On September 1, 2002, Jasper Akii was trying to sleep in his family’s grass-thatched hut, located on the dusty, war-torn plains of Northern Uganda. For as long as the 11-year-old boy could remember, his small village of cassava farmers and cattle herders had struggled with the daily disruptions of a 20-year civil war between Ugandan government forces and a rag-tag band of dreadlocked, machine gun-toting rebels known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. But only during late summer of that year had the outfit — led by its charismatic, bloodthirsty “prophet” Joseph Kony — begun to terrorize the villages scattered throughout the Lira District, where Jasper lived.
News that the rebels had reached Jasper’s neighborhood was chilling, because the Lord’s Resistance Army steals children. For the better part of two decades, the LRA has followed the same horrifying pattern of raiding defenseless villages and abducting children as young as 8 to force the boys into becoming vicious soldiers and the girls into sex slavery. The strategy, though unfathomably cruel, is effective, combining pseudo-Christian mumbo jumbo with psychological torment and brutality. Its supposed agenda has always been to eliminate longtime Ugandan strongman, President Yoweri Museveni, and establish a divine government ruled by the Ten Commandments. And so — while Western and African nations wring their hands decrying the evils of Kony and his minions — in the heart of Northern Uganda, generations have lived their childhoods in constant fear.
To avoid the rebels, Jasper usually joined the procession of children who walked from their villages every evening into the crowded city of Lira, where they would sleep at night wherever they could. But on this summer night, Jasper missed his chance and instead stayed at home with his family. Around midnight, his youngest brother needed to pee, so Jasper quietly took the toddler out of the hut, only to be blinded by the beam of an LRA flashlight. He ran back into the hut, but the rebels pointed AK-47s at his head and yanked him back outside. An hour later, Jasper, along with nearly two dozen other boys and girls from his village, was taken away from his family, from his freedom, and from his childhood.
For the next three years, Jasper wandered barefoot across the thorny, sun-baked savannahs of northern Uganda and southern Sudan. He carried heavy equipment, subsisted on wild leaves and raw grain, endured continual beatings, and fought deadly gun battles with the government army, the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF). Perhaps the most horrifying traumas came when he was forced by rebel commanders to murder other children who lay alive in hastily dug, shallow graves, where Jasper and the other young captives would beat them to death with blunt sticks and small rocks.
“Of all my experiences in the bush,” said Jasper, who is now 15 and has been living free for almost seven months, “what pains me most is them forcing me to kill. … It makes tears flow from my eyes.”
Jasper’s story, however appalling, is not unique. More than 25,000 Northern Ugandan children have been abducted in this bloodbath, sub-Saharan Africa’s longest running conflict. The death rates are three times that of Iraq and Darfur. To avoid the rebels, two million Northern Ugandans now crowd into sprawling refugee camps, a squalid situation that’s become a human-rights crisis all its own. And President Museveni does little to end the killing and mayhem because it helps secure his lock on power. Yet the true tragedy of this anguish is that the world does not know about Jasper’s life, and if they do, they do not seem to care.
Ugandan History 101 An East African country of nearly 30 million sandwiched between Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda is home to more than 40 distinct tribes and 33 regional dialects. That explosive tribal cocktail — the result of arbitrary borders created by the British colonizers when they inked a deal in 1900 with a 4-year-old kabaka, or king, from the powerful Buganda kingdom — is the leading reason why Uganda’s history is as tumultuous as any other African nation.
Independence for Uganda was slow-coming, largely due to the lack of national identity that continues to plague the country. While many African nations sought independence immediately after World War II, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that Uganda’s political parties successfully vied for freedom, which the British government finally granted peacefully in 1962.
That year marked the rise to power of Milton Obote, who, as a Northern Ugandan, was successful in leading his countrymen against the ruling Bugandans. In 1966, the Bugandan kabaka was chased out of the country, thousands were assassinated, and Obote declared himself “life president.” But the dictator’s forceful reign came to a screeching halt in 1971 when the commander of his army — a fellow northerner whose penchant for senseless murder and bizarre behavior would eventually put his mug on the cover of Time magazine and make Idi Amin a household name — led a military coup.
