How Kwoyelo nursed LRA rebels to health

Thomas Kwoyelo consults his lawyers during the court session on April 18, 2024. PHOTO/ABUBAKER LUBOWA. 

What you need to know:

  • In the second instalment of a three-part series titled Kwoyelo: My Story, Tobbias Jolly Owiny revisits what the former LRA commander said about his career as medic during his trial this past week.

Working closely with Laor Ocii before he died in the battlefield helped Thomas Kwoyelo gain a mastery over a range of medical therapies that are not regarded as orthodox by the medical profession. When he wrapped his head around alternative medicine, Mr Kwoyelo was a force of nature. 

Well, at least that is what he told the International Crimes Division (ICD) of the High Court sitting at the Gulu High Court circuit this past week. 

Under the tutelage of Laor Ocii, Mr Kwoyelo says he learnt the ropes of administering herbal medicines to members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that were injured in combat. Soon, with the aid of herbalism, Mr Kwoyelo claims that no soldier under his care died or had to contend with an amputation on his watch.

“If someone (a soldier) gets a fracture and is near me, I will not allow him or her to be amputated. I will treat that person until they heal. For example, I treated several people with broken limbs till they healed, including a senior commander named Onen Kamdulu,” he told the Court this past week.

Mr Kwoyelo was also a beneficiary of his own knowledge. He told the Court about twice sustaining compound fractures while on the battlefront. 

“I sustained a fracture on my limb twice and treated myself until it healed using the same herbs, and those I treated were so many that those who were once in captivity recall very well who I was and what I did for them,” he said.

His ability to coax healing effects out of plant species is, the Court heard this past week, “a God-given gift.”
Mr Kwoyelo disclosed: “God gave me the special gift of treating different sicknesses, which came to me in dreams. There are also different illnesses and ailments that I treated. Even if one had epilepsy, I would treat and heal that person. I would treat and heal the hunchback very well, including elephantiasis.” 

Adding: “As rebels, we did not have modern equipment to use on patients, and we needed to improvise any means to secure success in treating a condition. That is how I learned how to operate on patients even when I did not study.”

Per Mr Kwoyelo, some of the medicine they used included a concoction of the roots of a male pawpaw tree, pumpkin leaves, and spear grass pounded together. This concoction was used to treat malaria. Relief, Mr Kwoyelo added, would come in less than 24 hours. 

“For ailments that made people fall, we dug the roots of an indigenous tree called leno, got the quills of a porcupine, burned it, and mixed the ash with the pounded root to form a concoction that the patient drank,” he further disclosed, adding, “It is also used to heal snakebites by dropping in their nostrils and rubbing the remains on their forehead.” 

For cough, the roots of tropical palm trees were cut and fused with eucalyptus leaves. After pounding them together, the concoction was boiled and taken orally.

Sudanese relief
Mr Kwoyelo also filled the Court in on an excursion he and Vincent Otti had in Sudan (now South Sudan) in 1999. The Sudanese government under former President Omar El-Bashir frequently delivered to the LRA stocks of medical supplies, including replenishing their armoury. 

“When the LRA soldiers got into Sudan, that was when my job became a bit easier because the government of Sudan supplied us with modern medicine,” Mr Kwoyelo disclosed.

Once taken to Sudan to join Kony at his base camp in Jebelen, Mr Kwoyelo recounted how Kony summoned all his soldiers and within a week had rewarded them with ranks. 

Months after promotions, Mr Kwoyelo says he was sent to Juba Hospital for medical training. Upon his return, he was confirmed as the replacement of his fallen mentor, Laor Ocii.

“I was taken to Juba Hospital where I was trained in modern medicine and its applications,” he said, adding, “Afterwards, I returned to Jebelen and continued working on our sick soldiers. During the training, they trained me on operating a patient and how you should put one on a drip once their condition is worsening.”

Mr Kwoyelo said that while at Juba Hospital he learnt the ropes of how to perform medical diagnoses and assess a patient’s condition using modern equipment. 

