(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Waiting in vain for rebels

[Sudan] Members of the fact-finding mission inspect abandoned supplies at an assembly area for rebels of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, Owiny Ki-Bul, southern Sudan, 2 October 2006. According to nearby villagers, the rebels fled the assembly area be
Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

The most distinctive feature of Owiny Ki-Bul, an assembly area in southern Sudan for Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) fighters, is a brick structure whose roof is covered in iron and tarpaulin sheets bearing the names of various United Nations agencies.

The building is used by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) to store bags of maize, beans and sugar.

The rest of Owiny Ki-Bul village, in Eastern Equatoria State, about 200 km south of the southern Sudanese capital of Juba, consists of two-dozen small, grass-thatched huts occupied by villagers and SPLA soldiers.

Owiny Ki-Bul, which means "the sound of the drums" in the local Acholi language, and Ri-Kwangba in western Equatoria, were designated assembly sites for LRA soldiers after the signing of a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement on 26 August between the Ugandan government and the LRA.

"We are a peace-loving people who are tired of war," Julius Onyala Samwel, the chief of Owiny Ki-Bul, told a peace-monitoring team visiting from Juba.

"When the LRA arrived in my area, most of them at the beginning of this month, I welcomed them not only because we share a language [Acholi] but also because we are of the same colour," Onyala had earlier told the team at one camp site, four kilometres outside Owiny Ki-Bul. "They are our brothers."

That camp was recently abandoned by the LRA. "They fled because they heard that Ugandan soldiers were coming. However, they did not inform me of their departure," Onyala added.

As the monitoring team arrived in Owiny Ki-Bul on Monday, 23 SPLA soldiers stood guard around the camp. The soldiers now stood idle, having been deployed to watch over LRA rebels who had assembled in readiness for disarmament, demobilisation and eventual reintegration into society with the conclusion of the Juba peace talks.

"They left in a hurry, but left a note asking whoever found the food to cover it," Onyala said, pointing to maize, beans, flour and sugar strewn around the camp. "When we found it three days ago, we could not touch it because we are civilians and this food belongs to the army."

Scared by rumours

The rebels had apparently set up several bases within Owiny Ki-Bul, only going to the SPLA command post to collect food provided by the government of southern Sudan, in its capacity as the mediator of the peace talks between the LRA and Ugandan government.

The village storekeeper, Gabriel Lawiri, said the rebels arrived in the area on 14 September and received supplies comprising 100 bags of maize flour, 100 bags of beans, 75 bags of maize and five bags of sugar. Some of the sugar was returned to the store when the rebels fled, he added.

On 27 September, a group of journalists and diplomats attempted to visit the village, on a tour organised by the Ugandan government. The group had travelled from Kampala, the Ugandan capital, through the northern town of Kitgum to Parajok in southern Sudan. They were escorted by military vehicles.

Rumours soon reached the assembled LRA that Ugandan troops were on their way to Owiny Ki-Bul.

According to the villagers at Owiny Ki-Bul, workers building an airstrip passed word round that they had seen a bus escorted by an armoured personnel carrier, commonly known as a Mamba, belonging to the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF). The convoy was headed for Owiny Ki-Bul.

"The rebels fled after they heard reports by the workers who had come from Parajok, 15 km east of Owiny Ki-Bul," Onyala said. "This report, actually a rumour, is what led LRA men to leave in a hurry."

The SPLA's Gen. Wilson Deng, second-in-command in the mediation team and leader of the fact-finding mission, confirmed that the government of southern Sudan had turned back the bus carrying the diplomats and journalists at Parajok.

If it had proceeded to Owiny Ki-Bul, escorted by the Ugandan army, he added, it would have violated the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement. The accord requires the UPDF to maintain the positions it had held before the agreement and not deploy or have its personnel in the designated LRA assembly areas of Owiny Ki-Bul and Ri-Kwangba.

Asked where the rebels had gone, Onyala said he heard that they had joined "many more" rebels stationed at another camp, two hours’ walk away.

SPLA while away the time

With no LRA in sight, the SPLA soldiers while away the time. They pointed out three huts they call the "command post" - the one housing the officer in charge of the platoon, Lt-Col Peter Par, and two of his deputies. Near these three huts is another structure for a generator, the only source of electricity in the village, which is only switched when night falls.

It is here that the SPLA soldiers, as well as the visiting members of the monitoring team, charge their Thuraya phones, the only way of communicating with Juba and the rest of the world.

Twenty-four hours later, the LRA was still nowhere to be seen, despite efforts by the LRA members of the monitoring team to contact their local commanders and the LRA leadership.

"The world is focusing on these peace talks," Deng said at another briefing before the team departed for Palutaka, in the east, to verify the LRA's claim that the UPDF had deployed there as well. "[It is vital] for the LRA team to impress upon their brothers that time is of essence here."

The talks are expected to end 20 years of civil war in northern Uganda and southern Sudan, which resulted in thousands of deaths, abductions of children and women as well as massive population displacement.

And as the monitoring team prepared to leave Owiny Ki-Bul, a villager, who declined to be named, said: "These are important people, they have come to save us. We hope not to see fighting in this area again. We want the LRA to assemble in peace and then leave us to develop our farms. That is all we ask."

For the team of SPLA, LRA and Uganda government officials sent by delegates attending the Juba peace talks on a fact-finding mission, the prospect of driving back from Owiny Ki-Bul without meeting the rebels was an anti-climax.

Once again, the rebels had vanished into the southern Sudanese landscape. But the team had confirmed one thing - Kony's fighters had abandoned the Owiny Ki-Bul assembly site.

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