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 (LRA), 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 and then march with the LRA. They are 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 “wives”.
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”. Last week 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. For a few hours, they believed they had killed Kony. But as the bodies were identified, they realised he had escaped again.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague has 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 multifaith organisation that is trying 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.”
‘Sometimes, we wonder if Kony is the devil himself’
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 serve to infuriate Kony and make him continue fighting. 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 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 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.
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 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.
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 mysticism to instill fear and loyalty in 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 arbitrary fast days. Anyone breaking the rules can be killed for bringing curses on the entire group.
The Sudanese government has made a contribution to Kony’s powers and beliefs. In 1989 the fundamentalist National Islamic Front took power in Khartoum and accused 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 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. Uganda also believes Kony is losing his grip on his troops. But until Kony surrenders, or is captured or killed, many Ugandans will still believe he is invincible. And even if Kony’s power 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 begun counselling and retraining former LRA fighters, but they are finding that many discover it is hard to go back to their families.
“The LRA has a deeply involved spiritual system, but we know the Acholi culture is equally deep and does not condone murder,” Omuk said.
“If murder is committed there has to be reconciliation between the victim’s family and the murderers. we emphasise 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.”