Paul was just six-years old when the rebels came for
him in February 2002.
Fast asleep in his parents’ otlum, the traditional dwelling of the Acholi people in the north of Uganda, he was woken from his dreams, ordered to dress, and then marched, barefoot, at gunpoint, in the pitch darkness into the African bush, along with four other unfortunate children abducted that night from the same village in Gulu district. Behind them, their horrified parents were beaten and tortured but lucky to be left alive. Scared and torn from everything he held dear, Paul didn’t know it at the time, but it would be four years before he was able to seize the opportunity to escape his violent and oppressive abductors.
For a six-year-old in these parts, life should be innocent and consisting of simple pleasures such as helping mother with the younger siblings, while she tills the earth to grow millet, maize and sorghum; and father goes to town to work. For the lucky few, primary school is also a possibility, where new friends can be made and football skills practised in the playground. In other words, the lives and aspirations of the children of northern Uganda shouldn’t be a far cry from those of youngsters the world over. But the dark, ominous threat of abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army is a blight on every child’s hopes and aspirations, following 19 long years of civil war in this forgotten corner of Africa. Every time they look like they are defeated, the LRA just come back stronger and more malicious than before. And countless more children are torn from their mother’s sides and thrown into a world of suffering, where nothing makes any sense, and hopes of ever seeing home again fade with every passing day.
Gulu, N Uganda
The origins of the Lord’s Resistance Army stem from an Acholi woman, named Alice Auma, whose claims of being possessed by Lakwena, a dead Italian Soldier would have seen her burned at the stake in many parts of the world. In 1986, Alice Lakwena gave up her work as a spiritualist in Gulu, N Uganda, and launched the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM), a resistance army, whose primary aim was to overthrow the Museveni government and restore Ugandan power to an Acholi leadership, such as that which had existed with former President Tito Okello. It was widely believed (and still is to an extent) that only an Acholi President will bring development and prosperity to the predominantly Acholi north.
Auma’s plan was doomed to failure, as she was a slave to her spiritual Acholi beliefs, and led her followers to believe that they could be protected from bullets by smearing themselves with sheanut oil. Obviously, casualties were high and Alice Auma, defeated, fled to Kenya, where she still lives today in a refugee camp in the north of the country. Before she fled, the spirit Lakwena deserted her and resumed its work in her father, Severino Lukoya. Lukoya was even more inept than his daughter and only succeeded in driving a brief rebellion in 1987, before he was ousted from the HSM by the leader of a breakaway group called the Ugandan People’s Defence Army (UPDA). The new player’s name was Joseph Kony.
Over the following years, Kony, now also claiming to be possessed by Lakwena, renamed his organisation the Lord’s Resistance Army and exerted his leadership, conducting extensive operations in the districts of Gulu, Pader and Kitgum, in the north of Uganda. Thousands of innocent civilians were abducted and tortured, supposedly for simply not being seen to be supporting him. Kony was quoted as saying in explanation of these acts, “If you picked up an arrow against us and we ended up cutting off the hand you used, who is to blame? You report us with your mouth, and we cut off your lips. Who is to blame? It is you! The Bible says that if your hand, eye or mouth is at fault, it should be cut off.” And so the very people that the LRA was claiming to be fighting on behalf of, were systematically tortured, mutilated and brutalised.
Acholi Man in Kitgum
In 1994 a new, sinister twist developed as the LRA began widespread abduction of children to bolster its ranks. In their thousands, children were snatched from their beds at night, or whilst on their way to school, and force-marched north, towards the border with Sudan, where they were to be trained how to use weapons in preparation of fighting the Ugandan army. Girls were taken and forced to become wives – sex slaves to the LRA Commanders. Many contracted AIDS. A rule of fear was, and remains, the doctrine to prevent the new ‘recruits’ from escaping and it wasn’t long before accounts began to emerge of unspeakable horrors being forced on these poor, bewildered souls.
Wanting nothing more than to run back to the protection of their mothers, these scared children limp on swollen feet under the weight of heavy loads, weak with hunger, thirsty, bruised and broken from severe beatings. Many of the children have trouble keeping up with the group, and those who cannot are unceremoniously killed – stabbed or beaten to death in full view of the rest of their group, and left for the vultures. Those who are caught trying to escape also face the same consequences. Normally the rebels force other new captives to dish out the punishments, forcing young children to beat or stab to death their terrified companions. Refusal incurs harsh penalties, often death, for not following orders. For those children who survive, taking part in the murder of other captives forms a gruesome initiation into the ranks of the Lord’s Resistance Army and, for many, signifies a point of no return.
