They call them the “Night Dwellers” – a ghostly parade of hundreds of children trudging in silence along the dirt roads of northern Uganda. Each night they come from the outlying districts into the town centres to sleep in open spaces to avoid being kidnapped by the child soldiers of Africa’s strangest rebel group, The Lord’s Resistance Army.
In a continent bedevilled by conflict, there is nothing in Africa as grotesque and bizarre as the magic voodoo war being waged by the LRA’s child soldiers in Uganda.
Led by an illiterate former altar boy named Joseph Kony, nephew of a voodoo priestess, the LRA is an army of up to 20,000 mostly kidnapped and brainwashed children.
Over the past 17 years, Kony’s conscripted children have killed, raped, tortured and maimed thousands of Ugandans and have displaced more than a million from their homes.
The LRA is less an army than a warped Christian cult mixed with African animism and witchcraft. Kony’s stated aim is to overthrow the Ugandan Government and set up a regime based on the ten commandments. But he has no coherent political agenda beyond a cruelty towards children that defies comprehension.
The conflict was started in 1987 by Kony’s aunt, voodoo priestess Alice Lakwena, who exploited Uganda’s north-south rivalry to muster thousands of northern Ugandans to attack the southern capital of Kampala armed with little more than sticks, stones and voodoo dolls.
The revolt was crushed, but her nephew took advantage of the chaos to proclaim himself a prophet, telling his followers he could talk to spirits.
Kony and his disciples then built their army by kidnapping children from their homes and terrorising them into slavery. The United Nations estimates the LRA has kidnapped more than 20,000 children, and that they make up 85 per cent of Kony’s rebel force.
The LRA is the worst offender in a continent where Amnesty International estimates there are up to 120,000 soldiers under the age of 18.
The LRA’s recruiting process involves kidnapping a child — the preferred age is 10-15 – and forcing them to commit a horrific crime, often the killing of their parents or close relatives, so they can not return home.
The child soldiers are indoctrinated in Kony’s apocalyptic belief in the arrival of the “Silent World” — a time when all guns fall silent and those who use primitive weapons such as stones and spears will prevail. He uses selected Biblical passages to justify his soldiers severing limbs of their victims.
Kony, now in his 40s, is said to predict the outcome of battles by setting fire to toy guns and helicopters to see how they burn. He predicts LRA casualties by putting his finger in a glass of water.
But while Kony appears to be lost in a world of voodoo madness, the destruction he causes is real and tragic. A generation of parents in northern Uganda have had their children stolen from them, those who have not encouraged their sons and daughters to join the Night Dwellers.
Uganda’s Government has struggled to combat the LRA because the rebel group launches its attacks from southern Sudan with the apparent tacit support of the Sudanese regime.
In April, Sudan claimed it would help Uganda capture Kony, but so far it has done nothing.
Although the LRA is not strong enough to overthrow the Government, it continues to destabilise the country and sow misery in the north. After 17 years this “magic war” shows no sign of ending.
In February LRA soldiers attacked a refugee camp in northern Uganda, killing 200 people, including many women and children who were forced into their huts at gunpoint and then burnt alive.
In July, the UN’s International Criminal Court vowed to investigate war crimes in the region, but so far nothing has come of it.
Until it does, Africa’s voodoo war looks set to continue. The international community will talk their talk and the Night Dwellers will walk their walk.