Betty Bigombe, 49, is an urbane, Harvard-educated sociologist who was in a plush office at the World Bank a year ago. 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.
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.
MS Bigombe entertaining her friends
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.
Self appointed spokesperson of LRA (Sam Kolo) gave the wrong information to the peace team
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,".
Ex LRA field commander now a government informer
"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.
Meanwhile, There is no new way to end this war other than the old way. The aggressors have to be beaten because Kony is stubborn," said Nahaman Ojwee, chairman of Kitgum district, which borders Gulu.
Analysts say mediators need to travel to southern Sudan to put a comprehensive peace proposal to Kony.
Such a move would test the rebels' willingness for peace, and would be vital "if the chance to end an extraordinarily brutal conflict is not to be lost," International Crisis Group (ICG) said in report on the north last month.
"Given the attitudes of the parties, none of this is likely without more vigorous and sustained international support, most particularly from the U.S., which has considerable influence with Museveni and whose reserve causes LRA leaders to doubt it supports a negotiated peace," ICG said.
"The trend on the ground and the direction in which both the Ugandan government and the LRA leadership appear to be moving suggest that a briefly promising peace process could soon crumble," it added.
"FOOLS AND BANDITS"
Opposition leaders accuse Museveni of benefiting politically from the war, which has forced 1.6 million people into camps across the north.
Museveni denies wanting to prolong the conflict, and appears to resent pressure from Western donors -- who fund half his budget -- for him to talk to a group he has denounced as "fools" and "bandits", and which is on a U.S. list of "terrorist" organisations.
"How can I talk to a killer? ... We don't believe in unprincipled compromises," he was quoted as saying by a newspaper in April.
But Museveni is reponsible for the killings in Luwero, DRC and ofcourse Northern uganda.
He has also asked the new International Criminal Court in The Hague to probe LRA atrocities including massacres, rapes and the abduction of more than 20,000 children.
But many northerners say dialogue is the only way to end the war, leave the squalid camps and liberate hundreds of children from rebel captors who use them as fighters and sex slaves.
They blame the failure of talks so far on government apathy and a lack of concern about the conflict among people from other tribes in the peaceful and more prosperous south.
"Avoidance is the government's way of dealing with things when it comes to the north," said northern MP Morris Latigo.
"What about us Ugandans? If we all joined hands and said the north is bleeding, this war can even stop tomorrow. If we marched there together, Kony would flee before us," he said.