Although known to be the architect of Obote’s violent crackdowns, Amin was welcomed by Ugandans and foreign officials alike. Sure, his “State Research Bureau” hunted down Obote supporters, but all was relatively well for the first 18 months. Then, in August 1972, Amin’s peculiarities, which some suggest were the results of advanced syphilis, arose when he kicked Uganda’s 50,000 Asians out of the country due to a dream. As he erased more than 300,000 countrymen with torturous death squads — at times allegedly feasting on his enemies’ organs — Amin allied himself with the Soviet Union, Libya, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, threatened to attack neighboring Kenya and Sudan, and aided in the hijacking of an Air France jetliner by the PLO. Meanwhile, Amin, a fan of racecars and Disney cartoons, took to calling himself the “King of Scotland” while others labeled him the “Butcher of Uganda.” Amin’s final folly was attacking Tanzania in 1978, which sparked a military mutiny. In April 1979, Amin fled Uganda, eventually settling in Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2003.
Amin’s wake created a political vacuum, which was filled by seven heads of state in seven years. One of them was Obote, whose second rise to power triggered an armed revolution run by Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM). The beleaguered country’s worst massacres ever occurred during this revolt, as Obote’s forces slaughtered more than 200,000 innocent civilians in an area called the Luwero Triangle. (Until his death in 2005, Obote blamed Museveni’s NRM for that atrocity.) International support piled up for the NRM, and in January 1986 they stormed Kampala. Museveni was declared president, ushering in the modern era for Uganda.
Psycho Prophets, Ingenious Cruelty As the new government worked to rebuild Uganda — achieving enough success for Bill Clinton to call Museveni part of a “new breed” of African leaders — a spiritual revolution of unequal parts witchcraft and Christianity was burning near the northern city of Gulu. An Acholi oracle named Alice Auma, who frequently channeled the spirit of an Italian soldier from World War I named “Lakwena” (which translates to “messenger” in the Acholi language), founded the Holy Spirit Movement to rebel against Museveni and bring her people paradise on earth.
The hybrid Christian movement marched a few thousand strong toward Kampala with sticks, stones, voodoo dolls, and with the belief that God had made them immune to bullets. Though they picked up support along the way from other tribes who felt mistreated by Museveni, they were easily quashed outside Kampala by the Ugandan army. Lakwena then departed from Alice’s body and she fled to Kenya, where she lives today in a refugee camp and dabbles in child trafficking.
Rather than result in a humiliated peace, Alice’s escape opened the doors for the rise of her cousin, Joseph Kony. Hailing from a village east of Gulu, Kony claimed that he was a prophet sent to save the Acholi people. He founded the Lord’s Resistance Army, with the expressed intent of overthrowing Museveni and creating a government based on the Ten Commandments. Initially, Kony gained popular support as the rampant abuses of the army against the Acholi ceased, but by the early 1990s, the LRA — constantly losing manpower in one-sided battles against the UPDF — had begun its now infamous brand of recruitment, focusing primarily on the north-central districts of Gulu, Kitgum, and Pader.
The ruthless recipe for a child soldier is ingenious: Forcibly remove an impressionable boy or girl between the ages of 8 and 15 from his or her family. Make the newly kidnapped kill or maim family members who object. Subject the abducted to shoeless trekking toward a faraway safe camp. Publicly beat those who complain or attempt an escape. Anoint the abducted with mysterious oils whose “magical” powers offer immunity from bullets and make a child’s thoughts “known” to Kony’s commanders. Tell the abducted that the army will kill them even if they surrender, and that if the army doesn’t, a relief organization such as World Vision will poison their food. Subject the children to an endless cycle of violence, wherein the boys and girls must brutally attack one another or face execution themselves. Throw in dashes of cannibalism, a crippling diet, incentives regarding the coming paradise, a fashionable dreadlocked look, and the notion that the Acholis who do not support the LRA must be “cleansed.” And there you have it: A loyal child soldier ready to battle against the UPDF.
Concrete numbers are tough to come by, but most international observers agree that since the spiritual civil war began in 1986, more than 25,000 Northern Ugandan children have endured at least part of this process. (That’s not counting the 1,000 or so babies born to abducted girls.) According to a March 2006 Oxfam report, the war’s rate of violent deaths at roughly 146 per week is three times that of Iraq. With another 750 who die weekly to war-related disease, the crude mortality is three times that of Sudan’s headline-making Darfur region.
