uganda for which Museveni receives praise, where the economy is growing, where investment is taking place and the infrastructure is improved," Mao said. "Then there is the other Uganda, where there are displaced people, where there is no peace, where AIDS is on the increase and where the conflict has devastated lives."

The war is one of the world's strangest. The LRA leader, Joseph Kony, 41, is a self-styled prophet whose entire political agenda consists of overthrowing Museveni's government and replacing it with one based on the Ten Commandments. The rebels target children, conscripting boys as soldiers and girls as servants or sex slaves.

In 2004, Jan Egeland, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, called northern Uganda the world's most neglected humanitarian crisis.

The LRA has planted deep fear in the countryside. Every evening, to avoid abduction, thousands of children walk from the camps to the nearest town to spend the night in shelters or on verandas, where it's safer.

"We have seen terrible things," said Samuel Ojara, a 61-year-old retired schoolteacher whose four brothers were killed in LRA attacks and who himself was abducted one night in 1995.

"It was midnight and my wife and I were sleeping," Ojara recalled, seated in the shade outside his mud hut in Atiak. "They opened my door by force and grabbed me. Thank God my wife had been injured by a snake that same day. Her legs were swollen. She couldn't walk, so they left her."

He managed to escape the next night when his teenaged abductors, who had been walking through the bush for two days straight, passed out from exhaustion.

The LRA once numbered about 4,000 soldiers. But now Uganda says it has routed out all but a few hundred, most of whom are hiding in the forests of eastern Congo.

At a news conference Saturday, Museveni said LRA terrorism was "a closed chapter" in the country's history.

"Kony is defeated," Museveni said. "He can never come back to Uganda."

But Kony shows no signs of giving up, and his men still lurk in the north. The road through Atiak, 25 miles from the Sudanese border, isn't safe. In October and November—after the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Kony and four deputies—at least eight people were killed in LRA ambushes on both sides of the border.

Those who do venture out are driven by hunger. The monthly U.N. World Food Program deliveries aren't enough to feed Atiak's 19,000 people. Many sell part of their rations, but there's little to buy. In northern Uganda's warped economy, a cheap plastic bowl can cost $3.

As their rations run low, families walk to villages a few miles away to cultivate crops such as potatoes and cassava, a local staple. They often find some of their crops missing, eaten by rebels or Ugandan soldiers who patrol the countryside.

"We have that fear that we may find rebels feeding on our plants," said Yolanda Lanyero, a 58-year-old grandmother, as she peeled a mountain of cassava from that morning's trip to the village. "You don't know what person you're going to meet in your garden."

The people of this region—predominantly members of the Acholi ethnic group—were once successful farmers. But beginning under colonial rule, they became economically marginalized as their men were cherry-picked to be laborers on southern coffee and tea plantations.

Acholis say Museveni, a southerner, has been in no hurry to end their pain.

In the last presidential election, in 2001, Museveni won only 14 percent of the northern vote. Recent opinion polls don't give him much more than that for the upcoming election. Still, he has a comfortable lead over his nearest challenger, Kizza Besigye, and one of the only questions remaining Thursday is whether Museveni will capture a majority and escape a run-off election.

The other question is whether the election will be fair. In 2001, the government engaged in widespread vote-rigging, although not enough to challenge the outcome. Last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch warned that Museveni's government was intimidating voters, attacking opposition politicians and stifling journalists in an effort to secure victory again.

Observers are worried that Museveni, who got parliament to lift constitutional term limits so he could run in this election, will do anything to stay in power. In November, Besigye was thrown into jail on a mishmash of charges, and it wasn't clear until recently that he'd be free to run in the election.

But Museveni is still revered in much of Uganda. He's brought stability to a country that has had its share of dictators—including Milton Obote, Museveni's predecessor, and the notorious Idi Amin, who murdered hundreds of thousands of people in the 1970s.

Even his staunchest critics give Museveni credit.

"Being president of Uganda is a bit like being a rodeo rider," Mao said. "If you can hang on to this wild horse for 20 years, surely you are a person who should be a case study."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): UGANDA

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060220 UGANDA

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