Holy rebels strike terror into Uganda's villages

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The Independent Online
There are days when the people of Lamogi, in northern Uganda, are simply too afraid to work the fields. Marauding rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have cut such a swathe through the region that no one knows where they will strike next.

More than 200 civilians, rebels and Ugandan army soldiers have been killed in recent weeks. In one incident this month, all but six of 30 passengers on a minibus were butchered when LRA rebels ambushed the vehicle as it drove towards the capital, Kampala.

The inhabitants of Lamogi are afraid to practise their traditional religion for fear of execution by the LRA, a Christian fundamentalist guerrilla group which seeks to overthrow the government of President Yoweri Museveni and rule the country according to the Ten Commandments.

Many peasants have stopped going to the fields on Friday, since the LRA, which is backed by the Islamic regime in neighbouring Sudan, has decreed that it is a day of rest.

Nor do they keep white chickens, or pigs. The LRA outlaws the keeping of white animals and swine. Many are afraid to ride bicycles, which are also prohibited by the rebels who hack off the feet of cyclists. Other atrocities include cutting off ears and lips.

The LRA, which is thought to be at least 2,000 strong, has its origins in the Holy Spirit Movement of a religious fanatic, Alice Lakwena, whose hymn-singing columns advanced to within 80 miles of Kampala before being defeated by government forces in 1987.

After a period under the leadership of Lakwena's father, the movement was taken over by her cousin Joseph Kony (pronounced coin), a catechist and herbalist, who renamed it the Lord's Resistance Army in 1993.

"Initially, the rebels seemed to have some military purpose", says Oyat Molondo, a farmer from Lamogi. "But now they're just behaving like bandits. We'd like to see the government negotiate with them, as it doesn't seem they can be defeated militarily."

Attempts at peace talks have faltered over the refusal of Mr Kony to lay down arms. Now Mr Museveni says he can "finish off" the rebels by mid-April. He has vowed Mr Kony will be dead "within the next few days".

The Ugandan army has beefed up its troop strength in the north since about 500 rebels crossed over the border from bases in southern Sudan in mid-February. Several units have been moved northwards to quash the insurgency. Villages in the region are being patrolled by the Uganda People's Defence Force, a militia set up to protect them from the LRA.

Uganda is modernising its 40,000-strong army, the successor of Mr Museveni's National Resistance Army, which overthrew the regime of Milton Obote a decade ago. Long regarded as poorly equipped and disorganised, it has recently received machinery and weaponry from the United States, China, South Africa, as well as from North and South Korea.

The government claims its forces have successfully engaged the LRA recently and that Mr Kony has been wounded. But the LRA has repeatedly shown it can attack areas where the army is unprepared. Using children kidnapped from Ugandan villages as porters, the rebels have proved highly mobile. They have also increased their firepower since their early days, when witchcraft was the main weapon: rebel prisoners in Gulu describe how they would march into battle smeared with nut oil as protection against bullets and holding rocks, which were supposed to turn into grenades when thrown at the enemy.

The rebels have appeared recently in new battle uniforms and carrying heavy weapons, which Uganda says are provided by Sudan. Anti-tank rocket launchers, machine guns and anti-personnel mines captured by the Ugandan army suggest Khartoum backs the insurgency.

While the LRA is unlikely to overthrow Mr Museveni, it may severely disrupt presidential and parliamentary elections planned for May and June.