All of this thanks to a constantly mobile rebel army of which four out of five soldiers are abducted children. It’s baffling that after 20 years, Museveni’s well-funded and -equipped army has not yet eliminated the LRA.
Museveni, who considers the war a localized problem, often blames the Sudanese for backing the LRA, which did happen years ago in retaliation for Uganda’s support of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. But that excuse is tired: Just last week, the Sudanese killed four LRA soldiers and in 2002, they allowed the UPDF to launch the American-aided, post-9/11 Operation Iron Fist within southern Sudan.
For how much the hardworking Ugandan media know about Kony’s movements — headlines track his whereabouts constantly — most educated Ugandans and foreign aid workers have no choice but to conclude that Museveni is benefiting from the war. There are myriad allegations as to how, but the leading rationale is two-pronged: first, an active war means a big defense budget, which Museveni uses to keep his generals happy as insurance they will support him in the event the voters one day do not; and secondly, the war keeps the flood of foreign donations steady, allowing both corrupt officials to skim off the top ($10 million from the Global Fund, for instance, went missing in 2003) and establishing an infrastructure that the country would otherwise have to provide.
The good news is that the outside world will probably get involved at some point, since the International Criminal Court in The Hague recently indicted Kony. The Acholis fear the indictments will spark more fighting than peace, but at least it opens the door for the intervention of elite forces from America or Europe who could probably eliminate Kony during an extended weekend.
It’s doubtful, however, that Museveni will allow that to happen anytime soon. After 20 years at the helm, he’s taking conspicuous steps toward another “life presidency” for Uganda. Even the top aide to the Electoral Commission opined, “The problem in Africa is leaders who change politics into a profession.”
Hope burned a hot, short fuse last winter, as Ugandans participated in the first multi-party elections in more than 20 years. The top challenger, Kizza Besigye — who was Museveni’s doctor during the revolution and married the president’s former lover — seemed to have a shot, even though Museveni had gone so far as to charge the challenger with rape and treason.
But when the voting dust settled in February 2006, Museveni emerged the victor with nearly 60 percent of the vote. After the final tally was announced in Nelson Mandela Stadium on Kampala’s outskirts, poll monitors announced their observations. The representative from the African Commonwealth put it bluntly: “We have a number of concerns. …To a large extent, there was no level playing field. We’re not happy with the heavy military presence all over the country. It’s not conducive to the free right to vote,” he said, as the international media looked on and crowds of Museveni supporters began rallying with their yellow NRM shirts and banana leafs outside the gates. He concluded, “On the whole, we think that Ugandans have been able to exercise, to some extent, their right to vote.”
Meanwhile, in Northern Uganda hundreds were dying, as usual.
The Terrorized Tribe “This is what we call ‘escort to Pader,’” chuckled Richard “Ricky” Anywar, the 30-year-old former child soldier/current aid worker who served as my guide throughout Uganda during my February-March 2006 visit. He’s driving his golden Toyota Corolla over a muddy, rutted road outside of the safe city of Lira and toward the dangerous Pader District, which the United Nations’ humanitarian expert recently called “the epicenter of terror.” Behind us, in a rented blue truck with Asian lettering, are six soldiers serving as escorts, five equipped with cocked semiautomatic rifles and one sporting a massive machine gun connected to a Rambo-esque rope of bullets dangling from his neck.
Born, raised, orphaned, and abducted twice in the Pader District, Ricky makes this drive frequently to run his Friends of Orphans nonprofit, so he’s smiling when he instructs me, “Remove your seatbelt, because when the bullets begin flying, you won’t be able to get out.” It’s fair warning, because this road from Lira to Pader hosts repeated daylight ambushes, including a particularly gruesome incident where more than 300 civilians were tortured to death. The day before, a group of village hunters had been killed and on the day we were driving, there was a major battle between government forces and the LRA in the area.
