There are few things which can prepare you for the terrible reality of witnessing a “military victory” against the kidnapped child soldiers of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
I was in the northern town of Gulu, filming for the forthcoming BBC2 special, A Day of War, when Lt Col Charles Otema, the incongruously genial head of military intelligence for the area, contacted me.
He said government troops from the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) had scored a “significant blow” against the rebels.
He told me the LRA’s second-in-command, Vincent Otti, had been injured in the battle, 55 rebels had been killed – and that, as we spoke, government forces were pursuing the rest through the bush.
He invited me to come and see the evidence for myself.
In a tiny military helicopter, we flew 85 kilometres north-west, towards the Sudanese border.
Northern Uganda is one of the most fertile places in Africa – it could feed the whole of Uganda and more.
But as we buzzed through the heat we could see the land below, hatched with the marks of abandoned fields and villages. This land has been terrorised by the LRA.
One and a half million people have been displaced by the war and live today in cramped and isolated refugee camps, dependent on heavily-armed convoys from the World Food Programme.
Even there they are not safe.
Just two months ago, as many as 300 were killed when the LRA raided just one such camp, Barlonyo, near Lira.
Once the LRA had a programme of sorts a combination of Christian fundamentalism and political opposition to the government of President Yoweri Museveni.
Today it is as much a cult as an army, preying on the mainly Acholi people of the north, the very people it claims to represent.
The LRA survives by raiding villages and camps, stealing food and provisions, and abducting people mainly women and children.
The older ones they will use as porters till they have no further use of them. The younger ones the 10, 11 and 12-year-olds, they will keep.
Not uncommonly they will steal perhaps three kids from the same family and then, in the bush, force the youngest two to kill the oldest one.
Thus they are initiated into their new life as rebels. Bound to the cause by a terrible cocktail of guilt, fear and violence.
Corpses in the undergrowth
Our helicopter touched down in a village which had been taken over as a forward base for the Ugandan army.
The helicopter could get no nearer and we had to cover the remaining four kilometres on foot.
And then we arrived at the site of the battle.
It was a scene of terrible carnage. Dozens of bodies lay scattered around the undergrowth where they had fallen.
The first body I saw, the first of these 55 dead rebels, was about four-years-old.
Almost certainly he had been born in captivity – probably, like so many others, the product of a forced marriage between an older rebel and a young abducted girl.
Some 10 metres away, just such a girl lay, dead, stripped to the waist. She may have been the child’s mother.
In the shade of a clump of trees was another group of corpses – a couple of kids, barely teenagers, an older man and a couple of women.
One of the women was huddled against a tree, clutching it as if for protection, her head bowed.
She looked as though she was still alive, until I walked round and from the other side I could see the top two-thirds of her head had gone, blown away by rockets from one of the Ugandan army’s new helicopter gunships.
This, I was told, was the group which had been sitting with Vincent Otti, deputy commander of this brutal rag-tag army of stolen children.
According to survivors, he had been injured in the attack and carried away into the bush on a stretcher.
The other dead woman in this group was, I was told, one of Vincent Otti’s wives. His three-year-old daughter had been found alive, wandering through the carnage.
We were moving quickly through the bodies – the area was not entirely safe – when I heard a soldier say: “This one’s alive!”
He was a boy, of fighting age certainly so perhaps 14.
He was lying semi-conscious, his chest shuddering. He had lain there, unattended, for nearly 24 hours.
“Can’t we get medical attention for him?” I asked. “We will carry him back and treat him,” I was told.
But then five minutes later a soldier brought the news he was dead.
“Too bad ,” said Lt Col Otema. “But at least you know we wanted to rescue him.”
This is, truly, an awful war.
Few would deny that military action is needed to contain the LRA and protect local people – but in that bloody battlefield near Sudan, it was equally clear to me that the price of a purely military solution is unacceptably high.
It is very difficult to defend the slaughter of four-year-olds in the cause of peace.
Serious international pressure might force both sides into peace negotiations but it has been slow in coming.
Last year the LRA abducted 9,000 young people.
It is tempting to think that if they had been stealing oil rather than children, the rest of the world would have paid more attention.