Thousands of children have been taken by a Ugandan cult and forced to join in mass murder. Now the net is closing on the fanatic responsible. David Blair reports from Gulu
Vincent Okot was eight when rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped him from his village in northern Uganda.
His lush, fertile homeland is also the killing ground of Africa’s most brutal guerrilla movement, led by Joseph Kony, a self-styled prophet.
During 19 years of war, the LRA has abducted 20,000 children, enslaving and indoctrinating them for use as soldiers and sexual playthings. More than 10,000 have been taken in the past three years alone. Uniquely in the annals of guerrilla war, Kony’s army consists almost entirely of abducted children and, within and without his forces, he brutalises and murders as many as possible.
His war has no coherent demands. The LRA is a fanatical cult rather than a political movement.
Kony says only that he wishes to rule Uganda according to the Ten Commandments. He has justified murdering his own Acholi people with biblical references and accusations that they have failed to support his cause. Kony’s victims may feel some relief that he is now being investigated by the International Criminal Court. But tribal and religious leaders in the north believe that the court will do more harm than good, jeopardising an amnesty offered by the government and wrecking any prospect of peace.
The disaster wrought on northern Uganda compares with the worst humanitarian crises. Virtually the entire rural population of 1.6 million people have abandoned their homes for refugee camps. Empty villages are scattered across the depopulated, rebel-infested plains outside Gulu, the area’s largest town.
Vincent, now 11 and painfully thin, spent three years with the LRA before escaping last month. He was too small to fire a rifle so he was used as a porter, forced to carry ammunition and possessions for rebel commanders.
They regularly punished him with 50 lashes from a tree branch and, after a while, compelled him to kill innocent villagers. Vincent cannot remember how many. He recalls that most were women and he crushed their skulls with a club.
“I beat them until the skull was smashed and the brain was scattered all over,” he said. “They were tied up and forced to lie down. Then the commander said to me, ‘Take this club and go and kill them.’ I knew that if I failed to kill them, I would be killed.”
Vincent is now at the Children of War Rehabilitation Centre in Gulu, where 13,000 of Kony’s abductees have been counselled and cared for in the past decade.
This war against Uganda’s children has reached a critical moment, with the ICC in the final stages of investigating Kony.
In the next few months, the court is likely to issue a warrant for the arrest of Kony and his senior henchmen.
The ICC, founded in 1998 to try crimes against humanity, believes that these victims are best served by bringing Kony to account. But local leaders in Gulu believe that Kony’s voluntary surrender is the best way of ending the war speedily.
Over the past 18 months, about a dozen rebel commanders have turned themselves in, taking advantage of a general amnesty offered under Ugandan law.
This immunity would also apply to Kony. Yet any ICC arrest warrant would end this amnesty at a stroke, deterring Kony from surrendering and prolonging the war.
David Onen Acana, the paramount chief of northern Uganda’s Acholi tribe, said the ICC’s role “carries a great risk”. Not only Kony but all LRA commanders, even those not covered by any warrants, could decide to fight on.
“You have to remember the way the LRA operates,” he said. “Only a few at the top have access to the radio and to information. When they hear about the ICC, they just say, ‘The ICC is coming for all of us. If you surrender, the ICC will get you.’ “
Regular telephone contact between the LRA and mediators ended a few weeks ago and the flow of surrendering commanders has dried up.
Moreover, an arrest warrant may provoke retaliation and still more atrocities.
“Kony might turn his anger on the people unless the army can protect them. That’s the fear we have. Fear of the arrest warrant is hanging over us,” said Nelson Onono-Onweng, the Anglican Bishop of Gulu, who has met LRA leaders under a peace initiative run by church leaders.
Both Chief Acana and Bishop Onono-Onweng joined a delegation from northern Uganda that held talks with the ICC in The Hague in April. They pressed for the warrant to be delayed.
Yet they acknowledge that all other means of ending the war have failed. Kony shows no willingness to surrender. “We have reached the dead end,” said the bishop, “and that’s a desperate situation.”