Article published on the 2008-10-08 Latest update 2008-10-10 08:53 TU
Lieutenant Michael Okello commands the group of disconsolate but fierce-looking combatants manning a rebel assembly camp at Ri-Kwaangba, on the border between Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Okello was abducted by Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels from his village in the eastern Uganda district of Soroti 15 years ago, when he was just seven-years-old.
Arriving at this remote camp alongside members of a rebel peace delegation earlier in the year, a lady NGO worker and I are left to a destiny of the unknown. We are in the hands of Okello and his soldiers, while rebel delegates travel deeper into the bush to meet senior LRA commanders. They are to discuss a peace deal being negotiated with the Ugandan government, which is mediated by the semi-autonomous government of Southern Sudan.
With this 22-year-old commander and his gun-toting fighters, some of them barely 12-years- old, we remain tense, unable to start a conversation that could ease things up a bit.
Commander Okello sees that we are uneasy and tries to break the ice with dry humour, speaking in Luo language, “Sir, you seem like you fear being here. Don’t fear anything!”
I tell the biggest lie, that I am pretty fine and nothing is wrong. We are not far from a rebel camp where rebel leader Joseph Kony recently executed his second-in-command and comrade of 20 years, ‘Lieutenant-General’ Vincent Otti.
Otti, Kony, ‘Major-General’ Okot-Odhiambo and ‘Brigadier’ Dominic Ongwen were by that time the only surviving top LRA figures sought by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Commander Okello, however, tries to reassure us.
“Some people out there think that we are cannibals or have horns like animals but you have seen that we are also human like you,” he says. “So feel free!”
Maybe the LRA does not eat people, literally. But the rebel movement is notorious for unspeakable atrocities, with numerous recorded cases of massacres in northern Uganda.
It operated there from bases in Southern Sudan, supported by Khartoum, which accused Uganda of supporting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a former rebel group which now governs Southern Sudan after a peace agreement that ended a 23-year-old civil war there.
A local newspaper in September 2002 reported an example of the behaviour which has won the LRA its notoriety. Its fighters attacked a village and killed 27 civilians, chopping them into pieces, putting them in cooking pots, boiling them and then leaving the scene.
At the start of the so-called Juba peace process in July 2006, the Ugandan government delegation claimed that one of the rebel delegates was the commander of the group that committed “that abominable act”.
But the yearning for peace seems to override all grievances the people of northern Uganda may have against the LRA. There have been numerous journeys, conferences and consultations all with the aim of negotiating an end to a conflict that seemed to have no political direction.
The little bush clearing where I met commander Okello was created under a cessation of hostilities agreement following talks between the Uganda government and the LRA. The presence of this camp far away from northern Uganda where the LRA have operated since 1988, is testimony of the geopolitical outreach of the LRA insurgency.
It started as a copycat attempt at resistance in parts of the north against the new government of president Yoweri Museveni in 1986, and developed into a fully fledged regional security problem sucking in Uganda, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and even far away Central African Republic.
The UN Military Force in the Congo (Monuc) had a brush with the LRA when the group relocated there from Southern Sudan in 2005. Monuc troops tried to attack the rebels in a botched operation in January 2006. Eight Guatemalan peacekeepers were killed.
Our journey to the bush did not result in us witnessing the historic moment we had hoped for. Kony refused to go to the negotiations.
Later, in April, there was a glimmer of hope. A peace deal was ready to be signed but rebel Kony snubbed the signing ceremony, walked out of the process and threw the whole process into a spin. To cap it all, his forces attacked his hosts, the Sudanese, killing 22 government troops.
By September 2008, church officials, aid agencies and local officials said the Ugandan rebels had begun a new campaign of terror, looting and abducting hundreds of civilians, mainly children, from north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Tens of thousands were said to be displaced.
Whether this marks an escalation, or the storm before the peace, will become apparent in the coming weeks and months.