Gulu – Through the dense brush of Uganda’s northern savanna, Patrick made a desperate flight for freedom.
Kidnapped five years ago at the age of 13 by a cult-like rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army, beaten regularly, and forced to maraud through villages in a pack of boy soldiers like him, Patrick decided he’d rather die than take part in another massacre.
So he just picked up his gun and ran away.
“If I lost weight I was beaten and yet they never gave us food. We received beatings over petty things,” said Patrick, whose surname is being withheld to protect his identity.
Scores of other members of the LRA – from adolescent foot-soldiers to senior commanders – have been breaking away in recent months from the group that has waged an 18-year insurgency against the government of President Yoweri Museveni.
But many people involved in the peace process are casting doubt on government claims that the LRA is being sapped of its will and a peace deal is in sight.
“It will be very difficult to solve this problem with local resources,” the Reverend Carlos Rodriquez – a clergyman serving as a mediator between the government and the rebels – said in calling for international support to end the conflict.
The LRA is one of the most mysterious and murderous rebel groups in Africa.
Led by a messianic figure called Joseph Kony, who claims to be possessed by a spirit sent by God to liberate humanity, the movement has no stated aim aside from overthrowing Museveni.
The rebels – whose leaders are from Uganda’s Acholi tribe – are known for daily raids into villages in the north, carting away a human loot of boys to replenish their army and girls to turn into sex slaves.
Aid agencies estimate the LRA has kidnapped more than 30 000 children, and that the conflict has killed more than 23 000 people. About a third of northern Uganda’s population – nearly five million people – has fled for the relative safety of refugee camps.
For years, the LRA has been used as a chess-piece in a broader regional conflict involving Sudan, Uganda and their respective rebellions.
In the late 1980s, the Ugandan government began supporting the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Army in its battle with the Sudanese government. That prompted Sudan to back the LRA, providing them bases in southern Sudan from which to launch raids on Ugandan villages.
Shortly after Sudan and Uganda normalised relations in 2001, Ugandan troops were allowed to enter southern Sudan and flush out Kony’s guerrillas. The short-term effect of that, however, was more misery for northern Uganda: Legions of LRA troops poured back into the country, slaughtering families and burning down villages in their wake.
There are also persistent reports that senior Sudanese officials continue to funnel money and arms to the LRA to maintain a band of thugs dependent on their largesse.
There is little doubt, however, that the interruption of official Sudanese support for the LRA has allowed Uganda to make significant inroads against the insurgents.
Earlier this month, the army announced it had captured Kony’s chief bodyguard and killed a senior commander and an intelligence officer during a raid on a rebel hideout in southern Sudan.
“The rebels are being finished. We are now dealing with the nucleus. We are shattering the nucleus of terror,” army spokesperson Major Shaban Bantariza said after the operation.
But critics point out that the Ugandan army has made similar triumphant claims whenever it killed or captured senior rebel commanders – and the fighting has continued unchecked.
“(The government) is not capable of ending this war by shooting it out,” said Zachary Olum, a lawmaker who represents part of northern Uganda.
After Uganda began raiding rebel hideouts in Sudan in March 2002, the LRA widened its insurgency, attacking civilians for the first time in the northeastern Uganda districts of Katakwi and Soroti.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch says that as a result of Uganda’s increased attacks, the LRA had increased its abductions 50-fold – capturing 5 000 children between June 2002 and March 2003, compared to 100 children during the whole of 2001.
According to UNICEF, the number of people who have ended up in refugee camps more than tripled in 2004 to 1.6 million, from 480 000 in 2002.
But as more and more Kony deputies defect to the government side, the LRA has been dispatching envoys from camps in the bush to hold talks with Museveni representatives.
In one positive sign, Uganda’s ambassador to the African Union, Joseph Ocwet, announced in late August that he had made contact with three LRA commanders and discussed the possibility of initiating peace talks.
Museveni seized power in 1986, bringing in an age of relatively enlightened rule compared to the bloody dictatorships of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. In particular, international observers have praised Museveni for his fight against Aids in Uganda.
Yet repeated attempts by church leaders like Rodriguez to settle the civil war have made little progress due to deep mistrust between the government and the rebels.
A major obstacle to negotiations is the simple fact that there’s little to negotiate: With no stated agenda aside from its dreams of a nebulous theocracy, the LRA has left the government with few talking points.
Meanwhile, thousands of boys and girls snatched from their families by the LRA are seeing their childhoods disappear in conditions of unspeakable violence and squalor.
Patrick was among the lucky ones.
One day in May, he simply decided he had had enough. He escaped near the village of Palac, and didn’t walk far before he met some villagers who took him to an army unit. They took him to a reception centre in Gulu for debriefing.
Social workers managed to reunite him with his family days after he arrived.
Patrick said he’s eager to go back to school, but the years with the LRA have taken their toll – and he has no idea what to do with his future.
“I need some time to recover first,” Patrick said.