Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, has terrorised Uganda for 18 years with a vicious campaign of murder, rape and kidnap. But the army is finally closing in on him, reports Meera Selva
In the villages of northern Uganda, Joseph Kony is the stuff of nightmares. A self-proclaimed mystic with a garbled pseudo-Christian ideology, this is a man who spirits children away from their parents at the dead of night and steals their innocence forever. Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that has fought the Ugandan government for 18 years in a war that has killed more than 23,000 people and forced 1.5 million people to flee their homes.
His methods of warfare are notorious. Children are kidnapped, forced to kill their own parents, then march with the LRA, beaten and brutalised until they finally become fighters themselves. Teenage girls are hidden in elaborate fox-holes with just enough room for LRA commanders to climb into and claim them as their “wife”.
Most of the LRA army is “manned” by abducted children, some of whom have grown to adulthood in its ranks. The Ugandan army has learnt to use double-speak: when it attacks LRA fighters, it has “killed some rebels”; when it captures them, it has “rescued child hostages”. On Wednesday night, it did both. The army raided Kony’s base near Juba, south Sudan, and killed more than 100 of his followers. They also managed to get hold of some of Kony’s wives and children, his walkie-talkie and military epaulettes he had awarded himself. For a few hours, they believed that they had killed Kony. But as the bodies were identified, they realised that he had escaped again.
Lieutenant-Colonel Otema Awany, the army’s chief intelligence officer for northern Uganda, could barely hide his frustration. “The problem is that our troops were trying to capture him alive. They fired at him, and he was running, but it is not clear whether any bullets struck him.” Yesterday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague said it would investigate alleged atrocities in Northern Uganda, and focus on killings and assaults committed under Kony’s orders.
Akwero Betty Omuk, of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, a multi-faith organisation that is trying desperately to bring peace to Northern Uganda, said: “Sometimes, we wonder if Kony is the devil himself. But then I remember that this kind of thought merely strengthens the LRA. He is just a man, and we can deal with him as if he is just a man.”
Mrs Omuk can be forgiven for believing Kony is, somehow, not human. He has unleashed such force on his own people, the Acholi tribe of northern Uganda, that even seasoned war watchers are taken aback. The Ugandan army’s continued failure to capture Kony or defeat his movement have added to beliefs that he is immortal. One Western diplomat said: “He is, by all accounts, able to convince people he has spiritual powers. I also assume that he has this force of personality that could make people believe that. He has a certain amount of military prowess, and he is obviously quite cunning.” Several Ugandans also believe the ICC may merely serves to infuriate Kony and make him continue fighting. “We think maybe Kony is using the impending ICC case as a reason to commit all these new atrocities,” Mrs Omuk said. “All the senior commanders are doing anything they can to survive. They know that if they surrender or come to the negotiating table, they will be prosecuted.”
Kony has already proved how ruthless he can be if he believes people want to attack or betray him. In the mid-1990s, the government began arming some of the Acholi communities so they could protect themselves from LRA attacks. Kony’s retribution was swift, and vicious. He accused the Acholi of betraying him, and the LRA swooped on villages, cutting off the ears and noses of anyone they considered traitors. At this time, he began his campaign of child abductions, believing the only way to create a “pure” army was to use children who had been brainwashed into following him.
“Kony trusts no one,” said Florence Lakor, a counsellor at the World Vision camp for children who have escaped the LRA. “If a man comes to him and says he wants to join the LRA, he is suspicious that he is a traitor, and will usually have him killed. He prefers to get children, who he can control more.” As a result, more than 20,000 children have been kidnapped since the mid-1990s. Most of them are 11 to 16, though some can be as young as four. If they are rescued or somehow escape, they struggle to get over the trauma of the years in the bush.
Oyella, a shy, 20-year-old girl in the Children of War camp in Gulu, designed for those who have escaped the LRA, described in measured words how she was abducted when she was 12. “I was taken from my school, when we were doing our prep. They took 23 of us all together, but some have died now and I don’t know where the others are. We were made to cook for everyone, and I was given a husband, although I didn’t want him. I escaped in the end at night because I wanted to die instead of staying there any more.” Her three-year-old son at her side tells the unspoken story, of the man who raped her, and of the stigma she will now have to face from her community for having borne the son of a fighter.
