'Terror' tag shifts Uganda's war

Rebels whose campaign heated up after 9/11 called a cease-fire Sunday.

President Yoweri Museveni is in town. He moved into the barracks of the 4th Army Division three weeks ago – and is not leaving, he says, until his Uganda People's Defense Forces (UPDF) crushes the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) or his politicians make peace with the rebels. The on-again, off-again 16-year war, he vows, is about to reach its end.

Around the barracks, people carry out their usual business, seemingly unimpressed by their leader's presence. One woman sells onions; another hawks sugarcane. A few cows saunter by, barely budging for a group of army recruits singing and jogging with AK47s.

But as night descends, the mood shifts. Ragged children carrying sleeping mats are the first to arrive. Hurrying down dusty paths which wind into town from the outlaying villages, they rush to save a space inside the church courtyard or the hospital compound. Behind them, elders carry babies, small suitcases, the maize reserves, water.

All of these people, tens of thousands of them, are afraid to spend the night at home. After two years of relative calm, the civil war has intensified in the North. Raids on displaced people's camps, abductions of children, and attacks on vehicles have become a daily occurrence. The Acholi people – the main ethnic group in the region – say they have never felt so frightened or so vulnerable.

The change in dynamics of this war can be traced back to the aftermath of Sept. 11, when the previously little known LRA rebels were put on a US list of terror organizations. They were "thrown in," say senior Western diplomats, speaking off the record, mainly to show that the US was not targeting only Muslim groups – as far as Washington was concerned, it simply meant was that any LRA member found in America was liable to be deported. But in this part of the world, the terrorist tag had much deeper ramifications.

Choosing sides

Relations between Uganda and Sudan have been bad for years, with each country supporting rebel groups fighting the other. Uganda backed the Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a group of southern Sudanese rebels. Sudan, in turn, helped the LRA.

The US classification of the LRA as a terror group, however, changed this balance. Eager to prove to the US that it didn't back terror, Sudan quickly withdrew its support from the LRA and moved to thaw relations with Uganda – a darling of the West. "After Sept. 11, [Sudanese President Omar al] Bashir, got the message that he had to choose sides, and since Sudan desperately needed investment to get oil out, Bashir has cooperated with the US and against terrorism," says Harvard Kennedy School's Robert Rotberg. "The LRA has nothing to do with Al Qaeda, but it became too costly for Sudan to run these extra terrorist types."

So, with Sudan's blessing, the UPDF launched operation "Iron Fist" in March, attacking LRA bases in Southern Sudan in an attempt to hit the rebels and rescue thousands of child-abductees fighting with them. The operation failed by most accounts. The LRA was chased out of its bases, but simply relocated to Uganda, where it increased its campaign of terror.

"Common wisdom used to be that the reason for the LRA's survival was Sudanese sanctuary – but now its hard to see what the problem is," says Mr. Rotberg. "The LRA is just a couple of kids and a few fanatics, and they ought to be extracted pretty easily. It's a mystery."

Established in 1987 by Joseph Kony, a former Gulu altar boy turned self-proclaimed prophet, the LRA has an agenda that is neither well articulated nor understood. Claiming they want to overthrow Museveni's government and install a leadership that will rule according to the Ten Commandments, the LRA is better known for behavior not usually sanctioned by the laws carved upon the holy tablets.

They have killed untold thousands and displaced over half a million Acholi people. Some 15,000 children have been abducted and forced to serve in their ranks, carrying out brutal killings in their own communities. Escaped LRA members tell of being forced to club to death the weak or the disloyal. Girls as young as 9, meanwhile, are given to LRA commanders as "wives" or traded around. Hundreds of babies have been born in LRA captivity and brought into battle strapped on their mother's backs.

In the early days, the LRA managed to play on the Acholi people's feeling of alienation from the government – and as such gained some sincere support. Today, however, most sympathy for them has been squandered.

"They believe they will take over the government, but what will they do once they get there?" asks Christine Angeio, a secretary at the local college. "There is no plan. They say they are fighting for us? But they are killing us. They are capable of anything, even of removing your children from your own house."

Problems with the army

According to various estimates, Mr. Kony's active fighters now number only between 2,000 and 5,000, but it is still unclear whether they continue to get outside support. UPDF commanders, speaking on condition of anonymity, say they believe Sudan continues to arm them.

Two weeks ago, when the LRA attacked a refugee camp at Acholi Pii, they barely touched the supplies, including food and drugs. Recently released abductees, meanwhile, told military intelligence that fighters who had reentered Uganda brought land mines and ammunition.

But the real problem in fighting the rebels, Museveni admitted in a meeting with legislators last week, is the "internal weaknesses" of the UPDF. When it came time to start operation "Iron Fist," say sources close to the military, it transpired that troop registers were greatly inflated and soldiers unprepared. Commanders were corrupt, salaries were late and low, and there was little incentive for anyone to fight.

"It was a mess and everyone knew it. That is why Museveni came to Gulu – to clean house. He is rearranging his staff and bringing in better troops," says Dennis Ojwee, the Gulu reporter for the government owned New Vision daily newspaper.

It is clear the UPDF has a long way to go before it will be able to decisively crush LRA guerrilla units. For example, soldiers escorting food convoys into the internally displaced camps are often drunk by day's end. And buses leaving Gulu for the capital Kampala are routinely stopped and searched in an attempt to catch the many army deserters.

Recognizing these failings, and pressured by local leaders and the international community, Museveni reiterated an offer to go to peace talks this weekend, saying his government was ready, under certain conditions, to halt operations against the LRA. A negotiations team was ready to sit down anytime, he said, speaking Friday on a local radio station popular with the rebels.

The conditions Museveni set, including the rebels agreeing to stop all killings and retreat to specified positions outside Uganda – are ones the LRA has rejected in the past.

The LRA nonetheless declared a temporary cease-fire from midnight on Saturday. It was a sign, perhaps, that the diplomatic option might be possible.

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