GULU, UGANDA — While the rest of this Oregon-sized country enjoys a period of growth and ethnic peace unknown in its 35 years of independence, Uganda's remote north has been turned into a rebel battle zone. Now, the Army says, northern Ugandans may finally get some respite from the strange children's crusade that has terrorized them for the past four years.
Led by a former Roman Catholic altar boy, Joseph Kony, the army of abducted and brainwashed children that calls itself the Lord's Resistance Army has murdered thousands of civilians and devastated much of the north. Their aim, in so far as they have stated one, is to overthrow President Yoweri Museveni and rule Uganda in accordance with the Ten Commandments. Since the insurgency flared up four years ago, the authorities in Gulu district say the LRA has killed at least 5,000 civilians, and perhaps as many again in neighboring Kitgum. They estimate that more than 230,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.
In addition to those killed by the rebels, local aid workers say that hundreds - perhaps thousands - more have been maimed for breaching a series of decrees, such as speaking ill of the rebels or riding a bicycle - the main form of transportation in the remote region.
More recently, Mr. Kony has ordered that pigs will no longer be tolerated in rebel-held areas and that Friday will be observed as a second sabbath. Local authorities and the Ugandan Army say this is a concession to his main backer, the Islamic government of neighboring Sudan.
But the deepest influence on Kony, many suspect, is neither Christianity nor Islam but traditional witchcraft. Before they acquired large quantities of modern weapons (Uganda's government accuses Sudan of supplying them), many LRA soldiers went into action armed only with rocks and machetes, smearing themselves with ointments that - Kony told them - rendered them bullet proof.
Survivors of Kony's base camps in southern Sudan say that he often explains his orders by saying that "the Holy Spirit told me to do it."
Last week, Oyet Lakweka, a teenage lieutenant in the rebel army, giggled as he admitted having killed "many, many people" since being abducted from his village in February 1995. Two months after being kidnapped, he says he participated in the Atiak massacre, in which more than 200 civilians were killed. He says his field commander told him that an angel ordered the massacre.
Oyet was one of 18 children and rebel fighters captured or freed by the Ugandan Army near Gulu last week. The youngest, Simon Ocan, who was abducted in November 1996, said he was 13 and had killed at least two people. The first was a rebel of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which is fighting Sudan's Islamic government - the LRA's backers. (In a case of tit-for-tat meddling, the Sudanese rebels are reportedly backed by Uganda.)
Simon's second victim was a child who tried to escape the LRA shortly after they were both abducted. As a new "recruit," Simon was ordered to help beat him to death. For an instant his impassive face contorted involuntarily. "I was sorry for that," he said.
A recent UNICEF report estimates that as many as 8,000 Ugandan children have been abducted by the LRA and taken to southern Sudan. New abductees are routinely ordered, on pain of death, to kill others guilty of breaching harsh bush discipline. Sometimes they are ordered to carry out atrocities against their own villages. Girls are usually forced to do manual labor and act as "wives" for commanders.
World Vision, a Christian charity based in Washington, says that since March 1995 its trauma counseling center in Gulu has cared for 3,300 children who had been kidnapped by the rebels. The government has promised amnesty for all but the most senior LRA leaders, with whom it now refuses to negotiate.
In a sad irony, both the rebels and their victims come from Kony's own tribe, the Acholis. The Acholis are one of the northern tribes who controlled Uganda from independence in 1962 until 1986, when Mr. Museveni's National Resistance Army took power.
That victory ended years of slaughter under dictators Idi Amin, Milton Obote, and Gen. Tito Okello. But many Acholi feared that they would lose influence and wealth under the new order. In 1987, thousands joined the "Holy Spirit Movement" of Alice Lekwana, an Acholi faith healer whose hordes marched on Kampala armed principally with prayers and magic charms - weapons that proved no match for the Army's guns.
Ms. Lekwana fled to Kenya. Her cousin Joseph Kony, a young peasant with a reputation for both delinquency and oratory, emerged as leader of a fresh Acholi resistance movement, which he renamed the LRA in 1993.
Col. James Kazini, commander of Uganda's armed forces in the north, blames the LRA's continuing existence on bountiful supplies of weapons from Sudan and lingering support for the rebels among disaffected Acholi elders. These, he complains, refuse to cooperate with the Army and are falsely telling exhausted guerrillas that they will be shot if they surrender.
End of war in sight?
He is confident that the LRA's days are now numbered. Lingering Acholi hostility to Museveni is increasingly counterbalanced, he says, by an awareness that the LRA's crusade is directed almost entirely against its own people. Foreign aid workers in the region agree that the guerrillas now seem dependent more on fear than popular support.
Also, gains earlier this year by Sudanese rebels have forced the LRA to move their camps in southern Sudan as much as 100 miles further from the border. The Army says that intelligence suggests that only about 400 LRA guerrillas remain in Uganda, and they are running short of ammunition. There may be a couple of thousand more rebels trapped in Sudan. These are reportedly helping the Sudanese government battle rebels in the south.
"If the SPLA captures Juba [the capital of southern Sudan] then the LRA will vanish entirely," he says.
This is by no means the first time that the Ugandan authorities have announced the LRA's demise, however, and some observers remain skeptical.
"From what we hear, they still seem to be well organized," says the representative of one aid agency operating in Gulu and Kitgum. "I don't think they are finished yet."