The only reason photographer Connie Aramaki and I were willing to brave the route was to visit some refugee camps — technically, internally displaced person (IDP) camps — near Pader Town Council, a one-street boomtown founded in 2000 as the district’s headquarters. The boom for Pader TC was the more than 20,000 refugees who piled into the adjoining camps as the war intensified, which brought a second boom courtesy of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who help the refugees. The Pader TC camp is an example of the government’s main response to the war, forcing two million Acholis to relocate from their home villages to one of these 200-plus so-called safe zones — located throughout Northern Uganda — where the traumatized villagers must build new homes and cobble together any sanitation system they can. Government soldiers patrol the perimeters, though that doesn’t stop the LRA from occasionally breaching the borders; in some cases the consolidation of villagers makes them easier targets. It’s such an inept fix that an unprecedented concentration of NGOs have flocked here.
We, thankfully, encounter no rebels during the nearly two-hour drive into Pader, although even Ricky’s constant banter stopped and he began whistling at one of the more bloody corners of the road. We check into the spartan Pader Middle Hotel — a k a “Santos Sam’s place” — for $4 a night and eat at the Global Starter Hotel across the street, where edible rat is on the menu.
During a quick walk through the camp, we encounter one of the great plagues confronting the dense living conditions: uncontrolled fires — started by, depending on whom you believe, spirits, unwatched kitchens, the LRA, or kids playing with matches — that jump from grassy roof to grassy roof, consuming whole blocks. Then we saw the expected sorrows: naked children with dirt-covered, fly-plagued faces and distended bellies eating fistfuls of mush; torn, filthy, inadequate scraps of clothing worn by nearly everyone; visibly diseased people, dealing with the normally treatable effects of malaria, AIDS, and diarrhea; vitamin deficiencies caused by only eating World Food Programme grains; the mounting stress resulting from the UPDF’s sunset-to-sunrise roadblocks; and begging, oh so much begging.
We visit the Olwornguu Primary School on the outskirts of town, where more than 3,000 children converge daily for instruction. Even at a ratio of 150 children per teacher, these kids are lucky. More than 250,000 Acholi kids do not receive any education whatsoever. We visit Ricky’s Friends of Orphans center, which seeks to reintegrate child soldiers and teach them such things as tailoring, carpentry, and other “income-generating activities,” quite the buzzwords for NGOs in these parts. But his organization, like many, lacks steady funding, so things move slowly, if at all.
Later that day, Ricky shows us his motivation: the home where he grew up, where he was first abducted at age 14, and where he watched his mother, father, and seven siblings burned to death by the LRA. “What I want most,” explained a grief-stricken Ricky as he peered across the plain where he once tended to cows and played soccer, “is to protect this place, to put a memorial to my family, and, every May 3, when they were killed, to gather people and pay respects.”
Down the road at the Lira Palwo (pronounced “paloo”) IDP camp, which is home to about 21,000, a few tall trees provide shade. That rarity points to another price of the war: deforestation of the savannah, whose trees are constantly being chopped for firewood. The camp is surprisingly clean, and there are even some industrious activities underway, with men making adobe bricks, women finishing off their new stoves, and families polishing their hut floors with wet cow dung. But predominantly, like at Pader TC, the people are idle — elderly women make kwete, a liquor fermented from maize, and young men play cards all day long, gambling with cashew shells and getting drunk.
“There is no change of diet — that is why everyone looks thin. There is not enough water. There’s a lot of mosquito troubles and malaria. There’s no education,” explained Tolit Okesh, who’s been in Lira Palwo since 2001, amid a long line of jerry can-holding children and mothers seeking water from the well. “But the worst part of it is that there is no work for us. So we drink, have sex, and lots of people get infected with HIV … And even if you don’t get disease, you have another mouth to feed.”
Despite the involvement of the Red Cross, the World Food Programme, UNICEF, and every prominent NGO under the sun, the IDP camp of Northern Uganda is still an atrocity. With more than $1 billion in aid coming into Uganda since 1994, how can this be?
According to Angelo Miramonti, of Cooperazione Internazionale, or COOPI, Italy’s largest nonprofit, Western relief agencies send plenty of money to a variety of organizations, but then don’t hold them accountable, only coming to the region for quick inspections where they see dog-and-pony shows. As one of the few Westerners who actually lives in Pader TC, Miramonti’s seen this process countless times. “Every development agency wants to work here with a remote control,” said Miramonti over a dinner of pesto pasta and cold beer that he prepared for us one night. “The remote control is not working. I see it not working every day.”
