Revisiting LRA war 10 years later

Ten years ago this month, the people of northern Ugandan who had suffered during the gruesome war waged by rebel leader Joseph Kony against the government of Uganda started to dream again as talks between the warring sides opened in Juba, South Sudan.

There are no reliable figures regarding those who were killed during the two-decade war, and there are varying estimates of the numbers of children who were abducted and recruited into rebel ranks. The estimates run into several thousands.

Some two million people are estimated to have been herded into internally displaced people’s camps, where they lived in sub-human conditions. But the protection they were supposed to get in the camps was not always forthcoming, with many of them remaining vulnerable to attacks by suspected rebels even when in the camps.

Harrowing tales of what befell various people have been told and retold, and in marking 10 years since the guns fell silent, we have revisited some of these stories and how some of the victims have coped.

The rebels attacked the villages to abduct children mainly by night, so the children responded by abandoning the villages and commuting to the relatively better protected Gulu town for safety.

The breakthrough talks
Kony’s outfit, in official speak in Kampala, was ragtag, just a few thousands strong at its peak, and poorly trained and armed. President Museveni, possibly because of this, was reluctant to talk peace with the rebels, and regularly stated that his job was to “kill Kony”.

Early negotiators like Ms Betty Bigombe, who in the early days of Museveni’s rule was minister for the Pacification of the north, grew frustrated by what appeared like Kampala’s unwillingness to genuinely talk peace with Kony.

Religious and other political leaders in Acholi, who at different times made proposals to Kony and met with him to talk peace, also voiced similar frustrations.

Other accusations flew in, with critics alleging a deliberate campaign of profiteering from the war by senior army commanders, who therefore had no incentive to end the war, and at worst probably abated it.

These critics were further armed by findings by a commission of inquiry that senior army commanders had overstated the numbers in fighting units in the north, in the process pocketing the money that would have catered for the salaries of the “ghost” soldiers.

The military solution to the war grew ever too expensive, in terms of lives and development time lost and money committed to the war. Sometime in the early 2000s, for instance, all government departments suffered a 21 per cent cut in their funding to fund Operation Iron Fist against Kony.

The breakthrough in the Sudan and the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that set South Sudan on the road to independence, therefore, was in this regard a godsend for Uganda, particularly for the people of the north who had directly suffered from the war.

As the new leadership of South Sudan searched for its bearings, it was ever so eager to mediate between Kampala and Kony, who had set up vast bases on the territory of South Sudan, from where he had enjoyed the protection of Khartoum. Kony was backed by Khartoum to destabilise Uganda because Uganda also backed John Garang’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Army that battled Khartoum for the independence of South Sudan.

With the war in the Sudan now over, the new leadership of South Sudan was keen to remove Kony from their land and get a fresh start. So Riek Machar, the vice president in the new set up in South Sudan, took up the mediation role.

ICC roadblock
But a big challenge stood in the way for the talks. Kony and his senior commanders had already been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) due to the atrocities committed in the war. They feared arrest and trial before the Hague-based court should they enter a peace agreement and come out of the bush.

The government of Uganda had referred Kony and his rebels to the ICC, but it was now keen to ask the court to pull out of the matter. Amama Mbabazi, then Attorney General, took up the failed attempt to persuade ICC to drop the indictments against Kony.

As the preparations for the talks hit high gear, Museveni offered total amnesty for the rebels should they come out of the bush unconditionally, but Ayena Odongo, the lawyer representing the rebels, argued that accepting amnesty was tantamount to pleading guilty to the charges.

The Kony rebels insisted that many of the atrocities of which they were accused had been committed by the government forces.

So Ruhakana Rugunda, then minister of Internal Affairs, led the government team into the Juba negotiations against a background of suspicions that were two decades old. But he did not keep the meeting waiting for too long, declaring in his first speech in Juba that his first objective was “to obtain a quick ceasefire”.

The rebels gave in to the demand for a ceasefire two months later, in September 2006. By then they had almost completely moved out of northern Uganda.

The trips
Machar had made trips between Juba and the jungles on the border of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to persuade Kony to personally attend the talks in vain. Kony, however, only sent to Juba his then deputy, Vincent Otti, who he would later kill after a fallout, and his then 14-year-old son, Salim Saleh Kony.

