Until recently, many villagers here in the fertile plains of northern Uganda wouldn't dare whisper anything bad about a notorious rebel leader named Joseph Kony - even if his soldiers had kidnapped their children, killed their neighbors, or attacked them, as they've done all too often.
The reason: Mr. Kony was believed to have a powerful spirit that helped him defy bullets, foretell attacks, and know when people criticized him. In fact, for 18 years Kony has been one of Africa's most mystical and feared rebels. The US calls his Lord's Resistance Army a terrorist group. It has killed more people than Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hizbullah combined.
But now a powerful mixture of forces is puncturing the Kony myth. They've significantly weakened him - and have created the first real chance for peace in a decade. A government-rebel cease-fire is expected to be signed Friday that would pave the way for formal peace talks. More broadly, the efforts may provide a model for battling the Kony-style mysticism that fuels some of Africa's most-vicious conflicts.
"If the spirit was with Kony, he would have taken over our government by now," says Alice Opira, a wide-faced villager who used to believe Kony had special powers - and thus wouldn't talk so openly about him. Sitting on a grass mat in one of the crowded camps that house many of the conflict's 1.6 million displaced people, with a dismissive scowl she adds: "Spirits don't provide bullets, and spirits don't provide guns."
It's a reference to one of the biggest changes in the war's dynamics - a shift that Western diplomats here connect to America's war on terror.
Kony's rebellion used to be largely financed and supported by the government of Sudan, which is Uganda's northern neighbor. He got this backing because he was a useful thorn in the side of Sudan's southern rebels. It enabled Kony to launch attacks in Uganda - and then sprint into Sudan, where Uganda's military couldn't touch him. This fed the myth that he was immune from government attacks.
Using such hit-and-run tactics his army killed thousands of civilians and abducted about 20,000 children. It routinely forces abducted boys to serve as soldiers - who often must kill their own family members - and girls to be "wives" to LRA commanders.
But Sudan's north-south war is winding down. And after 9/11 Sudan - dubbed a state sponsor of terrorism by the US - wanted to distance itself from such so-called terrorist groups as the LRA. "Sudan said this was its contribution to the war on terror," explains Paul Omach, a political scientist at Makerere University in Uganda's capital, Kampala. Sudan now allows Uganda's military to chase Kony into Sudan - even with helicopter gunships.
Another key factor in Kony's decline: outside pressure. For years, Uganda's conflict was virtually invisible to the larger world. The UN named it one of the world's most "forgotten" crises. But as the number of displaced people has grown - along with the legend of Kony's brutality - "donors have started to see the humanitarian crisis" and pressure Uganda's government to address it, says Mr. Omach. Indeed, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni declared a unilateral cease-fire in November and has offered to talk to Kony - although the two haven't yet met face to face.
But it's not just geopolitics that's weakening Kony. It's also a powerful ethic of forgiveness - one that parallels South Africa's famous reconciliation efforts after apartheid.
In the local Acholi tribe there's a traditional ceremony in which elders place an egg - the symbol of new life - on the ground. A repentant wrongdoer then steps on the egg. The act symbolizes the opening of a new life. The person is welcomed back into the village family. This and other ceremonies are being used to reintegrate former LRA soldiers, despite their awful acts. Pressured by local leaders, the government also offers legal amnesty to former fighters.
A major reason for the forgiveness is that so many LRA fighters were abducted as children. They were often forced to kill civilians - or be killed themselves. "The child was innocent - taken forcefully and forced to commit the crime," says Sheik Musa Khalil of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative. "Forgiveness is the only way to solve this conflict."
The attitude has put local leaders at odds with the UN's International Criminal Court, which aims to prosecute Kony and others. But the news of the amnesty being broadcast via radio into the bush has spurred increasing numbers of rebels to desert Kony.
A local shelter for former child soldiers has received more "returnees" than ever this year. Army officials say the flow jumped to between four and six a day for much of this year. One officer estimates Kony's forces are now just 300 to 500 soldiers, down from a peak of some 3,000. Also, amid a tough new military offensive, "Some of Kony's key commanders got killed," says Victor Apire, the government's acting representative in the northern area. This and the other changes prove, he says, that "the spirit is gone."