“Previously, we administered herbal medicine ordinarily without ascertaining the level of the parasite in the blood … during the training, I got all those skills,” he said, adding, “They also showed and trained me how to use so many laboratory tools, besides learning about several types of medicines and the ailments they are used for treating … if someone got injured, we used vague measures and medicine to sedate a patient ... I was shown what was used while operating an injured person.” 

As head of medical services, Mr Kwoyelo also told the Court that his duties included making trips to all four LRA sickbays. These included: one in Nyono Hills in Kitgum, Koc in Nwoya, and Kilak Hills in Amuru.

“When I returned to Uganda, we witnessed a lot of injuries. The hardest work that concerned us (medics) was in Uganda where many of our soldiers got injured while on the battlefront. I remember one of our senior commanders, Otii Lagony, getting injured in the knees during a battle at Parabongo in the knees,” he disclosed.

Mr Kwoyelo told the Court that he was able to treat Lagony and Odong Achelam, who was the brigade commander of the Trinko Brigade. The latter suffered a fractured leg. 

“I treated and healed many LRA commanders, including Lt Col Latin-Munu, whose leg was nearly cut off, and so many other private (junior) soldiers who got injured,” Mr Kwoyelo said, listing a commander called Abudema Bok and Okello Canodonga as the other high-profile rebels he nursed back to good health. 

Mothers were not kept for long at the sickbays, Mr Kwoyelo revealed. They would be picked up and taken to Sudan because their children made noise that would easily be picked up by the ‘antennas’ of government soldiers. 

“My job was to move among all these three sickbays in Uganda, monitor their operations, and also offer my expertise. In Sudan, there were also some sickbays. Once Operation Iron-First kicked off, I was summoned to go there to supervise and offer my expertise at the biggest sick bay in the country,” he said.

Sex and family
Mr Kwoyelo was quick to deny the account of one of the prosecution witnesses. The female witness had earlier told the Court that Mr Kwoyelo forcefully allocated her to an LRA soldier as a wife. 

“The role I was assigned did not warrant me to give out women. The orders on how men (soldiers) got their wives came directly from Kony, and there were officers who were assigned those duties and not me; mine was handling the sick,” he protested. 

“If that woman falls for a man, the would-be husband is supposed to inform his commander, who in turn alerts his next commander until Kony gets the brief. Kony would then authorise or sanction the marriage in an order that trickled down through the same protocol,” he added. 

Kony, Mr Kwoyelo told the Court, used not to countenance not following protocol. Anyone deemed to fall foul paid dearly.

“For example, the widow of Abudema Abuk had a sexual affair with another rebel,” Mr Kwoyelo revealed, “both of them were shot in a firing squad.” 

He also gave another example of the wife of Ocan Bunia who committed adultery when she slept with another man called Ongwee. Both were shot dead. 

That made adultery or any other form of sexual engagement without Kony’s knowledge a very risky affair. 
“There were many girls (women) whose husbands had died in the battle. We took these widows to Kony with us,” he disclosed, adding, “According to the LRA rules, once widows’ hairs are shaved, they are given up to six or nine months for their hair to grow so long that a comb sticks in it without falling. This is when she can begin engaging with another man.” 

He then proceeded to reveal how he wooed two widows who then became his wives. 
“Among them was my wife, Rose Lanyero, and my second wife, Alwoch Filder, in 2000. Lanyero’s husband was killed in Anaka (now Nwoya district) in a shop while trying to loot, and Alwoch’s husband John Ociti, was also killed in a battle,” Mr Kwoyelo told the Court. 

The Court also heard that Kony established stringent rules to protect the institution of the family. It was heard that Kony had a rule that designated a commander in charge of women in all units. If this commander failed to resolve an issue, one of Kony’s wives—Mego Fatuma—was roped in. If she too failed, Kony would have the final roll of the dice.

“Because Kony was considered supreme and the final decider, if he failed to settle such a matter, he would separate the two,” Mr Kwoyelo said.

Continues next weekend.