The best hope for a ceasefire in Uganda's savage war may rest with the woman who dares to meet the rebels, STEPHANIE NOLEN reports
GULU, UGANDA -- Joseph Kony: Just the mention of his name is enough to silence conversation in northern Uganda. Children are too afraid to speak the words, so they use oblique nicknames. Even well-educated adults are certain that he has messianic, spiritual powers.
Mr. Kony, believed to be in his early 40s, is the dreadlocked son of peasant farmers, was raised a Roman Catholic and has a junior-high-school education. He commands a tiny guerrilla force, made up almost entirely of children, and with his self-styled Lord's Resistance Army, he holds two million people in northern Uganda hostage, in such fear that they dread going to bed each night.
No one but his own soldiers and a handful of allies has seen him since an abortive attempt at peace talks in 1994. He has eluded one of Africa's better armies for 19 years. But one woman says she talks to him every day.
Betty Bigombe, 49, is an urbane, Harvard-educated sociologist who was in a plush office at the World Bank a year ago. Today, she is home in Gulu, the heart of this war, with one of her two cellphones constantly held to her ear. In the past few months, she has walked into the bush near the Sudanese border and met the rebels nine times, protected by nothing more than the notepads of a few international observers, attempting to win the LRA's trust and negotiate a ceasefire.
Ms. Bigombe's detractors question her methods, her motives and her loyalties. But increasing numbers of people say her painstaking mediation process may be the only way to end this savage war.
Last week, she said that Mr. Kony told her he has ordered his troops to stop committing atrocities, and that she expects him to commit to a ceasefire within weeks. She says that she believes full peace talks could be under way by the fall.
The LRA has its roots in an insurgency against President Yoweri Museveni, launched by tribes who were on the losing side of the war that took Mr. Museveni to power in 1986 -- and who carried with them the huge grievances of Uganda's undeveloped and marginalized north. When Mr. Kony took over the movement, however, it did not get the support he expected among his Acholi people and his war turned toward his own people.
According to the United Nations Children's Fund, 20,000 children have been abducted since the mid-1980s, driven by a potent mix of abuse and Mr. Kony's charismatic invocation of spirits into killing, mutilating and looting other civilians -- even their own families.
Mr. Kony's ostensible goal is still to overthrow Mr. Museveni and install a government based on the Ten Commandments. In truth, the LRA has little agenda except for terrorizing civilians.
"That doesn't mean that there aren't underlying issues: poverty, the disparity in the share of the national cake," Ms. Bigombe said.
But the LRA's lack of platform makes negotiations difficult, and in a post-Sept. 11 world, it bolsters Mr. Museveni's position that he doesn't have to talk to them. Yet Western observers say the rebel movement is a far more rational, well-disciplined force than government propaganda suggests.
"The LRA is a rational war machine, despite all that has been written about it," a senior UN figure said. "So any abduction, killing or mutilation has a logic behind it -- it may be a macabre logic, it may be a total violation of international law, but it's not wanton or meaningless."
Ms. Bigombe, who is an Acholi born and raised in Gulu and who once served as Mr. Museveni's minister for the pacification of the north, said she sensed an opportunity in the war-weary region last year and approached the President to ask whether she could try to mediate. She travelled to southern Sudan, where the LRA has long had a base, to "lay the groundwork," then began regular dialogue with the rebels -- who she said had periodically contacted her since she left government in 1994.
When her mediation began in October, the UN reported an almost immediate improvement in the security situation -- rebel attacks dropped off -- and in people's optimism.
By Dec. 29, in a process carefully orchestrated by the United Nations, Ms. Bigombe had taken two cabinet ministers into the bush to sit down with LRA commanders, the first time members of government had met with the rebels.
With a unilateral army ceasefire in place, negotiators for the two sides agreed to a memorandum of understanding on a truce, the first step toward peace talks. The rebels were supposed to come back and sign before the ceasefire expired 48 hours later, but they didn't show.
The government says they weren't serious and never will be. But others say the ceasefire should have been extended.
The rebels "had to walk we don't know how many kilometres. Their top officers were spread out; it was impossible for them to take a decision in 48 hours," said Lars Erik Skaansar, the UN envoy supporting the mediation process.
Almost immediately, the fighting escalated again. Ms. Bigombe reckons that the rebels, seeking talks, want to make sure everyone remembers that they are a force to be reckoned with, and not "totally finished," as the President has assured people for the past 18 years.
Although the roster of dead and abducted each day belies that statement, it is true that the LRA has been badly weakened in recent months.
Ms. Bigombe said she expects to go into the bush once again in coming days -- "every time, my heart is just popping out" -- to meet with Mr. Kony's chief deputy.
"You can't find any person better for this job than Betty. People here love her. She's very intelligent, very fair and she respects everyone," Mr. Skansaar said.
"The bottom line is that the LRA do trust her," added Erin Baines, a researcher from the Liu Institute for Global Issues in Vancouver who has observed the peace process since 2003. "Parachuting an international mediator would not work. The LRA are not like that: They believe in tradition and rituals and spiritualism, and they trust her for some logic only they know."
Ms. Bigombe says firmly that she speaks to the rebel leader like she would anyone else.
"You've got to reach him at his level, have an ability to meet his personality," she said. "I laugh with him, talk with him, all to get him to understand what he's doing."
Ms. Bigombe has, according to several of those who deal with her, "a massive ego." Some associated with the negotiations say privately that she is so determined to control the process that she shuts out what might be useful suggestions. Others say she is so caught up in the drama that she is deluded about the chances of getting Mr. Kony to surrender.
The government also has its serious doubts about her. A senior adviser to Mr. Museveni, for example, said he believes Ms. Bigombe is allied with the rebels. And many military figures "don't want to see a woman, especially that woman, succeed where they have failed -- and they get rich off the war," said one observer from a donor country.
But those who work with her offset the criticism of her personality by noting that a person would have to have a fair degree of faith in herself to take on this kind of job. And everyone, including Mr. Museveni, acknowledges that she has, in her own words, "forced the mediation process down his throat," using pressure from donor countries, which have little appetite for Mr. Museveni's "military solution" against a force that is made up almost entirely of children.
As for Ms. Bigombe, she is accustomed to the accusations, the mistrust and the stalling.
"It's like tearing through rocks and mountains. I'm holding my head in my hand, my hair turns grey and I dye it again . . . I feel like a punch bag," she acknowledged.
But she intends to keep going, with both cellphones and the faith of many frightened refugees.
"There are no insurmountable situations," she said.