The Lord Hath No Mercy

Millions Suffer as Uganda Prolongs a 20-Year War Against Crazed Rebels

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.

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