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April 29, 2000

Touring war-ravaged Uganda

Where a rebel group kidnaps children, a food-relief truck passes.

Seventh in a series

By Andrew Maykuth

GULU, Uganda - Christine Akullu had written off her son as dead three years ago after he was kidnapped by the Lord's Resistance Army, a cruel and incomprehensible guerrilla organization that operates in northern Uganda.

It was a reasonable assumption. Many of the children the rebels abduct to work as soldiers, porters or sex slaves end up dead - beaten or worked to death by a guerrilla group whose aims are as murky as its theology.

But yesterday, Akullu saw with her own eyes that her son, Alfred Okwonga, was alive. The 21-year-old had fled on foot last week from Sudan.

"I hadn't heard anything for three years," Akullu said after warmly embracing Okwonga at the Uganda Children of War Rehabilitation Program here in Gulu. "I had lost hope."

Yesterday was one of those rare bright moments in a barbaric 14-year war that has displaced an estimated 300,000 residents in northern Uganda, where the landscape is sprinkled by abandoned villages and few people dare to live outside a garrison town.

This war was supposed to have ended after former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in December persuaded Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Sudanese President Omar Hassan Bashir to stop supporting rebels menacing their neighbors.

Young men who were victims of the Lord's Resistance Army rebel group sing and play instruments at the Uganda Children of War Rehabilitation Program.
*View more photos from Day 7
But peace has been elusive. Rebels still roam across the region - Sudan supports the Lord's Resistance Army and Uganda supports the Sudanese resistance - and there is no sign their supply lines have been severed.

Earlier this year, the Sudanese government released 75 people, including a few children who had been abducted. But more than 5,000 children kidnapped by the LRA are still missing, and the rebel attacks continue.

"The impact of this peace is not yet felt," said Mark Avola, the director of the Gulu center to rehabilitate children from the war, a project sponsored by the Christian aid agency World Vision. "It's a peace on paper only."

Most of the 5,419 children who have passed through this center had horrible stories to tell, of being abducted, tied together, and forced to march without food and water while carrying heavy loads. Those who stumbled were killed. "If they tell you to do something and you refuse, they kill you," said Jimmy Kinyera, 17, who entered the program this week.

Unlike the Ugandan cult Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, which has received much attention recently after nearly 1,000 people died at compounds connected to the group, the Lord's Resistance Army uses terror rather than persuasion to recruit members and often turns its violence against outsiders.

The LRA is probably best known for cutting the lips and ears off informers and killing people on bicycles because they have the mobility to inform the army of the rebels' whereabouts. The mutilations have declined in recent years, authorities said.

The LRA traces its roots to a guerrilla group that sprang up among the Achioli people of northern Uganda in 1986, after Museveni fought his way into power and ousted an Achioli dictator. Soldiers from the north, fearful of reprisals from Museveni's southern forces, rallied around a mystic named Alice Lakwena, who said she received messages from spirits. She called her army the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces.

After the Ugandan army devastated Lakwena's forces in 1988 and Lakwena fled to Kenya, the remnants of the movement coalesced under Joseph Kony, a former altar boy who claimed to be related to Lakwena.

Kony constructed a movement around vaguely Christian ideals, but after the Islamist government in Sudan supported his movement to retaliate for the Ugandan government's aid to Sudanese rebels, LRA adherents reportedly adopted Muslim customs such as praying to the east.

Most of the LRA's victims are Achioli people, even though the group's initial aim was the liberation of the Achioli people. Kidnapping is its principal method of recruitment.

Josephine Angom, a nurse at the center, said that girls typically are assigned menial chores until they reach sexual maturity and they are apportioned to commanders as "wives." Last year, she treated a girl who was taken by the rebels when she was 9.

"The day she got her period, poor girl, she told me she heard them say she was ripe," Angom said. "That evening she was given to a man. It was so bad for her that when she came here, she couldn't look at a man." She was pregnant at age 12. "That girl hates men up to now," said Angom, whose son was abducted in 1987 and died in the bush.

Eighty-five percent of the girls who come through the center have sexually transmitted diseases. Angom recently had to tell a 13-year-old she had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Boys are typically pressed into duty as porters, and older boys are trained as soldiers. Almost all are put through a test in which they are commanded to kill somebody.

Okwonga, the smallish young man who was reunited with his mother yesterday, said he and four other boys were ordered to kill a man on a bicycle. The boys beat the man with sticks. "I used an ax," said Okwonga.

Okwonga said he fought with the rebels for a year, often side-by-side with Sudanese army soldiers, before he escaped to work at a Sudanese army base. At least the soldiers fed him. The soldiers released him in Juba, a government-controlled city in southern Sudan, where he found refuge at a Catholic mission and sometimes disguised himself in a nun's outfit to avoid detection.

This month, Okwonga said he managed to break free of Juba and walk to Uganda, where he was turned over Tuesday to World Vision.

He is sometimes haunted by the bicyclist and others he helped kill.

"They come in the form of dreams at night," he said, "but when I wake up, there is nothing."

Francis Kuria, the Kenyan truck driver who for seven days has shepherded 35 tons of American relief grain on Africa's highways, departed his overnight layover in Lugazi at 8 a.m. Within the hour, he arrived in the capital, Kampala, where a customs agent stamped his papers without incident and Kuria had time to take tea.

For Kuria yesterday, it was smooth sailing, in contrast to the previous three days of delays, mechanical problems and annoying shakedowns from greedy officials.

In Kampala, Kuria left the Trans-Africa highway, which goes southwest to Rwanda and Congo. Instead, he headed north on a road less traveled, toward Sudan, the ultimate destination for his cargo of sorghum.

The roadway was in good condition - and had many fewer trucks - as it went north out of Kampala through gracefully rolling farmland, much like Ohio, only with bananas. Land that was brown and parched a month ago is now robustly green, blessed by weeks of rain.

The population thinned out from the densely populated shore around Lake Victoria. Farms eventually fell into rangeland, thick with brush and small trees that provide the raw material for the hundreds of bags of charcoal that line the road awaiting trucks to deliver them to Kampala.

Kuria ended his day at Karuma, where the Nile roars through a series of roiling falls and rapids.

"I'm very tired," he said upon arrival. Kuria thinks he has come down with the flu, which he blamed on a soft drink he had bought on Thursday in the border town of Malaba. He violated the cardinal rule of travelers in Africa and drank the soda with ice of unknown origin.

Today he plans to leave the tarmac and pass through a military checkpoint, following a dirt road toward Koboko in the northwest corner of Uganda. Before he and the other waiting trucks can depart, an army patrol will examine the route to make sure it is clear of LRA guerrillas who have attacked civilian convoys in the past.

*On to Day 8

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