Uganda: Unholy Children’s Crusade

My Country’s Anguish

Ugandan children, former combattants with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), wait for dinner at a camp dedicated to bringing them back into civilian society
Ugandan children wait for dinner at the Gusco Center in Gulu, Uganda. The children had been abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and forced to fight for them. These children were rescued in January 2003 (Photo: Debbi Morello/AFP-Getty Images).

Sitting in the lobby of the Grand Imperial Hotel in Kampala, Francis Odida takes a deep breath and remarks, “Life is difficult.”  The gray-haired former civil servant has seen it all. His nongovernmental organization, the Uganda Australia Foundation, operates in northern Uganda and in some districts in the center of the country. Odida tells of an ambush by rebels: He was driving in a convoy in a truck loaded with food supplies when armed men sprang up from the bush just in front of a bus in the convoy and forced it to stop. They shot out all the tires, then ordered passengers to remain seated while they scattered grass around the bus, then set the grass alight. In the confusion, some able-bodied people jumped out of the bus and escaped into the bushes. More than 50 others burned to death.

Odida comes from the northern Ugandan district of Pader. His organization cares for displaced people, many of whom have taken refuge in the Pader village of Rackoko, where Odida runs several schools for children orphaned by the rebellion. He has been at the center of relief efforts in the region, and he also runs the only hospital in Pader.

Like Odida, Cecilia Adong has lived through a violent ambush. She comes from Kitgum, another district affected by the rebellion. “God was there,” she says about Sept. 1, 2003, the day her Gateway bus was ambushed and torched. “They shot at us in a hail of bullets, but they never got me. I am alive without a scratch.”

Cecilia, 18, had been on the bus because her relatives in Kampala convinced her that it was unsafe to stay on in Kitgum, where there has been increased violence in recent months. In the past year, she has lost her mother, three brothers, and an uncle, who were all abducted by rebels, only to be found a few days later by the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), hacked to death.

Like other children in the region, Cecilia dropped out of school to take care of her siblings. She thought she could manage, but now she admits that life was too difficult in Kitgum. For years, she lived in a military-run camp where there was not enough food, and where, she says, she was raped by a soldier. Like her friends, Cecilia would leave the camp by day to forage for food in the fields. She was lucky to escape from the region: Some of her campmates were abducted or killed by rebel forces.

Now in its 17th year, the rebellion against President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) government has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed the infrastructure in Uganda’s north. The main region affected is the province of Gulu, home to more than 1 million Ugandans belonging to the Acholi tribe. But the districts of Pader and Kitgum have also seen violence on a large scale.

It is here that Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been wreaking havoc on the local population, abducting, maiming, and killing citizens for more than a decade. Notorious for its cruelty, the LRA instructs its recruits to cut off victims’ lips, ears, noses, arms, and legs. Of particular concern is the LRA’s focus on child abductions, of which an estimated 20,000 have been carried out in the past decade. Child recruits are taught to kill and maim; they are hacked to death if they refuse to comply.

Kony, a cultist whose preachings mingle Christian fundamentalism with African animism, says he envisages an Acholi tribal nation based on the Ten Commandments. He teaches his recruits that the Holy Spirit will protect them and sends child soldiers into battle with a “magical” stone sewn into their clothing or a bottle of water that they are told will create a mighty river if emptied.

Unsurprisingly, those who have managed to escape the LRA’s clutches are left traumatized by their experiences. Nongovernmental organizations in the region have established a trauma-handling center for adults and children. But how do you rehabilitate a child who has been forced to hack his schoolmates to death, or a son who, under the instruction of LRA commanders, has brutally murdered his parents? Former LRA recruits are often exposed to a second trauma when, upon coming home, they are rejected by communities that mistrust them or fear that they will never be fully rehabilitated.

In recent months, the war has spread to the central regions of Teso and Lango, where LRA forces have hacked civilians to death, looted dispensaries and shops, and forced schools to close.

Despite the LRA’s devastating violence, however, many Ugandans and international observers remain puzzled by the government’s inability to end the conflict. Rather than crushing the rebels when he came to power in 1986, Museveni has seemingly let the conflict simmer on. In an article written last year for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Union’s magazine, The Parliamentarian, former Ugandan member of Parliament J.L. Okello-Okello speculated that the NRM uses the northern insurgency as a financial conduit for other military operations. “The budget of the Ministry of Defense is always blown out in the name of insurgency in the north, but then the bigger portion of the budget is used to fight wars elsewhere,” Okello-Okello wrote.

