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Analysis: Northern Uganda's invisible crisis

By JASON MOTLAGH

WASHINGTON, March 21 (UPI) -- Uganda has been singled out most underreported humanitarian crisis, say Doctors Without Borders. Despite being hailed by some as one of Africa's development success stories, a bloody 18-year civil conflict rages on in the north where more than a million and half people have been displaced by wanton rebel attacks and thousands of children live under constant threat of being kidnapped.

Soldiers of the Lord's Resistance Army attacked a northern village March 17 and abducted 49 people, most of them teenagers, according to a BBC report. Violence has escalated in the last two weeks, with five other reported attacks against civilians. The attacks have occurred at a critical time when mediators led by a former Ugandan minister, Betty Bigombe, have been working to broker a cease-fire between the government and the rebels.

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Luis Ocampo, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, said in January he hoped to issue arrest warrants for LRA commanders guilty of war crimes within six months. Ocampo later agreed the court would delay prosecution to allow mediatory efforts to proceed, though peace talks now appear to be scuttled after the latest spate of attacks.

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The protracted fight between the LRA and the Ugandan People's Defense Forces has forced over 80 percent of northern Uganda's population -- more than 1.6 million people -- to flee their homes and live in squalid conditions.

Most fear the snare of the LRA, a cult-like rebel group that has terrorized villages and camps in the region while stealing an estimated 28,000 children to fight in its army and serve as sex slaves.

Today some 90 percent of LRA's soldiers are said to be children, considered expendable by commanders that have been known to send boys as young as eight into battle unarmed. Many are condemned to slaughter other children -- or even their own parents -- lest they suffer the same fate at the hands of superiors.

To avoid conscription, tens of thousands of children, or "night commuters," are said to descend on urban centers and relief camps each night from as far as five miles away to sleep in safety, returning to rural areas at dawn. They travel on foot.

A number of analysts contend the enigmatic LRA leader, Joseph Kony, is a rebel without a cause. Most believe that aside from defeating the government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the LRA has no clear political objectives. The standard view is that Kony himself is a spiritual maniac, ostensibly on a crusade to establish rule based on the Ten Commandments. Though illiterate, he is said to be a skilled psychological entrepreneur who trades on paranoia to keep his ranks in line.

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Alternately, a few supporters argue Kony is a pariah who fights on behalf of the north's marginalized Acholi population against a Museveni government that does not care for them.

This line of thinking flies in the face of reason, considering that the LRA has killed more than 100,000 Acholi people since the conflict began nearly two decades ago.

The LRA was formed in reaction to a 1986 coup that brought Museveni, a southerner, to power. Observers say waning local support provoked the LRA to target its own people to undermine the new government's authority and scare northerners into submission. Kony is alleged to use biblical references to justify the killing of Acholis who have failed to rally behind him.

Tragically, the brunt of Kampala's campaigns to stamp out the rebels has fallen on innocent civilians, who have endured stepped-up LRA attacks and child abductions. A 2002 military offensive, for instance, backfired as 10,000 children were seized in a year and the number of displaced persons tripled.

Unlike refugees who have crossed international borders, a recent Norwegian Refugee Council report noted that internally displaced people "cannot count on a functioning international system of protection and assistance." At present, 800,000 Ugandans live fearful and exposed in under-funded government camps in the north. Chronic water and food shortages have led to high death rates in situ, much like the more high profile crisis in neighboring Sudan.

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The label "invisible" may be more appropriate to Northern Uganda's plight than "forgotten." According to U.N. sources, less than 10 percent of the $130 million requested by the humanitarian community for 2004 has been received. That the U.N. Security Council has yet to pass a resolution on the emergency is cause for concern. As is the fact that the 2005 U.N. Consolidated Appeals Process for the 200,000 Darfur refugees in Chad sought $183 million; the equivalent amount sought for Uganda's 1.6 million displaced persons was just $158 million.

Under the government's current policy, Operation Iron Fist II, a combination of carrots and sticks has failed to neutralize any top LRA commanders. The recent surge in violence in the wake of December's first-ever face-to-face talks between state officials and the LRA suggests rebels are cynical about disarming in exchange for amnesty. Hard-line elements in the government are convinced Kony will never make peace. So where does this leave the situation?

In a special report released this month, International Crisis Group Africa specialist John Prendergast maintained the UPDF must continue to put military pressure on elements within the LRA that do not support a peace process. He noted, however, that a "purely military solution" would have "several negative consequences:" more deaths, delayed reconciliation between the Acholi population and the government, and the likelihood a shattered LRA would retreat to the bush and terrorize local populations in obscurity.

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"Kony's demise would certainly cause the LRA to unravel, much as UNITA disintegrated with the death of Jonas Savimbi ... but waiting for one bullet to make the difference will only condemn more Ugandans to their fate as victims of his violent campaign," he said in the report, referring to the Angolan guerilla fighter.

Although he allowed that "prospects for a negotiated peace seem bleak," Prendergast called on the international community to rally behind Betty Bigombe's ongoing mediation efforts. He said the troika of Norway, the Netherlands and Britain has provided direct support to the initiative, but that a senior envoy from United States traveling regularly to the region would "lend legitimacy (to) the diplomatic process" and "underline the political, economic, and social rationales for a diplomatic settlement" for aggressive elements within the Museveni government and LRA leaders.

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