GULU, NORTHERN UGANDA — `DO not be deceived," an anxious bus passenger says ominously, after passing through an Army checkpoint on the road to Gulu. "All is not as well as it appears."
The uniformed National Resistance Army soldiers seem relaxed as they inspect identity cards; the armed rebellion that has terrorized this tangle of bush for decades seems far away.
The National Resistance Army (NRA) launched a "final offensive" last March against rebels in northern Uganda which, by all accounts, successfully broke the back of the rebel Uganda Democratic Christian Army (UDCA), led by Joseph Kony. The government says that 3,000 of these rebels have taken up the government's promise of amnesty and that only a few hundred still prowl the bush and harass civilians.
Moreover, last week the Museveni regime announced that military expenditures would be cut 25 percent, attributing the plan to the general stabilization of the security situation in the East African country.
But for villagers in northern Uganda, concerns both about rebel intimidation and Army intentions in the region persist.
Instead of focusing on their military enemy, the NRA, the rebels now seem to target civilians with their policy of abduction and - most alarming to those in isolated villages - mutilation.
"Now the rebels are relegated to cutting off the noses, ears, fingers, and genitals of their fellow Acholi people, to prevent them from supporting the NRA," says one senior Western diplomat in Kampala.
This rebel campaign of mutilation has not been very effective at making allies among villagers, although northern villagers are equally as wary of the NRA, which is made up largely of Ugandans from everywhere but the north.
NRA human rights against civilians during this offensive left deep suspicions about Army intentions in this region. On March 26, the NRA cordoned off Gulu town and rounded up the 2,000 residents who they detained overnight in the town's small stadium. Citizens were beaten by soldiers with rifle butts. According to witnesses, three people were beaten to death.
An Amnesty International report published in December detailed extensive human rights abuses by the NRA against civilians during this spring offensive, including extrajudicial executions and detentions.
President Yoweri Museveni, who led the NRA guerrilla struggle from western Uganda against the regimes of Tito Okello and Milton Obote in 1986, has dismissed the report, saying that "Human rights must be seen in the context of the insurgency of this country."
The president has promised that military rule in Uganda will give way to a constitutional civilian government in 1995. But since coming to power, the NRA has expanded tenfold and increased its influence in the government. As it absorbed the armies of previous regimes and rebel groups, discipline within the NRA has eroded.
Army commanders and officials in Gulu say they are close to victory over the "rebel thugs and bandits," the same terms once applied to the NRA when they were the rebels.
But Gulu residents say that some rebels still roam free - despite at least 5,000 NRA troops in the area - because the Army wants it that way.
"The NRA is not interested in getting rid of the remaining rebels now," says one source in Gulu close to the Army. "They are professional soldiers - what would they do without war?"