For 19 years, the rebel Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda has abducted children to be soldiers and sex slaves. Half-hearted, intermittent negotiations have done little to end the targeting of civilians on both sides of the conflict.
How, then, will this war ever end?
Uganda may be 7,124 miles from the United States, but it does not lie outside the reach of Americans. A nation as rich and powerful as the United States has the ability to make a difference.
A nation that prizes human rights should feel a moral obligation to end the worst abuse of children on the planet. President Bush has spoken like a man who believes that.
This war, this horror of maimed bodies and savaged spirits, will not yield to a simple solution.
Because of LRA leader Joseph Kony's unpredictability and Uganda President Yoweri Museveni's mixed messages, a multipart strategy is required.
The United States can be a lead player in ending this humanitarian crisis. All that's needed are attention, will and moral courage.
Here, based on reports and on interviews with Ugandans and international experts, are ideas on how the United States can nurture peace in northern Uganda.
1. Publicity and pressure. U.S. media outlets need to give sustained attention to Uganda. American dollars also would be wisely spent by bolstering media outlets in Uganda that are promoting peace.
2. High-level political interest. Bush can show his intention to end these atrocities against children by naming an envoy to mediate the conflict. An excellent choice would be Roger Winter, a recently retired official with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
3. Protection of civilians. Museveni's government must do a much better job of protecting civilians from attacks by rebels and elements of his own, undisciplined military. Museveni has never come close to keeping his promise to protect civilians in camps.
Museveni should allow international peacekeepers to help him in defending the nation's border with Sudan so rebels cannot regroup there and in protecting civilians.
Kony is the big villain, but Museveni's role in perpetuating the conflict can't be ignored simply because he is an ally. Most of the 1.4 million displaced northerners got that way because Museveni told them to move to camps, which are still attacked and have become squalid and disease-ridden. Food shortages have caused rising malnutrition.
Here's one more point to make to Museveni. He's a friend of the West because he has invigorated the Ugandan economy and reduced the rate of HIV/AIDS in his country. He has made primary education universal, and he ended fighting in other parts of the country.
He should also want to be known for resolving a war that has caused children so much suffering.
4. Diplomacy. What should $172 million in U.S. nonmilitary foreign aid for Uganda in fiscal year 2004 ($171 million for fiscal year 2005) buy, besides nourishment, hardware and development projects?
Let Washington tell Kampala that the price for U.S. foreign dollars is a serious, consistent commitment from Museveni to embrace negotiations to end the fighting.
Ugandans must be the ones to fill in details of any agreement to end the violence. But the United States and other donor nations can give vigorous support to former Ugandan minister Betty Bigombe, who has been tireless in pursuing peace talks.
On Tuesday, United Nations emergency relief coordinator Jan Egelund briefed U.N. Security Council members, calling Kony possibly the most brutal warlord in the world. Earlier, Egelund said Bigombe's peace efforts present a precious opportunity that must not be squandered.
He is right.
5. Military pressure. Uganda has been given permission by Sudan to chase Kony across borders. The United States and other nations with sophisticated intelligence capabilities should help Museveni target the LRA with a pinpoint focus on Kony and his lieutenants.
6. Work with the LRA. Few things sound more unappealing than sitting down with the leaders of a group that has so brutalized innocents. Yet, those most familiar with the conflict say this must be done.
One of the biggest problems is that the LRA has no real political agenda; it seems driven by a mystical bloodlust. How do negotiations succeed in this void?
Bigombe, the mediator, might have to guide the LRA through talks, which are likely to feature an arrangement for Kony and others to stop the war by leaving the region.
Then what becomes of the International Criminal Court's investigation of Kony on charges of crimes against humanity?
No doubt, Kony is a war criminal. But sometimes justice and reality clash. Many say that, with a tribunal hanging over his head, Kony would never lay down arms and come out of the bush. Amazingly, many northern Ugandans are willing to forgive LRA leaders in the hope that peace, and social and economic aid to their region, would follow.
Ugandans should make the decision on whether to prosecute Kony now. But the priority is for the atrocities against children to end.
Foreign donors can support Ugandans in establishing post-conflict programs. A South African-style truth and reconciliation commission, organized around local traditions, can be a key part of a postwar plan.
7. A disarmament and reintegration plan. The Ugandan government should establish safe zones where rebels could surrender throughout the north.
International peacekeepers will be needed to guard those zones. Here's why: Children are told from the moment of their abduction by the LRA that if they surrender, the Ugandan government will kill them.
Proceeding on these seven points would take a big commitment from the Bush White House and others. Intervening in African crises is not a favorite pastime of the United States. But steady public pressure over the Ugandan atrocities is needed.
A welcome partnership has developed in recent years between religious conservatives and human-rights advocates to act against human atrocities, in Sudan for example. Right now, the genocide in Sudan's Darfur region gets most of the American media's limited attention.
But the war on children in northern Uganda must not be forgotten or relegated to a problem to be addressed "someday. "
The cynic and the harried might dismiss this effort to focus efforts on faraway atrocities as futile.
They forget that grassroots activism is often how priorities rise to the top in a democracy, and that once roused, the power of the United States really can make things happen. What would happen if clergy across the land used their sermons one weekend to rivet attention on the anguish of Uganda's children?
Why not use our civic power, our national plenty, and our personal principles to help the most abused children on the planet?