A Place the World Has Forgotten: Inside the Horror Show of Northern Uganda
by Otim Tonny - CovertAction Magazine
When Alice Lakwena was exiled, Joseph Kony took over, changing the name of the group to the Lord’s Resistance Army. As the group lost regional support, he quickly started a trend of self-preservation that would come to characterize the rebel group, stealing supplies and abducting children to fill his ranks.
The LRA terrorized northern Uganda for two decades. In 2006 they indicated an interest in peace negotiations. These were hosted by Juba, Sudan (now South Sudan), and dubbed the Juba Peace Talks.
In August 2006, a Cessation of Hostilities agreement was signed by the LRA and the government of Uganda. The talks took place over the course of two years.
Operation Lightning Thunder
In December 2008, when it became clear that Kony was not going to sign the agreement, Operation Lightning Thunder was launched. It was the coordinated effort of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Sudan, with intelligence and logistical support from the United States.
A year later the LRA reprised the Christmas massacres in the Makombo region of northeastern Congo as a reminder of their powers of destruction. These attacks took place over four days, December 14-18, 2009. This time they killed 321 people and abducted 250. Because of the remote location of the Makombo massacres in December 2009, the outside world knew nothing about the attacks until three months later. Human Rights Watch broke the news internationally on March 28, 2010.
Consider the testimony of a former LRA abductee below:
“I was in Primary 2 when I was abducted. I was coming home for lunch and as I rounded a bend, eight rebels suddenly appeared and aimed a gun at me. They dared me to run or else they would shoot me. They took my books and tore them all, and tied me up.
One person was made to guard me and asked me if Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) soldiers like patrolling that route. I denied but they maintained their ambush. At five o’clock in the evening, I heard gunshots and after a short while, four rebels were shot dead by the UPDF.
Life in the Bush
“We walked most of the night and the next day in the evening we met a bigger group. The four rebels each wanted to take me to join his household at the time of distribution of captives, but their commander prevented a quarrel erupting by taking me for himself. I became his escort and would go with him to the battlefront. I carried his bag, tent and hoe. When we went for operations two times, he recommended that I should be given my own gun because I am not afraid and I am well disciplined.
At Soroti, I was given [orders] to kill a man but I refused, so I was slapped with a machete on my bare back and was about to be killed. I gave in and killed the man by hitting [him] on the head with a club. Another man was brought and again I refused and I was beaten severely, until I killed him. I could not eat for three days because of the sight of blood. I also witnessed commander Tabuley killed during a battle. He was shot at the neck and his escorts carried him away. I was also shot on the head but was not badly injured. We also laid an ambush and shot a bus along the Lira-Soroti road; only two people survived whom we took captive, a man and a child.
Thereafter we suffered several attacks by the UPDF. We also attacked a UPDF detachment: we were 40 in number but we were repulsed and 16 people were killed and only I and three others were not injured. Some of the casualties were ghastly to look at.”
Life in Sudan
We suffered hunger and six recruits (children) died of hunger. We had to attack Pajok in Sudan (occupied by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army—SPLA) for food. We walked through the Imotong Mountains and many people died of fatigue and hunger while climbing.
After six days of trouble, even attacks by Lotuko Militias, we reached the other side of the mountain and met Joseph Kony who insulted us and warned us not to escape. Thereafter he planned a mission to raid the Morule of cattle and they brought over six hundred cattle. They counter attacked twice but were repulsed. The SPLA also attacked us for the cattle and we realized them to be tough soldiers.”
I walked and followed the river upstream and went and drank water again, but when I stood up and moved, I heard something following me in the water. I looked back and saw a dark, large animal like a bull. It began to move in upon me, looking straight at me, its tail up and its eyes dark and terrible. I realized it was a buffalo, very dangerous.
I was feeling very weak and felt dizzy with hunger. I turned to look ahead, and I saw an SPLA soldier take his gun and aimed at me. He said ‘de munu,’ meaning ‘Who are you?’ in local Arabic and began to fire at me. I was too weak to react and the bullets clouded me in dust.
I turned round and saw the buffalo, mad with anger but undecided whether to charge or not, partly distracted by the bullets. I was in a dilemma. I held my gun at a firing position but did not cock it and tried to decide which way to go. I decided that I better be killed by men, not this cruel and terrible buffalo. The man completed a whole round of ammunition and I wasn’t hurt, but during this interlude, over thirty SPLA soldiers came in and released a volley of bullets at me. I fell down by instinct and crawled to a nearby outcrop of rock.
I looked back and saw the buffalo, mad with rage and intent upon crushing me as it followed me. My attackers released a rocket-propelled grenade, which split the outcrop of rock and almost crushed me as it rolled past. They thought I was the one rolling so they directed their line of fire towards the spot where the rock stopped. I creeped and looked back from among the rocks and the buffalo had disappeared.
My attackers were surprised when I stood up again and leaned against a tree. One of them (whom I later realized to be an Acholi from Atiak in Uganda) became inquisitive and came over and ordered me to throw my gun and pouch down. I responded but he ran back in fear. He came again and I threw the gun down and my pouch too. He snatched it and ordered me to follow him.
The SPLA everywhere shouted ‘Kill him’ but the man refused. We reached their barracks amidst insults and many people wanted to stone me. The SPLA had always suffered at the hands of the LRA and I now faced their anger alone. A woman who carried firewood had a machete in her hand and cut at me and missed my face. I clung to the man called Otim, and he protected me for a week until one day he sent a message to Attiak and UPDF soldiers came and took me across the border to Uganda. The SPLA followed me but the UPDF refused to release me. I was subsequently brought to World Vision Children’s Centre at Gulu.”
Amidst War and Death: Profits for a Few
The rebels abducted tens of thousands of children and youth, and if they did not escape or were released shortly thereafter, they were trained, given a weapon and made to fight. As the abducted girls matured, they were forced to marry rebel commanders and give birth, fulfilling the spiritual vision of Joseph Kony to create a “New Acholi.”
The war took so long partly because Museveni and his commanders were making huge profits from the war, and it was around that time when “ghost soldiers” were created by then Army Commander Major General James Kazini and his senior commanders who were active in the Northern conflict.
Each party to the conflict—the rebels and the Ugandan military—terrorized the civilian population, displacing more young boys and girls and the cycle continued. Those who avoided recruitment or abduction had to continue to dodge both parties.
If either rebels or soldiers encountered civilians, they forced them to pledge allegiance to their cause. If they mixed up a rebel and soldier—something that was very easy to do in the dark, and because both parties to the conflict wore similar uniforms, they were accused of being traitors and punished. It was perhaps no surprise then that so many young men and women who did escape the rebels found it difficult to integrate within communities that had been afflicted and divided by more than two decades of violence. This extends to the children born in the rebel group.
Consider the reflections of one mother on how community members treat the child she gave birth to in captivity below: “He is called Kony even from home. They don’t call him any other name. They always call him Kony. They say that his mind is like Kony. They say that he acts like Kony in every way and that people should just wait and see because the boy will be a general like his father.”
See also: Bains, Erin. Buried in the heart. Women, complex Victimhood and the War in Northern Uganda. (Cambridge University Press, 2017)
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