Sudan’s role in the conflict is also a source of much speculation. Gulu has a border with Sudan, and it has been relatively easy for the LRA to use that country as its base of operations. Control over southern Sudan is not firmly in the hands of the government in Khartoum, and rebels from both Sudan and Uganda move freely around a vast depopulated area there.

The Ugandan government accuses Khartoum of backing the rebels, and Sudan accuses Uganda of backing the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which has been fighting the Sudanese government for the past 21 years. In 1997, the two countries closed their embassies in each other’s capitals, but in 2000 the embassies reopened, following a reconciliation in which Sudan and Uganda pledged not to aid each other’s rebel groups.

Nevertheless, both rebellions have continued, with claims of insincerity dogging relations between the two countries. In 2001, Sudan allowed Ugandan troops to pursue the LRA into southern Sudan in a mission code-named “Operation Safe Haven,” but one year later, the rebel LRA is still proving an elusive target.
People in the affected subregions live in towns that are under the protection of the UPDF, or in displaced-person camps, where they build make-shift grass-thatched huts for themselves around military barracks. But these too are prone to rebel attacks, and soldiers have been known to run away at the sight of rebels. Some camps have been burned down by the LRA. Populations in many of the army-protected towns have swollen to three times their original size, bringing the threat of cholera and other communicable diseases, including HIV-AIDS.

In its recent incursion into Teso, the LRA has engaged the UPDF several times. LRA forces have ambushed both military and civilian targets in and around the town of Soroti. Groups of civilians have sought refuge in Catholic missions, but these too have been attacked, with one mission torched and another looted for its radio equipment. Several Catholic priests, both local and foreign, have been killed.

In response, citizens in Teso and Lango have mobilized into tribal militias, the most famous of which is the Arrow Group. This group is strongly supported by Mike Mukula, the member of Parliament and minister of state for health, who told Kampala’s The Monitor on Aug. 16 that Arrow recruits had rescued 500 children from the LRA. “We are prepared to die for the sake of the country’s peace and stability and protect the dignity and lives of our people,” Mukula said.

Others have criticized the initiative, arguing that the creation of tribal militias will lead to the kind of warlord society that has riven countries such as Somalia and Liberia.

But the Arrow Group’s supporters argue that the army is stationed too far away, doesn’t know the local terrain, and needs the kind of intelligence that local informants can provide. Locals have been recruited by the Arrow Group to locate LRA sympathizers in the community (a similar initiative is under way in Gulu). 

The local uprising against the LRA also demonstrates a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to solve the crisis. In the past decade, several mediation missions have been attempted, but all have failed, with either the government or the rebels refusing to make necessary concessions.

In the mid-1990s, the government entered talks with the rebels and agreed on some terms. Betty Bigombe, the minister of state for the pacification of the north and a native of Kitgum, had gained the trust of the rebels and seemed about to make a breakthrough. But the talks were suddenly scuttled when the government charged that the rebels had violated a cease-fire and withdrew from negotiations. After this failed effort, the rebellion was rekindled with a lot more atrocities being meted out to civilians.

In past years, religious leaders in Uganda have taken up the challenge of finding a peaceful solution to the conflict. In Gulu, Archbishop John Baptist Odama, the Catholic prelate of northern Uganda, has held meetings with LRA commanders and has set up the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative. Odama and his colleagues continue to press for dialogue between the two sides, but the government so far has resisted their efforts.

In December 2002, the government ordered the rebels to gather in a designated area before a state negotiating team could start talks with them. The rebels, who took this as a clear pretext that the government would attack them, withdrew their offer of talks. The rebellion subsequently intensified.

The creation of militia groups from Lango and Teso could complicate matters, as local politicians and civilians take it upon themselves to protect their territory. Meanwhile, a deadline of Aug. 28, given by the government as the day by which the rebels should have been flushed out of the newly infiltrated areas, has come and gone.

The government says that it is committed to a negotiated settlement, but has deployed heavily in the affected areas, suggesting that it is prepared only to settle for a military victory.

Meanwhile, the reassignment of troops and artillery newly returned from the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is under way in all the areas where the LRA is active. The government continues to argue that it can fight and defeat the rebels, pacifying the entire country in the process. Until that happens, Ugandan civilians will continue to bear the brunt of this vicious ongoing war.