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Africa's peace seekers: Betty Bigombe

Betty Bigombe spends her days talking to rebels and Army officers in Uganda's bush country. She is one of Africa's peace seekers - individuals willing to leave loved ones behind, shrug off personal threats, and even spend significant amounts of their own money to end some of the continent's most intractable conflicts. Part 2 of three.

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To some, her style seems organic, even haphazard. One day, she'll be poring over maps with government soldiers to establish the boundaries of a cease-fire zone. Other days, she'll joke and flirt with a commander to persuade him to delay a counterattack long enough to let her get between the two sides. At times, she's the target of expletives and even death threats.

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"Oh, what I have to put up with," Bigombe says with an exasperated smile.

* * *

The thump-thump-thump of a borrowed British helicopter echoed over the scrub-brush of her native land. In December 2004, Bigombe was flying to meet with the rebels. She had a peace offering.

With the wind and dust still swirling after the landing, a sealed, 40-pound bag of rice from the World Food Program was unloaded. Bigombe ordered it deposited in front of the rebel officers, who were standing sternly in their crisp military uniforms. Twenty or so child soldiers in torn T-shirts were nearby, fingers on rifle triggers. They gazed longingly at the rice.

"Take it," Bigombe recalls telling the rebels.

But no one moved in the hot sun. "It might be poisoned," the top officer said.

He ultimately refused the rice. At first, Bigombe thought it was a setback. But her willingness to bring the food - even if they didn't take it that day - turned out to be a breakthrough on one of the most important elements of peacemaking: trust.

The rebels already knew Bigombe as a member of their ethnic group, the Acholi. They knew that in 1994 she got them closer than they'd ever been to peace. And, after the rice-bag offering, they figured they could rely on her for supplies.

"We're hungry," one skinny rebel whispered at a subsequent meeting. With her own money, she bought sugar, coffee, cooking oil, and salt at local markets. Then she began arriving with cartons of soap and other supplies. The more they have, she explains, the fewer deadly raids they make on local villages.

Furthermore, as she brought supplies, the often-elusive rebels began contacting her more regularly, willing to talk peace. Some analysts worry the LRA is just manipulating Bigombe for their own gain. Regardless, outside observers say one of her great talents is building and keeping the trust of the warring parties.

Of that day with the rice, she says, "They were trying to see if they could trust us."

* * *

The LRA is a mystical group led by Joseph Kony, a recluse who claims he's a spirit medium. He reportedly wants a Ugandan government based on the Ten Commandments. In recent years, he's apparently been holed up across the border in southern Sudan - and hasn't issued any formal demands.

The LRA used to enjoy support among northern villagers, who complain of economic marginalization by Uganda's central government. But its brutality has turned villagers against it. Lately, the LRA has just been trying to survive, say analysts.

During village raids, LRA soldiers seek supplies and young recruits. They mutilate civilians who don't cooperate. Captured girls are forced to be sex slaves to LRA commanders. Sometimes boys are made to kill their parents before being turned into LRA soldiers. The UN estimates that 80 percent of LRA soldiers are children.

Independent estimates are that 100,000 people have died in the conflict, 20,000 children have been kidnapped, and 1.6 million people have fled their homes.

As one Western diplomat in Kampala puts it, the LRA represents "a different order of magnitude of evil" than most African rebels.

Bigombe has seen the LRA's brutality first-hand. In 1995, when she was a government minister, she was the first outsider on the scene of one of its bloodiest massacres. Rebels attacked a town and captured about 220 men, women, and children. The villagers were marched several miles to a riverbank and all methodically executed.

Yet sometimes Bigombe sees glimmers of humanity, too. Once, one LRA commander grew pensive during a conversation. He wondered how his fellow northerners would perceive him after all the terrible things the LRA has done. He asked plaintively, "Can I ever go home again?"

* * *

"Do you want to pamper these killers?" shouted Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. It was 6 a.m., the time he often calls Bigombe. On this November morning he was seething.