GULU, UGANDA — UGANDA'S 34 years of independence have been punctuated by periods of extreme savagery and political repression. Current President Yoweri Museveni appeared to have succeeded in returning calm and stability. But now a quasi-Christian rebel group operating in the north has brought terror back to this Oregon-sized country in East-Central Africa.
The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has been operating in northern Uganda since 1987. Its stated objectives are the overthrow of the government and the installation of an administration that would rule Uganda according to the Ten Commandments.
For much of its existence, the LRA has posed little threat to the Ugandan government. But in the last month, more than 200 people have died in attacks around the town of Gulu, about 60 miles south of the border with Sudan. Over the past 10 years, the death toll has been in the thousands. Villages have been burned and ransacked. The Ugandan Army has been shamed into admitting that it is having problems dealing with the insurgency.
"The rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army will not accept a fight," says Brig. Chefe Ali, commander of the Fourth Armored Division in Gulu. "Every time we get near them, they run away. You can spend a month chasing them, and they keep on running, scattering antipersonnel mines that injure civilians."
Northern Uganda has been a problematic region for successive governments. The area is remote, and covered in dense jungle. The main tribe there, the Acholi, has long harbored resentment toward governments in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, far to the south.
The LRA rebellion is only the latest in a long line of insurgencies the Acholis have joined. But the Ugandan government says the rebellion is not a popular movement. It says the LRA probably has fewer than 1,000 fighters. It also claims that many rebels are unwilling participants abducted by LRA commanders and taken over the border to bases in neighboring Sudan.
Ugandan intelligence sources suggest the abducted Ugandan villagers are then trained in jungle-fighting techniques before being sent back into Uganda on terrorist missions.
Betty Bigombe, the Ugandan government minister responsible for the northern region, says Sudan, Uganda's northern neighbor, is funding the LRA campaign in retaliation for Uganda's alleged support for southern Sudanese rebel groups.
"It's not guesswork. We know the LRA is being supplied by the government of Sudan," she says. "The captives will tell you; some of the commanders will tell you. I personally went to the battlefield and saw evidence of Sudanese involvement in the forms of notebooks left behind by retreating LRA fighters."
Ugandans living in Gulu say a large part of the strength of the LRA can be attributed to its leader, the charismatic Joseph Kony. An illiterate former Roman Catholic, Mr. Kony is described by his followers as a visionary who communicates with God. His followers say he has supernatural powers and the ability to strike down his detractors.
The Acholi, a religious people, often follow his call to arms. "Kony taught us that the people of Uganda are not following the Ten Commandments," says Ambrose Ocen, a former LRA fighter who escaped earlier this year. "Our mission ... was to spread the good news from the Bible and show people how the Ten Commandments must be followed. Unfortunately, we had to kill, and that is not right."
Those who have escaped from the LRA say they were introduced to a world of strange rituals, alien to Christianity. "They get white ashes and draw a heart on your body, all the time mentioning the name of Jesus Christ," says Joseph Olobo, a teenage boy who went into battle four times with the LRA before being captured by the Ugandan Army. "This is meant to protect you from bullets during an attack."
The Ugandan Army claims it will crush the LRA in the next six months using modern weaponry such as helicopter gunships with night-vision sights. But such promises have been made before.