The Acholi people of Uganda, trapped between a vicious cult and a vengeful national army, now see only one route to peace
It was one of the deadliest encounters United Nations troops had ever engaged in. Guatemalan Special Forces, operating under UN command in north-eastern Congo, made contact with 300 Lord’s Resistance Army fighters who had crossed from Uganda into the Garamba National Park.
Authorised to use maximum force against the warlords and militias, the Guatemalans closed in for the kill. But the LRA unit laid an ambush. After a fierce gun battle, eight Guatemalans were dead. The terrorists beheaded the commander and escaped. How could one of the world’s most experienced special forces be outfought by what is usually described as a cult of half-crazed cannibals whose tactics are murder, rape and pillage? How could their leader, a dreadlocked psychopath called Joseph Kony with no military training, lead such a successful army?
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The LRA is portrayed as a mindless terror gang, so evil it makes political or military analysis unnecessary. But the difficult truth is that, although the LRA controls no territory, it has also been one of the most effective guerrilla armies in Africa. Supplied until recently by Sudan, it moves fast and undetected for hundreds of miles in days, breaks into small groups and re-forms.
Many people had assumed the sheer virulence of the LRA would quickly burn itself out. Surely no human could maintain such appalling brutality for long, let alone win a guerrilla war with it. But it has lasted 20 years. It grew out of the Holy Spirit Movement, another bizarre cult, led by Alice Lakwena, a priest who claimed that her fighters were protected from bullets by butter. She was defeated by the Ugandan army, but Kony, said to be her cousin, took up the cause.
Its origins go back to the defeat of the Okello regime by the army of now-President Yoweri Museveni in 1986. Tito Okello, a former British army sergeant, was an Acholi, the ethnic group which formed the backbone of the Ugandan army. The 1986 defeat traumatised the Acholis, but they did not abandon their fighting skills. A former UK soldier who interviewed captured LRA fighters was appalled to find that they use standard British army orders, handed down from colonial times.
In the Nineties, Sudan gave the LRA refuge and supplied it with weapons in retaliation for Ugandan support for southern Sudanese rebels. For a while it had anti-aircraft missiles, mortars and a battlefield communications system. Western governments have pressed Sudan to end its support, and a new plan is to get the Sudanese to arrest Kony or drive him into Congo, where the UN could hand him to the International Criminal Court.
Accepted wisdom is that the LRA is a mad cult led by a lunatic: kill Kony and the problem will go away. But a young Anglican church worker in Kitgum said: ‘Kony has a spirit. It is in a sheep which leads him around and tells him what to do. When the spirit comes into him, his face changes, his voice changes. It is someone else. You must never look into his eyes. What we are worried about is this: the spirit was in Lakwena and when she crossed the Nile it went into her father and then to Kony. If anything happens to Kony, maybe it will leave him and move to someone else in their clan.’
The Acholi live in squalid camps where 1,000 people die each week, according to the World Health Organisation. A separate report last week by 50 charities in northern Uganda said 41 per cent of the dead are children under five. The violent death rate is estimated to be three times higher than in Iraq and the study says that the war is costing Uganda $85m a year. All this puts the region in the UN emergency category.
The official line is that these camps were formed voluntarily to protect the people from the LRA, but in the past five years the Ugandan army has placed a free-fire zone outside them. People out after sundown are regarded as rebels. When the Burundi government used similar tactics against its rebels a few years ago, international donors moved quickly against it, but, protected by Britain, which needed Museveni as a rare African success story, Uganda gets away with it. The camps exist only because the UN and the charities feed the inmates.
At Labuge camp on the outskirts of Kitgum, some 18,000 people live in traditional grass-roofed huts packed tightly together. Sanitation is minimal and rains make the camp a fetid swamp. If a fire starts, thousands of huts burn in minutes. Disease spreads more quickly. There is nothing for men to do but drink. Women are left with childcare, cooking and brewing beer. Ragged youngsters run wild.
‘Children think food is something that comes off a UN lorry,’ said a local priest. Fly over the once-rich farmland and you see an abandoned landscape with only the ghosts of fields and the blackened remains of homesteads. Two million people are losing the self-sufficiency of which they were so proud.
Ask people why they are here and they blame Museveni, not the cult. One said: ‘The LRA has gone away, why can’t we go home?’ They say Museveni is trying to destroy the Acholi and steal their land.
The President proclaims the LRA defeated and the war over, but there is no plan to let people go home. Neither has he scotched reports that his brother, Salim Saleh, plans to settle white Zimbabwean farmers in the district.
Both the young Acholi politicians and older traditional leaders believe the way to end the war is by negotiation. They say Kony himself could be brought in and forgiven, citing the example of the hundreds of LRA fighters who have defected or been captured and rehabilitated.
Geoffrey Ocana, a spokesman for the Forum for Democratic Change in Kitgum, says: ‘There is no desire to punish. There have been too much atrocities. Even though people know that this boy killed their parents or raped their daughter, not one has been touched. They have been forgiven. That is our way.’
Since 2003, a series of ceasefires led by a former Acholi minister, Betty Bigombe, have come close to making a permanent peace. But Museveni has abandoned the talks because he wants total victory. Britain has also ended support for Bigombe’s mission. Kony never attended the talks and the LRA used the ceasefires to rearm.
There are people on the government side who make money out of the war. Top on the list is Colonel Charles Otema, the military intelligence chief who is also a landowner and proprietor of the main hotel in the northern town of Gulu. International officials say that on at least three occasions he ensured peace talks failed. They also accuse him of deliberately failing to capture or kill LRA leaders.
Western policy, led by Britain, is to capture Kony and his fellow cult leaders and take them to the international court, while Museveni’s aim is a military victory. Kony has no incentive to talk.
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