Enslaved Child Army Terrorizes Uganda

Readers of Uganda's leading newspaper were met with a grisly sight last week.

Splashed on the pages of the state-run New Vision was a picture of six mutilated bodies, sprawled in the mud, some of them missing their heads and limbs. In the center of the picture was a big black cooking pot, with a leg sticking out of it.

The picture accompanied a story about the latest attack from the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group that has been plaguing the central African country for nearly two decades.

It is a bizarre movement, led by a mysterious man who claims to be possessed, and whose power derives from the thousands of children his forces have kidnapped to serve as his soldiers and sex slaves. The LRA is best known for leaving horrifying acts of cannibalism and dismemberment in its wake.

There have been reports that the LRA wants to establish a government based on the biblical Ten Commandments. But its leader, Joseph Kony, has so seldom been seen that this is hard to confirm — and peace is equally elusive.

"Nobody knows what his ambitions are, what he wants in the way of a settlement," said Jemera Rone, an Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.

The LRA is the largest insurgent group in Uganda, a country which has been one of the troubled continent's success stories. But there has been a flare-up in LRA activity since June, and observers are alarmed.

On Oct. 30, the World Food Program warned that more than a half-million people would soon face severe food shortages leading to unprecedented hunger. Much of the shortage is blamed on LRA activity.

A representative of Catholic Relief Services, another aid organization active in the region, said they are concerned about food shortages, but are more concerned about other LRA activity, which appears to be growing increasingly unpredictable — and violent.

The LRA "is getting more and more outrageous and more and more brutal," said Anna Schowengerdt, CRS' acting country representative in Uganda. The report in the New Vision was evidence of this, she said.

Blood Madness

Part of the fear of the LRA no doubt stems from the idiosyncrasies of its leader. A skinny, middle-aged man with braided hair, Joseph Kony claims to be guided by spirits who help him see into his enemies' minds.

According to U.N. documents, Kony's imagined spirits include a Sudanese female Chief of Operations; a Chinese Deputy Chief, Ing Chu, who commands an imaginary jeep battalion; an American named King Bruce, reportedly after martial arts film star Bruce Lee; another American named Jim Brickey, who fights with Kony's troops as long as they obey his commands, and the spirit of Juma Oris, the deceased interior minister under former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Kony is a former altar boy and was part of an earlier Christian fundamentalist rebel movement, the Holy Spirit Movement, which was founded in 1986 by a former prostitute, Alice Lakwena.

But that movement came to a quick end — no doubt because Lakwena promised her followers immunity from the bullets of government troops.

As the LRA emerged from the ashes of the Holy Spirit Movement, it has spawned its own versions of madness.

Paranoid of informers, the rebels have cut off the ears and lips of suspects, and cut off the feet of anybody using a bicycle. They feared the bicycles would be used to inform the Ugandan army of the rebels' presence.

Their methods of violence have also become increasingly gruesome. Whereas much of their violence used to be committed with firearms, they are turning to more personal methods, like machetes, local reports said.

There have also been reports of LRA soldiers killing babies by picking them up by their ankles and swinging them into trees. One former child soldier told the BBC he and his colleagues were forced to kill a fellow boy soldier who had tried to escape — by stomping him to death.

"If it seemed you were not doing it hard enough you were beaten," he said.

K-12 Army

In the incident recounted in Uganda's New Vision, the LRA killed 28 villagers for failing to stop a captive from escaping with some of their valuables — identified as a gun, a large sum of money and a Polaroid camera.

The Ugandan military arrived in time to prevent any further carnage, the newspaper reported — but there are reports of other incidents in which the LRA has forced people to cannibalism and then killed them.

In April, the LRA forced 60 funeral-goers to eat the corpse they were carrying before gunning them down, Reuters reported.

Allegations of cannibalism and mutilation, while rare, have been seen before in Africa — most notably, in the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia during the 1990s.

Those conflicts were also characterized by the widespread practice of abducting children for use as soldiers and sex slaves — a practice the LRA has adopted as well.

Like the conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the LRA has obtained child soldiers by abducting them, and sometimes forcing the children to kill their family members to secure their attachment to the group.

According to reports from a number of aid groups, the LRA was so dependent on child labor that they regularly turned to abduction when their ranks thinned.

"My perception is that there's probably no family at all in Northern Uganda that hasn't been affected," said Schowengerdt, who has worked in Uganda for the past two years.

Human Rights Watch's Rone said the abductions were significant, but not so much as to have an effect on demographics. Northern Uganda, where the LRA operates, has a population of 100,000, she said. At most, 12,000 children were abducted, but 4,000 have since escaped.

However, there's no discounting the human cost of the conflict. Elaine Bole of the Christian relief organization Worldvision visited a rehabilitation camp in Northern Uganda last year, where she met two young former members of the LRA.

One was a girl, who had been a sex slave, and then abandoned once she had become pregnant, she said. The other was a boy, who had been shot in the groin. The rebels abandoned him because he was leaking urine and stinking up the camp.

Unlike other child soldiers, who are typically aggressive and violent, "these children were more defeated," she said. They were almost obsequious, she said — they wanted to stay in the camp, because this was the best thing that happened to them.

Failed Promises

Uganda-watchers say one reason why the LRA has been allowed to survive for so long is that it operates mostly out of southern Sudan and northern Uganda, home of the Acholi people.

The LRA are Acholi, and up until recently, so have been most of their victims. They make up less than 5 percent of the population, and their area of the country is less economically important than the developed south.

Moreover, the Acholi have a troubled history with the rest of the nation, Schowengerdt said.

When the British ruled the nation, they mandated that all soldiers had to be over 6 feet tall. Unlike the rest of Uganda's population, which are short and squat, the Acholi are tall and slim — and the Acholi parlayed their positions in the military into subjugating their peers, Schowengerdt said.

When current president Yoweri Museveni took power, many of those who opposed him were Acholi.

In addition, the Ugandan government's efforts against the LRA are now tied up with its difficulties with its northern neighbor, Sudan. The LRA had been receiving support from Sudan, who used it to combat its own rebels, the Sudan People's Liberation Army. Uganda was in turn supporting the SPLA.

The United States has since designated the LRA a terrorist organization, and keen to win the support of Washington, Sudan has cut off its support, Rone said.

In March of this year, the Ugandan government launched Operation "Iron Fist" designed to wipe out the LRA — but according to most reports, the government has been unsuccessful, stymied by the rebels' mobility, and knowledge of their homelands.

Seeing a bloody stalemate in the works, many Ugandans have suggested a general amnesty for the LRA, despite its atrocities. But the government, by most accounts, has been squirrelly in its negotiations.

"Musevni doesn't want to lower himself to talk to a terror leader, to talk to a brutal killer," Rone said.

On the other hand, the rebels want nothing more than respect, said Opiyo Oloya, a Ugandan journalist living in Toronto. "They simply want to come out with their heads held high and not to be seen as defeated," he said.

For Oloya, it's an urgent matter. His family is Acholi, and in 1997, his parents were forced from their home by the conflict. It's the place where he grew up, and where his parents lived for a half-century.

The government moved them into what can be described as a refugee camp, and they eventually made their way to safety in the capital, Kampala, where they are trying to re-establish their lives — and their community.

"Acholis are only strong because of their social connectedness," he said. "We're going to lose a whole generation of people."