I just returned from the peace talks in Juba and Nabanga between the LRA and Government of Uganda! The Government of South Sudan announced in May its willingness to host talks between the two factions who have been at war for the last 20 years. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) fought the LRA for years during their own struggle, but with the new comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan, the fledgling government has a definite interest in resolving the Uganda conflict to stabilize the south and open up trade routes for development.
It was a ride on an Anitov with mediator Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar and a 13 hour drive to the Congo border to get to the proposed meeting point. We travelled in civilian convoys (on a un level 4 security road) and the roads were some kind of sick carnival ride with potholes better described as crater holes filled with so much water we often wondered if we were in a river or on a road. we got stuck sooo many times, but wenches are a dream in those scenarios and I think I will put one on my wedding register. we arrived at a SPLA military outpost by 6am after travelling the whole night.
Okot Odhiambo and Vincent Otti, both indicted by the ICC
In our convoy were relatives of the high command; the request was to consult and meet with them for ‘advice’ on how to proceed – consider it confidence building but it was an awful lot of pressure to place on young girls who had been abducted at young ages and forced to marry commanders. turns out I knew one of Kony’s (60!) wives from gulu so we hung out chatting a lot. so strange when the LRA finally showed up to pick her up and take her into their base camp in Congo; i feared not seeing her again (luckily i did, and got a chance to meet her two brothers still in de bush!). her son was named by Kony George Bush. they have a sense of humor.
On the second day I was separated from my group by the LRA. They went into base camp in congo and i waited 36 hours in the SPLA camp fighting off dinka soldiers – very persistent lot. when my group emerged they debriefed Machar, the facilitators and myself. Basically the meetings with Kony were focused on their desire for a ceasefire (government refuses this, as in previous peace talk attempts the LRA were thought to use ceasefire to ‘buy time’and regroup); the location of the talks (given five are indicted by the ICC, they are reluctant to move out of the Congo!); desire to have the ICC repeal the indictments and guarantees of the safe return to Uganda with um, retirement packages.
Joseph Kony and Vincent Otti
I had a chance to meet with about 105 women and children the next day being held by the LRA. They obviously were told not to say much and mostly sang songs. Most repeated they wanted to come home, but together, when there was peace. It was hard as I know each person has a family waiting for them at home, wondering if they are alive or dead. Our team and others tried to negotiate for their release but so far no results.
We got a chance to meet the high command in Congo at a place the LRA called ‘the parliament’ – an impressive structure complete with male and female bathrooms constructed by LRA for the talks. The meeting included other representatives of affected regions who had dropped everything to come at the last minute to have a chance to meet Kony and appeal for peace. It was very emotional and very surreal.
LRA Child Soldier
Kony repeatedly talked about the fact he was young when he came to the bush to fight for the people of Acholi, and that he had been betrayed by his own people who failed to support him and the rebels. He denied being a killer or war criminal and accused the international community of having already judged him. He reiterated most of the concerns raised earlier in the week, but vowed that it was the time for peace, that God had shown him it was time.
Certainly the efforts that went into travelling to and setting up the camp, as well as the fact they attended most talks (if often 3-24 hours late for meeting times!) is an indication of seriousness, but well, that should be measured against varying interests at play in these talks. The LRA are far more organized than portrayed, large in number, armed and skilled. Some were holding UN guns they took off MONUC peacekeepers last December in the Congo. Its going to be difficult to defeat them militarily given the terrain and their many years experience.
LRA fighters (second from left holding a grenade launcher captured from UN peacekeepers)
The talks are fragile. One minute the LRA withdraw from talks over lack of faith in Machar, the next they declare a ceasefire. The ICC warrants would have to be withdrawn for the talks to succeed, but for that to happen, the LRA must demonstrate they are serious and there must be an alternative accountability mechanism advanced.
The news this morning is that the UK are planning to table a SCR on the LRA that would extend MONUC and UNMIS mandates to Chapter 7 and go after LRA assets. The timing of this is painful – it will not build confidence in LRA to talk, and having seen kids wearing the t-shirts of Guatemalan dead peacekeepers in Congo (not to forget those captive women and children) a military solution is not guaranteed to avoid a high cost or a victory. The victims of northern uganda are almost outright hostile to ICC and anything international, viewing it as an obstacle to peace.
On the trek out of the bush this kid calls out to me and says ‘if you love children you will give me your jacket!’ clever kid.