Uganda rebels face refugees their war created

Reuters/November 8, 2007

Koch Goma, Uganda -- It was not the first time Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army rebels swept through a crowded refugee camp in the country's war-torn north.

But this time it was not to kill, maim or sow terror among quaking villagers; it was to beg forgiveness from them.

For two decades, the rebels raided camps like Kochgoma, which huddles 17,500 people fleeing a brutal war.

They accused the refugees of being traitors, burned them alive inside their huts, beat them to death and stole their children for recruits and sex slaves.

Now, with the rebels and government apparently moving closer to peace, delegates representing the LRA at talks in neighbouring South Sudan want to put all that behind them.

On their first visit on Wednesday to one of the north's camps -- where at the height of the war two million Ugandans lived in squalid conditions -- the LRA addressed locals.

"A turning point has now been reached," Martin Ojul, the delegation's head, told a crowd of camp residents late on Wednesday. "There's no chance of going back to war."

The LRA delegates arrived in Uganda last week on a historic first visit since talks began in July 2006. They met President Yoweri Museveni and this week visited war victims in the north.

They are bargaining to help fugitive leader Joseph Kony and his top commanders, currently in hiding in east Congo, dodge International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments.

Diplomats say their only hope is to build local support for an alternative trial in Uganda. The rebels want to undergo traditional justice and reconciliation rituals but the ICC insists any process must dish out stiff jail sentences.

The rebels' quest to get the ICC indictments waved has support from most of the north's refugees, who after years of bloodshed are more interested in peace than justice.

"If the LRA stops the killing, we can forgive them," said 30-year-old Thomas Okello, as LRA delegates performed a dance with camp residents.

Their forgiveness is largely out of weariness. "The LRA killed our children. They shouldn't expect us to be happy to see them," said Rose Odong, 60. "We just want this to be over."

The LRA's visit came amid media speculation that Kony has executed his deputy Vincent Otti, seen as the public face of the LRA and key player in peace talks, and replaced him.

Officials close to the talks say he has been sidelined after the two fell out, probably over cash from supporters.

"He's definitely out of the picture," said a diplomat close to the talks, adding, however, that there was no way of verifying Otti's rumoured death.

The LRA's apparently weak position does not rule out a comeback if talks fail, analysts say, especially if they reestablish links with the Sudanese government, severed when Khartoum signed a peace deal with its southern rebels.

"It would be hard for them to come back from this position. But could they come back in two or three years? You can't rule it out," the diplomat said.

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