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Driving from Gulu town in northern Uganda to Kitgum, you’re struck by how normal it all seems now. People are walking up and down the main dirt road that connects the two towns, bicycles dodge potholes and passing cars with precision, and the occasional bus plows through, leaving billows of dust in tow. But before Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) signed a ceasefire in August 2006, the high bush grass and sparsely populated villages made good cover for ambushes, and easy access for rebels abducting new recruits. This road, now full of life, used to be almost empty, people had moved furtively and quickly from one place to another, always watchful, fearful of running into rebels, in a war that has claimed thousands of lives.
But more than twenty years since LRA leader Joseph Kony began his rebellion, northern Uganda is seeing the first effects of peace; both good and bad. Agriculture output is rising as people return to the fields — the north could become Uganda’s bread basket. At the height of the war, some 2 million people were forced from their homes. Now, the majority have returned to their villages or to transition areas. But, it hasn’t all been easy. In fact, many new problems are emerging. An outbreak of highly-infectious Hepatitis E has killed more than 100 people so far. Many northerners are returning to villages, which have rotted during the long course of the war. Aid groups say conditions were often better in camps than in home villages. Many residents are returning to areas with little access to clean water or good sanitation. And this breeds more disease and more suffering.
Adding to these problems, Kony’s rebels still haven’t signed a final peace deal to bring the conflict to a close despite a raft of agreements between LRA and Ugandan negotiators earlier this year. Many northerners say they are worried that peace will not hold. They keep one eye on the fields and another eye out in case the guerrillas return. Kony is now holed up and destabilizing the remote border regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan where the elusive leader has been accused of abducting children, killings and other mayhem. For these and other war crimes, the International Criminal Court in The Hague wants Kony. The rebels say they need more clarification about how Kony and two of his deputies will escape trial at The Hague before signing the peace deal. But Uganda says that Kony must first sign before the charges can be put aside. So the question of how to deal with returning rebels, who were notorious for using mutilation as a terror tactic, remains at the heart of peace efforts.
There have been other tries at peace before, but they have all fallen through, and the north returned to war. Will peace hold this time? Will Kony come out of the bush and sign the final agreement? Or will the north and the region once again be sucked into conflict?