Here are just a handful of statements from some of the children who have managed to escape from the LRA:
They beat all my young cousins who were just small boys, four or five years old. One of them they killed. Then they burned the house. Stephen – 17.
Many children tried to escape and were killed. They made us help. I was afraid and I missed my mother. William – 10.
On the third day a little girl tried to escape, and they made us kill her. They said, “You must beat and beat and beat her.” She was bleeding from the mouth. Then she died. Stella – 15.
One day, they found a man riding a bike. They just cut off his foot with an axe. When his wife came out of the house, they told her to eat the foot. Catherine – 17.
They would make us cut people’s legs off. If you don’t help they beat you. My back still hurt from the beatings. But I would not help. Patricia – 15
We could not find water or food, and we ate the leaves of trees. Many became sick and died, and you would see children everywhere, lying down like they were sleeping. But they were dead. Charles – 15
Children tried always to escape, but some of them were recaptured and killed. Mary – 15
I was made to beat two boys who took too long to get water. They were little boys. Phillip – 14
For girls, life in Sudan is particularly hard. Girls given as wives to commanders are forced to provide sexual services; those who refuse are often beaten until they comply. Stephen – 17
They gave me as a wife, but I refused the man. He ordered other boys to beat me on my back with a panga (machete). Catherine – 17.
Primary School Children – Kitgum
The troubles in Uganda’s north have now been going on for 19 years, in which, some figures state, 30,000 children have been abducted. Of that, approximately 20,000 are accounted for, either as killed-in-action or as escapees. But 10,000 still remain lost children, and the sad reality is that over 95% of those still missing are almost certainly dead, as latest figures (March 2006) put the LRA’s strength at only a few hundred. Every time we hear that the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) has killed more rebels, what that really means is that more children have been killed in the bush and will not be coming home. But there’s only so much the UPDF can do to minimalise casualties, as the cowardly LRA Commanders treat the children as a dispensable force, pushing their captives to the front line and ordering them to walk tall and keep firing. Any attempts to run for cover and the individual will be shot from behind. For the children, the enemy is on all sides and at times it seems like a UPDF bullet may be the only way out.
So why does such a small group of rebels and one man, Kony, in particular continue to evade capture in today’s age of technology and communication? For the answer to that, we should turn our eyes to both the north and south, and the Sudanese government in Khartoum, along with the Ugandan government in Kampala.
Relations between Kampala and Khartoum have been marred by hostility and suspicion for many years, as each have played their parts in aiding local rebels and militia groups, fighting their respective central authorities. The late John Garang, founder of the Sudanese rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), was a personal friend to Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, who supplied Garang’s troops with training, logistical support and military hardware. In retaliation, Khartoum offered the same deal to the LRA for fighting the SPLA rebels in southern Sudan, and to assist them with their own ongoing struggles against Museveni’s rule. From the mid-1990’s, Kony’s rebels were able to maraud in northern Uganda and then vanish into Sudan with impunity, leaving the UPDF frustrated at the border, unable to pursue.
Former abductees at Gulu Central Highschool
For 5 years this continued, as Museveni and Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, slogged out some kind of plan for putting their differences aside, and by 2001 diplomatic relations were finally restored. As talks continued, the UPDF were finally granted permission to follow the LRA into Sudan in order to hunt them down and finish them once and for all. But it simply didn’t happen. Despite vehement denials from Khartoum, some sources claim that information provided, as required, to the Sudanese military when the UPDF are planning a cross-border operation, is forwarded immediately to LRA Commanders, who promptly vacate their camps and disappear into the bush. The UPDF repeatedly find nothing more than recently abandoned camps. Furthermore, accounts from children escaping from the camps in Sudan all bear one thing in common: They all tell of arms and uniforms being routinely delivered by Arab, government troops, despite assurances from Khartoum that they are no longer supporting the LRA.
Whether Khartoum is complicit or not, this has become a war of attrition, and the LRA do seem to be on the losing end. The villages of northern Uganda have long been almost entirely deserted, as some 1.6 million people, 90% of the Acholi population, were moved into guarded Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) camps, where they survive on monthly food handouts, provided by the World Food Programme (WFP). Although life in the camps is one of overcrowding, malnutrition, disease epidemics and loss of life to natural hazards, such as fire and flooding, the supply of children for the LRA to snatch has effectively been cut off and an end to the horrors (for the Ugandans, at least) may finally be coming into sight.