The rebel leader eventually did not sign the final peace agreement, but he did not return to fight on northern Uganda soil. He is now thought to be hiding in the vast jungles of the Central African Republic, where reports by international organisations show he maintain his remaining forces on elephant meat and selling tusks and gold.

How Kony became a rebel

One day Kony summoned his neighbours to the family homestead. “He gathered people to tell them that he had received a new spirit, the Holy Spirit, which had come to him so that he could go and fight to overthrow the government,” Lakoch said. “The voice was coming from his mouth, but it was not his normal voice.”

Lakoch became one of Kony’s most loyal followers, recording the orders of the various spirits which possessed him in an exercise book and learning their names. There was Juma Oris, named after a minister under Amin, a Sudanese woman called Silli Silinda, and American called King Bruce and, most mysteriously – and unpredictable – of all, “Who are You?”
“He told people that when he was speaking, when the spirits are in him, he doesn’t understand. So he chose me to be his secretary. People really trusted in him – how could I miss that chance? I was happy to get that post.”

Kony’s mother Nora Ating was against his son’s talk of rebellion, but he ignored her, instructing his followers to bring him white objects – a dove, plates, Muslim robe – as well as seeds from the red-hot poker tree. Acolytes wearing bamboo rosaries gathered at his homestead, awaiting orders.
“Very many people went to join Kony,” Lakoch said, “I believed that he would do as he stated, that he would overthrow the government and that I would get a good position.”

The young rebel (Kony, then 23) left Odek with eleven followers on April 1, 1987, taking the road towards Gulu. Lakoch had noted the date in his exercise book. One of the girls carried the white dove perched on her head, but they had not a single gun between them.

After a few days they met up with a group of Acholi soldiers known as the “Black Battalion”, part of the army defeated by Museveni. Kony told them their new president was bent on slaughtering all the Acholi, but that his powers could help. He daubed them with sacred water from Awere hill to deflect bullets, and sprinkled it on wire models of the enemy’s weapons.

LRA leader Kony through the eyes of a childhood friend

At first, he explained, Kony was just like any other village boy. They had grown up in adjacent farmsteads, not far from where his hut now stood. Kony’s father, who served as a catechist, was said to have had 17 children by three different wives, not an unusual number in Acholiland.
By day, the two friends planted maize, sorghum and sugar cane. At dusk they would lead their fathers’ cattle to the stream, strip off and leak shrieking into the water. The older boys would try to provoke the pair into a fight by insulting their mothers, but Kony never took a bait.

A coward
“People said he was a coward, that he didn’t want to box,” Lakoch told me, smiling at the memory. “He just said ‘I can’t see the use of fighting.”’
When it came to verbal battles Kony was more than a match for his peers. Lakoch remembers how his friend had mocked his tendency to trip while playing football, and nicknamed another boy futa after a brand of brown soap the same colour as his stained teeth.
“Kony was really a jolly man,” Lakoch said. “What he liked most was conversation and laughing.”
“One of the older brothers who made us fight called him (Kony) Ongera (Black monkey).”
Kony wore a rosary to school and attended Catholic services, though he never shone in class. Instead, he earned respect with his feet. Parents would gather at Odek Primary School for the musical festival, where students performed the traditional Acholi dances. There was the bwola, the royal dance, the dingidingi, the welcome dance, the larakaraka, a courtship dance. Everyone had agreed that Kony had known how to move.
Kony never completed his schooling. As Lakoch told it, the spirits had other ideas. Some days they stopped him from eating vegetables, or struck him dumb. Other days they would summon him to the granite crown of the nearby Awere hill where he spent hours in prayer. Kony had been chosen to heal.
“He told me that he never wanted to become a witchdoctor, because he was still young, but he was forced to by the spirits,” Lakoch said. “He could even have died if he had refused, so he accepted to become a witchdoctor and he healed so many people.”

(Story of Lakoch p’Oyoo, then a Maths teacher at Odek Primary School in Gulu, as recorded in The Wizard of the Nile: The Hunt for Africa’s Most Wanted by Matthew Green)
(Also extracted from The Wizard of the Nile)

Continues tomorrow

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