A CURIOUS blend of politics and religion has forged an unlikely alliance in northern Uganda, where fundamentalist Christian rebels are slaying civilians with help from Sudan's Islamic government, Western diplomats and Ugandan authorities say.
Residents of the wind-swept, dirt-poor Ugandan village of Atiak are still recuperating from an April attack, when fighters of the Lord's Resistance Army crept into town, set rows of straw huts ablaze, abducted youngsters, and murdered some 250 residents.
The Lord's Army has been waging war in Uganda's rugged northern region since 1987.
The Ugandan rebels say they want to rule the country in accordance with the Bible's Ten Commandments. The several thousand fighters abide by an unusual set of beliefs. They forbid work on the Muslim holy day of Friday, as well as Sunday. The fighters study the Bible and prohibit eating the meat of white-feathered chickens.
Yoneai Auma, an Atiak resident with five children, lost her husband and l5 relatives in the April raid. She says the Lord's Army rebels forced her and her neighbors to applaud as they shot the villagers.
"They started shooting and asked us to clap our hands and to say 'Thank you - thank you for the shooting,' " Mrs. Auma said. "Because we wanted to survive, we clapped."
United States Ambassador to Uganda Michael Southwick says he has seen intelligence reports verifying that the Lord's Army receive its weapons from Sudan.
"The evidence is very good that the rebels in the north, the Lord's Resistance Army, are being supplied by Khartoum [Sudan's capital]," Mr. Southwick says. "It's a force to be reckoned with, and can strike pretty much at will. It's very hard for the [Ugandan] government forces to confront them."
Sudan's government denies it arms the Lord's Army. Instead, it accuses Uganda of aiding the fighters of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).
In Sudan, Africa's largest country, religious differences are at the heart of a brutal 12-year-old war between an Islamic government in the north, and Christian rebels in the south.
While the Lord's Army may receive outside aid, it is also fueled by cult-like beliefs. In years past, its fighters marched into battle covered with nut oil that they believed would turn bullets into water.
Now, they tote more conventional protection, says Brig. Chefe Ali, the Ugandan commander whose troops are stationed in Atiak.
"The weapons include rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and explosives of different types," Brigadier Chefe Ali says. "They are written on in Arabic, and they come from the Sudanese."
While the rebels may be fighting with aid from Sudan, some northern Ugandan residents say Uganda's Army has deliberately failed to stop the attacks.
James Atare, a prominent local lawyer in the nearby town of Gulu, says Ugandan soldiers aren't protecting residents in towns like Atiak, because the villagers belong to an ethnic group called the Acholi. Many Acholis don't support Uganda's government.
Mr. Atare says that is why authorities aren't crushing the rebels.
"Because the Acholi elect people who oppose the government, they have to pay for it," Atare says. "The government is not interested to bring this rebellion to an end."
But Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni says his government is reaching out to all ethnic groups, including the Acholi. He says once his military receives new equipment, his troops will defeat the rebels.
"It's not that we're indifferent - we are not indifferent at all.... What we need is to strengthen the prompt capacity of the Army, because that's what is now lacking," President Museveni told the Monitor in a recent interview.
"It is certainly not a growing rebellion in terms of politics. There is no support for that group, that's why they're killing people, that's why they kidnap," he says.
The Lord's Army fills its ranks with youngsters they've abducted.
Outside Ugandan Army barracks in Gulu, 15-year-old David Onen tells his story: how the Lord's Resistance Army kidnapped him at midnight and forced him to walk for days across the border into Sudan. There, he became a soldier.
"The first thing we were taught in the Sudan is how to dismantle a gun and how to use a gun," David says. "But most of the time we were being told that we would come Uganda to fight, liberate people, and save them."
David recalls how the rebel's leader, Joseph Coney, visited the fighters' camps - smartly dressed in a suit and tie - to pray with the rebels.
The Lord's Army abducts girls as well as boys. Sixteen-year-old Doreen Abwot says the rebels kidnapped her at gunpoint in the northern Ugandan countryside last October, and forced her to become the "wife" of a rebel commander.
"You have no choice. All girls are just allocated to men," Doreen says, adding that her "husband," "did not treat me well. Anything you wouldn't do he would cane you. So it was like being a slave."
These days Atiak residents are putting new roofs on the burnt husks of their former homes. Still, they say they're too frightened to sleep indoors.
Many residents argue that the Lord's Army won't lay down its arms until Uganda and Sudan's governments solve internal disputes, among their diverse religious and ethnic groups.
Until then, they say, war is likely to continue to spill over these borders and spawn deadly alliances.