Joseph Kony formed his army in late 1987, after Alice Lakwena, his mentor and cousin, failed to overthrow the government. The Acholi rebel movement has its roots in dissatisfaction among the Acholi people, who were favoured by the colonial British and pre-Museveni regimes, but lost a great deal of influence after the present President Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986. A hotchpotch of defeated government forces regrouped under Lakwena in 1987 through the Holy Spirit Movement. She was the first to practise the sort of religious warfare that has become the LRA’s trademark, and persuaded her 10,000 followers that smearing themselves with nut-oil would make them invulnerable to bullets.
The movement got within 100km of the Ugandan capital Kampala before the nut oil finally let them down. Lakwena fled to Kenya, and Kony took on the mantle. He linked up with the old Acholi-dominated army and gained new contacts among Acholi exile communities. Lakwena has now been persuaded to return to Uganda to try to bring Kony to the negotiating table, but few believe she can succeed.
“Her return will have a minimal impact,” Mrs Omuk said. “She is not relevant anymore. The LRA has turned into a cult movement that is not answerable to anyone, except its own members.” Lakwena’s rules had been strict: looting, rape and adultery were banned, and smoking and drinking forbidden. Kony did initially order similar restraints on his troops, but as the years passed, his discipline slackened, and they have been allowed to loot, burn and murder in any villages they attack. But Kony, a former Catholic altar boy, still uses a strange brand of myticism to instill fear and loyalty in the minds of his followers. He claims he is a medium for holy spirits who talk to him in their dreams.
He directs his rebel forces from their messages, which are recorded by his scribes. The rebel leader also prays within concentric circles drawn in ash or pebbles and has a choir of young girls, some dressed as nuns, to sing his praises. Soldiers are sometimes required to pray waist-deep in water, and observe arbitary fast days. Anyone breaking the rules can be killed for bringing curses on the entire group.
The Sudanese government has made its own contribution to Kony’s powers and beliefs. In 1989, the fundamentalist National Islamic Front took power in Khartoum and accused the the Ugandan government of supporting the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south. In 1994, peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government foundered, and Sudan immediately gave the LRA space to build camps, and provided them with weapons and uniforms. In return, Kony was told to fight the SPLA and intercept supplies to the south. As Kony got the support from Khartoum, he came up with another set of rules, that pork was not to be eaten and Friday should be a second Sabbath.
The Sudanese government has come under intense international pressure to stop backing the LRA, and has signed an agreement that allowed the Ugandan government to pursue the LRA into sections of south Sudan. It also promises it has stopped backing the rebels, but aid workers say the fighters are still being supplied by Khartoum.
“The LRA is still a source of insecurity in south Sudan and we don’t see how they could continue fighting unless they are getting their supplies from somewhere,” a Unicef spokesman, Ben Parker, said. “It makes the aid distribution in the area problematic.”
On Monday, the Anglican church in south Sudan said the LRA had murdered several civilians, and the SPLA claimed several of its fighters had also been killed. The tensions between the LRA and the SPLA threatens to destabilise the hard-won peace deal between the government of Sudan and the southern rebels signed this summer.
But the Ugandan army is optimistic of victory. Two senior LRA commanders, Charles Tabuley and Tolbert Yardin Nyeko, have been killed in the past year, and several junior commanders have surrendered with their wives and children. Uganda also believes that Kony is losing his grip on his troops. An army spokesman said: “Those commanders who are not under his [Kony’s] direct control have been surrendering.” But until Kony surrenders, or is captured or killed, many Ugandans will still believe that he is invincible.
And even if the power of Kony does wane, the Acholis of northern Uganda will still have to face up to the fact that their children have been turned into killers, who have now begotten children of their own.
Various aid agencies have already begun counselling and retraining the former LRA fighters who have returned from the bush, but they are finding that many discover it is hard to go back to their families and communities.
“The LRA have a deeply involved spiritual system, but we know the Acholi culture is equally deep and it does not condone murder,” Mrs Omuk said. “If murder is committed there has to be reconciliation between the victim’s family and the murderers. In our talks, we are always emphasising forgiveness and compassion as values that can be taken by all sides. But now, with the crimes that have been committed here, this reconciliation will take many years.”