Justo Onur – Amida IDP Camp, Kitgum District. The scar above Justo’s chest is from the exit wound of an AK47 round when he was shot from behind trying to escape the LRA. They left him for dead.
Significantly, in recent times, a number of high-ranking officers have either deserted the LRA or been captured, and have taken advantage of an amnesty offered by Museveni. Three of these high-profile former officers are Onen Kamdulu, Chief of Operations; Brigadier and LRA Spokesman, Sam Kolo; and Kenneth Banya, formerly Kony’s third in command. In an interview I held with Kamdulu and Kolo on the 6th March 2006, in Gulu, Kamdulu suggested that more Commanders would be encouraged to leave Kony if they see their former comrades doing well under the amnesty. Attrition at this level could go a long way to spelling the end of the LRA as we know it.
Onen Kamdulu – Former LRA Chief Of Operations and Sam Kolo – Former LRA Brigadier and Spokesman
Meanwhile, sporadic attacks still occur on vehicles along the roads of Gulu and Kitgum districts, by isolated units, cut off from their central command. But the number of children coming out of the bush, having escaped the LRA, has fallen drastically, indicating that numbers may be at an all time low. The main concentration of rebels are now operating solely in Sudan under what appears to be a new remit – to destabilise the region around Yei and Juba, and shut down newly-formed Ugandan trade routes. Under the auspices of the SPLA, roads in the south of Sudan have been de-mined and tarmacked, but peace in the south is seriously denting the finances of certain folks in Khartoum, who no longer are able to corner the market with consumables priced at 300% value. The north south divide in Sudan is as wide as it’s ever been. This conflict in Equatoria is far from over.
So what does the future hold for the brave children, like Paul, now 10, who escaped the LRA following a botched raid on a Latugu tribe’s cattle in Sudan just a month ago? Well, thanks to centres such as the Rachele Rehabilitation Centre in Lira; and the World Vision and Gusco centres in Gulu, trauma counselling is the first step towards recovery from a life of experiences that most adults would struggle to deal with. Paul’s parents have been notified of their son’s return and can now just sit and wait for his recovery to reach a stage where he’s fit to leave the security of the Rachele Centre and travel north to their village for what will undoubtedly be a very emotional reunion. For now, he has Bosco Ochen, his Social Worker – an adult who he trusts to protect him and help him get by each day. Bosco, and many like him, are the unsung heroes of northern Uganda today, slowly but steadily repairing these broken children so that they can resume their lives with something approaching normality.
Paul with his Social Worker, Bosco, at the Rachele Rehabilitaion Centre, Lira
Schooling is the best chance these children have of surviving and building a future, if they are to avoid sinking into a life of crime and prostitution. But it comes at a price now that the state has reduced sponsorship funding in the last month from 60% to less than 10% of all students. It costs approximately £170/$300 to send a child to school for one year in Uganda, a cost that is out of the realms of most average farming families, and totally unachievable for the families that are languishing in the IDP camps. Many of the formerly abducted children don’t even have parents, having lost them either to the war or to AIDS, and so organisations such as Belgium-based Sponsoring Children Uganda are their only lifeline. More then 2,500 formerly abducted children have returned to school through this programme, and some have even progressed to university, illustrating that schemes such as this can (and do) work, and don’t necessarily just furnish the President with a new Land Rover. But many more come to the centres or the school gates only to be turned away through lack of funds. Paul may even yet be one of them.
Painting by formerly abducted child, showing the day the LRA came
The future may not look bright for the Acholi of northern Uganda and their children, but it may at least be beginning to clear, albeit at a cost to the Dinka and other tribes of southern Sudan, who now have the LRA in their backyard to contend with. There’s little we can do about the past, except hang our heads in shame for doing so little to stop these terrifying atrocities from happening to innocent, wide-eyed children for so many years. But the very least we can do now is help in anyway we can, however little, to provide a future for the thousands of kids, who we’ve so far failed to protect.
Author – Lee Ridley.
All names have been changed.
For more information on the LRA, a valuable insight into the reality of life in the rebel army can be found in the book Aboke Girls, by Els De Temmerman. All proceeds go to Sponsoring Children Uganda.
Conversations with –
Els De Temmerman – Consulting Editor for The New Vision and Author of Aboke Girls.
Emmy Allio Ewaku – Senior Reporter for The New Vision.
Betty Bigombe – LRA/Museveni Peace Talks Mediator.
Onen Kamdulu – Former LRA Chief of Operations.
Sam Kolo – Former LRA Brigadier and Spokesman.
Bosco Ochen – Social Worker at the Rachele Rehabilitation Centre, Lira.