GULU, UGANDA — It took 12 years for Ojwang Santino to feel safe enough to begin rebuilding his home. Each morning before the sun gets too hot, he makes the trek to his ancestral land to smooth new mud walls and work on the thatched roof. But now he doesn't know whether he'll have the courage to move in.
He's afraid the Lord's Resistance Army will come back.
Santino, a father and grandfather, is one of the 1.8 million Ugandans displaced by a 22-year battle between the government and the dreaded rebel group, which is known for going on murderous rampages and methodically preying on children to use as soldiers and sex slaves.
A peace initiative launched in 2006 with LRA commander Joseph Kony brought a de facto cease-fire in Uganda, and there hasn't been an LRA attack here in two years.
Emboldened by the security, thousands of families have been going home. Displacement camps that once held 90% of northern Uganda's population today house only a quarter, according to figures from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Santino is poised to join those returning.
Although his home should be finished next month, lately he's been distracted. A military offensive by the Ugandan government against LRA hide-outs in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo has reactivated the militia. Splinter gangs of LRA soldiers are blamed for the deaths of more than 500 people in Congo and southern Sudan and the kidnapping of several hundred children over the last month, the worst LRA attacks in four years.
Santino fears that unless the military kills or captures Kony quickly, the LRA leader will send his troops back home, shattering the only peace northern Ugandans have known in two decades.
"I'm still working on the house, but I wonder if I'll never be able to sleep in it," Santino said. "We have so much to lose. Things were getting better. Now I fear LRA is going to come back and kill as many people as they can."
Opposition leaders, who have questioned the motives and implementation of the military offensive, warned that skittish civilians would race back to camps at the first sign of trouble, erasing recent progress.
"It's only going to take about 50 LRA soldiers to get back in," said Morris Ogenga Latigo, opposition leader in Uganda's parliament in the capital, Kampala. "A few attacks, and it will paralyze the whole region."
Already there are anecdotal reports that displaced people who recently finished rebuilding their homes were returning to displacement camps to spend the night.
Benard Nyeko, 32, who is Santino's eldest son, is building his own home for his wife and four children not far from his father's. It's his third attempt since 2004. Each time before, a resurgence in violence drove him back to the camp, and he's resigned to the same fate once again.
"Why do I bother?" he said. "It's construction in vain."
As Santino works on his house, his youngest boys scale nearby trees to cut down jackfruit and collect lemons. The family compound is just a 10-minute walk from Gulu's once-teeming displacement camp, but a world apart. The camp is barren and dirty, whereas half a mile away the wind breezes through palm groves and sorghum fields.
It seems a much better place to raise children. But asked whether he was excited about moving home, Okello Brian Phillip, 8, says he'd rather stay in the camp. Being part of a generation that has known only the crowded, protected camps, for him the concept of "home" is foreign and a little scary.
"I don't think I'm going to feel very safe here," the boy said.
Back at the camp, however, most of his friends have left. Last year, Santino watched a family move out each day, on average. As soon as residents left, government workers tore down their huts, pockmarking the camp with rubble circles.
Most aid groups have left. The United Nations' World Food Program has halved its distributions in northern Uganda since 2006, a spokeswoman said.
And government soldiers who protected and patrolled the camps are deploying elsewhere. Camp and village children, once dubbed "night commuters," no longer walk each evening into the cities to sleep under armed guard to avoid being abducted.
"The change has been dramatic," said Richard Todwong, an advisor to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
Museveni has long been accused of marginalizing the north, which generally opposes his government. Opposition leaders say that the president, a former guerrilla, could crush Kony's rag-tag army if he wanted, but that the LRA threat helps Museveni garner Western support and justifies his military buildup.
Government officials deny any political game-playing, saying that they have tried for two years to sign a peace deal with Kony but that he has repeatedly refused. Kony wants an International Criminal Court arrest warrant suspended first.
Todwong said Ugandan forces have massed along the border with Congo to block LRA soldiers from returning. "It won't be so easy for them to get back in," he said.
Civilians such as Santino say they have heard that before. After a 2002 offensive, when the LRA was hiding in southern Sudan, rebels returned to northern Uganda and resumed their attacks, leading to some of the deadliest years of the conflict.
"There will always be some lapse somewhere and people will cross back in," Santino said.
LRA negotiator David Matsanga predicted that that's exactly what Kony will try to do: "Kony is Ugandan, so he will go back, even if he only has a few soldiers left."