Later on that March evening, as Ricky and I eat salted pork and drink warm Bell Lagers back in Pader TC, his friends notice Kenneth Banya walking through town, apparently visiting for a funeral. A former commander of the LRA, Banya is one of the 4,000 LRA members who took the government up on their previous promises of amnesty, hoping that forgiveness will overcome and end the war. That’s a good policy for child soldiers, Ricky’s friends agree, but not for someone like Banya, who is known to have ordered the chopping off of breasts and removal of lips. “He’s a bad man and he should be dead,” said Ricky. “He tried to go back to his community, but they rejected him.” The cycle of war in Northern Uganda clearly has no easy, mutually acceptable ending.
The next night, less than a mile from Santos Sam’s place in Pader TC, three children and their cows are abducted by the LRA.
Feeling Good in Gulu Surrounded by IDP camps in the heart of Northern Uganda, the bustling town of Gulu subsists on hope for a better tomorrow. Each night, in one of the 21st century’s more tragic phenomena, thousands of children walk to Gulu from their home villages — some as far as seven miles away — out of fear of the LRA. The nightly trek has attracted the global media, led to the documentary Invisible Children, and sparked a nonprofit called GuluWalk to organize marches around the world.
One such shelter is Noah’s Ark, where a few hundred kids come every night to sleep in large tents after a couple hours of studying, dancing, and prayer. Some go home only for lunch. These children, however tormented by the threat of the LRA, can call themselves lucky, because most of them have so far avoided abduction. Things at Noah’s Ark are better now than when violence peaked in 2004 — then, a few thousand kids would come to the shelter every night and the LRA maintained a post just a few hundred yards from the shelter’s chain-link fences.
The challenges are unending for the shelter’s “mother,” 28-year-old Annette Kururi, a Kenyan who heard about the night commuters as a university student in Kampala. “We have to look at if the war ends,” said Kururi one afternoon as the sun drips down toward the trees where fruit bats hang in clusters. “How do we get these children back into the community?”
A few blocks away, the employees of the World Vision rehabilitation center battle the most terrible part of the war — trying to reintegrate abducted children into society. This is where Jasper lives now, undergoing counseling in huts that mirror the traditional home and having group meetings in a room whose ceiling fringe is decorated with the 13 stages of a child soldier, from abduction to reunification with family.
Jasper is not alone, as the center still gets a handful of rescued children every week. (At the fighting’s peak, they had as many as 40 new kids per day, at one point housing 1,000 former child soldiers.) Things are better now here as well. Said Michael Oreana, the center’s director, “When I see this small number, it means the work here is almost done.”
But there are still people like Terry Acan, who was abducted in 1996 and rescued in 2005, who must live with the wounds of war. At 12, she was forced to marry a man who beat her, and then was given to a 50-year-old man who treated her well but made her pregnant too. As she said, “Everyone is suffering in the bush, but the child mother suffers most.”
There’s plenty of physical rehab that goes on at World Vision as well, as all child soldiers come in with hygienic problems and some have war wounds requiring outside surgeries. That includes the case of 8-year-old Scovia Acen, who was born in the bush and hit in the head by mortar attack when on her mother’s back. She too is partially paralyzed and suffers from headaches, but Uganda’s doctors are afraid to work on her problem.
It’s tempting to get lost in the sadness of Northern Uganda, but there is some hope, even if that hope means just getting these kids back to normal. Jasper, who even the counselor told me had “suffered a lot,” is moving through that process, hoping to be reunited with his family sometime soon. His sad eyes turn to a smile when I ask him what he’d tell his former comrades in the bush. “Come back home,” he said. “Life is very easy here. You are free and not forced to chew sorghum. Here, we eat posho (a traditional cornmeal) and everything is at ease.”
As he gets up to leave, I give Jasper two photos of people surfing in Santa Barbara that I had brought with me. He takes them into his dorm room and hides them in a safe place. If only the other thousands of Northern Ugandan children knew what a safe place was.
4·1·1 On July 7, see the Southern California premiere of Uganda Rising, an overview of the entire war, at the S.B. Public Library’s Faulkner Gallery at 6 p.m. To give to causes in Northern Uganda, please see world vision.org, coopi.org, frouganda.org (Ricky Anywar’s Friends of Orphans), and ugandacan.org.