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UGANDA: Hopes For Final Peace Falter

Joshua Kyalimpa

KAMPALA, Jun 9 2008 (IPS) - When he was 10 years old, Alfred Bogomin fled Paicho village in northern Uganda along with his family to escape from the Lord's Resistance Army rebels. After 20 years in a displaced persons camp, he returned to his ancestral home last month.

The return of IDPs like this Ugandan girl to their homes is in jeopardy as a peace agreement remains unsigned Credit: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

The return of IDPs like this Ugandan girl to their homes is in jeopardy as a peace agreement remains unsigned Credit: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

"I am ready to start afresh. I think the peace talks have helped us to resettle. I hope a peace agreement will be signed, so I can bring my father's body back home for a decent burial," Bogomin said.

In northern Uganda, an entire generation has grown up in the IDP camps, dependent on hand outs from relief organizations. His return to Paicho is not yet final – he is waiting for the village's surviving elders to declare exactly which land belonged to his now-dead parents. And more worryingly, the peace talks that made it possible for Bogomin and his fellow villagers to return home have faltered.

An estimated 2 million people have been internally displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda since 1986. Civil war is thought to have killed close to a million people as a result of war and other diseases. The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels earned particular notoriety as they killed or mutilated many hundreds of people who did not support their war against the government. The LRA also abducted thousands of children to use as fighters and as sex slaves for their top commanders.

Peace talks initiated in 2006 by Riek Machar, the vice president of the government of Southern Sudan, made slow but significant progress towards ending the conflict. But after two years of negotiations – during which time LRA representatives traversed northern Uganda to consult with the population and ask for forgiveness for atrocities that had been committed – LRA leader Joseph Kony refused to sign the final agreement in April.

He instead demanded clarification on the question of whether indictments issued by the International Criminal Court against him and other top leaders of the LRA for various war crimes including rape, the abduction and mutilation of civilians and the use of child soldiers would be dropped.


The still-unsigned agreement calls for the creation of special courts within Uganda to handle crimes committed during the conflict, and the application of a traditional justice mechanism known as mato oput. This Acholi ritual for reconciliation would require the rebels to confess their crimes and then drink the bitter oput herb.

Critics like Francis Onyango, a member of the Uganda Coalition on the ICC, point out that mato oput also requires that an offender's clan or relatives compensate the victims – an impossibility given the scale of the crimes. A member of the Uganda Coalition on the ICC – which works to provide Ugandans with information on the role of the International Criminal Court – Onyango says mato oput can not be applied to any of the top leaders indicted by the ICC.

The ICC's Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, insists indictments against the three top commanders of the LRA will remain in place irrespective of any agreements reached between the LRA and Uganda government.

Hope of peace fading

During a state of the nation address on June 6, President Yoweri Museveni said the talks had collapsed and announced that the Ugandan army is preparing for plan B: a military confrontation with the rebels now holed up in the jungles along the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic.

The army chiefs of Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda and Dr Congo met in Uganda last week to plan joint operations to defeat the rebels and possibly arrest their leaders for trial.

The Ugandan army estimates that the LRA now consists of about 600 armed men, but the rebels have reportedly been abducting children from the Central African Republic, Sudan and DRC to build up their fighting strength. The LRA has long relied on abducted children for its fighting force. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimated that up to 200,000 children abducted by the rebels in northern Uganda have not been accounted for.

Yet for Alfred Bogomin any mention of return to war is hair-raising. "Why can't the government continue talking to the LRA? For us the victims, we have forgiven Joseph Kony." Many people in northern Uganda believe that resumption of war will mean a return to the camps.

The Ugandan government is between a rock and a hard place. They took the case against the LRA rebels to the ICC, yet the very people on whose behalf Museveni's government is seeking justice say they will forgive the rebels if they sign the peace deal.

Bishop Mac Donald Ochola, a member of the Acholi Religious Leaders' Association – an inter-faith organization that brings together religious leaders from across northern Uganda to advocate for peace – says the rebel leader can not see himself being taken to the ICC.

"He has guns, why would he sign an agreement to hand himself over? I think the purpose of this agreement is peace and so long as we want to get genuine peace, we should accept it if somebody has submitted himself to the traditional justice system. Why should he go again to the ICC?"

But the Ugandan government is under pressure from other quarters not to sweep the ICC indictments under the carpet for the sake of a peace agreement.

Dr James Odongo of Amnesty International East Africa says the government can not ignore the heinous crimes committed by the rebels. "We are concerned that the peace negotiations have focused extensively on the displacement of ICC warrants without a comprehensive alternative plan to ensure impunity is addressed."

Meanwhile the continued delay in finalising the talks is creating growing unease among the people of northern Uganda. Isha Otto, a parliamentarian from northern Uganda, is calling upon the government to make its position on the talks clear.

He says they have not had any formal official communication from the government peace team on the status of the talks taking place in southern Sudan. "To hear the army spokesman coming out and disclosing that they are going for war against LRA is uncalled for. It is unprincipled and not in the interest of peace talks taking place in Juba."

The Ugandan government has a difficult decision before it: will it grant further concessions to the rebels or reject their demands and push for an unpopular and potentially risky military option?

 
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