The Lord’s Resistance Army, Uganda
The UN’s Jan Egeland said that he considered the humanitarian crisis in northern Uganda to be among the worst on the planet. And I remember the first time I heard about Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. I was putting the All About Africa website together and I was horrified. I don’t think I really believed what I read back then. I suppose I still don’t.
We were on a bus one day. It was our second day in Uganda. “Hey, mzungu!” we said. There was a white guy on our bus. He’d just come from the North of Uganda and had been working as a counsellor with the children up there. That’s when I remembered what I’d read so many months ago. “You don’t have to prompt them… They just start talking.” I imagine he himself will need counselling after the stories he would have heard from those children.
So, what’s the story? It all began in 1987 when Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed spirit medium, formed a rebel paramilitary group based in Northern Uganda. He wants to rule Uganda according to the Ten Commandments, you see. But this guy’s a sinner, not a saint. I would say he is evil through and through. He’s a bad egg.
In the mid-1980s he launched his campaign in the North of Uganda. He keeps his troops there and also in Southern Sudan where the Khartoum government has supported him for many years – revenge for Uganda’s support of the anti-government SPLA. His campaigns involve terrorizing and tormenting the Acholi people. And he’s very good at what he does. Up to 12,000 people have been killed in the violence, with many more dying from disease and malnutrition. Nearly two million civilians have been forced to flee their homes and now live in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps, which lack food, clean water and sanitation.
President Museveni has been trying to quash the LRA for years now but to no avail. His own troops have been accused of repeated human rights abuses against civilians in the North. Then in 1998, Museveni invaded Congo searching for the rebels. This triggered “Africa’s First World War”, in which 4 million people died. In 2002, he launched “Operation Iron Fist”, against LRA bases in Sudan. But the operation failed and the LRA responded with a series of brutal attacks, causing widespread displacement and suffering. In early 2003, the LRA declared a cease-fire and for the first time, there were hopes that one of Africa’s oldest conflicts might come to an end. But the ceasefire was broken.
Kony sounds like a typical tyrant, right? Wrong. I did say that this guy is evil through and through. What’s so nasty about how he operates is the fact that up to 80% of Kony’s army are child soldiers. The children are abducted from their homes and trained as guerrillas. It is estimated that between ten and twenty thousand children have been kidnapped in total. The children are terrorized into virtual slavery and forced to commit acts of violence in combat and within their ranks, including murder. I cannot print many of the stories I’ve read. You wouldn’t want to read them. Kony, as I have said, is a bad egg.
If you were to find yourself in Northern Uganda, you would probably see some of the 40,000 “night commuters” walking in the twilight. These children leave their homes each evening and make the perilous journey to town and city centres to sleep in bus stations, churches, storefronts and on the streets. You probably wouldn’t see many school children though. The majority is too afraid to go to school – schools are after all, ideal hunting grounds for rebels. In 1996, for example, 139 girls from St. Mary’s School in Aboke were abducted. Their heroic teachers chased the rebels and secured the release of 109 of those girls. Not many are so lucky.
The Life of a Child Soldier
The first stage of becoming a child soldier is the abduction itself. Children are abducted from their own lands, their homes or their schools. The abduction is usually accompanied by severe beatings. Not all are suitable. They must be young enough and impressionable enough to be indoctrinated but old enough to carry weapons. In practice, the majority of abductees are aged between thirteen and sixteen.
Abduction is followed by induction and training. LRA commanders force captured children to take part in the almost ritualized killing of others very soon after their abduction. This helps to break down resistance to LRA authority and to destroy taboos about killing. After some training (sometimes as little as a few weeks) the children – boys and girls alike – are forced into combat against the Ugandan military, the UPDF.
Once inducted, children are assigned to a ‘family’. A family is headed by an LRA commander or ‘teacher’ and will consist of siblings (children younger than thirteen), recruits (about to undergo training) and soldiers (those who have completed their training). Girls are forced into marriage and are expected to bear children to “create a new clan”. Each commander will have a number of wives according to status and has the power to transfer his wives to other commanders.
Many children attempt to escape even though if caught, they will most likely be killed. Thousands have succeeded. After the initial flight, there is often a long and dangerous journey in the bush. Making contact with the police or civilians is also quite risky. The police will suspect an ambush and civilians will fear reprisals from the LRA for harbouring escapees. If the children manage to do all this and reclaim their freedom, then they face the immense challenge of trying to rebuild their lives.
Physically, they are often in a bad way when they emerge from the bush. Psychologically, they are usually extremely traumatized. Their families may have been killed or relocated to IDP camps. They will continue to face further risk of abduction. Because they have themselves taken part in appalling violence, acceptance back into the community can also be difficult. Girls in particular face difficulties such as social rejection and alienation as well as medical complications resulting from forced marriages.
The LRA in 2005
Thankfully, the LRA is much diminished today. The delicate peace process in Sudan has dealt Kony a serious blow, the International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for five LRA leaders, including Kony himself and numbers are reported to have fallen from over 10,000 to less than a thousand. So, who knows? Once more there is hope that the suffering of the Acholi people of Northern Uganda will soon be at an end. Fingers crossed. Say a prayer.
– Written by Niamh O Riordan and published in The Imokilly People