I watched the Invisible Children video online – sat through all 26 minutes of it. I spent some of that time feeling grumpy that some Captain America-jawed, foppish-haired American was getting me to wipe tears from under my specs. The truth of the matter is that the tragedy of Joseph Kony's monstrosity needs to be told, and if it hasn’t been the traditional media’s stolid ways that have sparked action, then let it be the energised youth of the USA. By GREG MARINOVICH.
I promise it wasn’t Captain America’s five-year-old son who made me cry, even though that was the strategy behind getting that cute blonde kid into the movie. No, it was the original video footage from 2003 of a young Ugandan boy telling of how he would prefer to die and join his brother, who was perhaps in heaven, after having had his throat cut with a panga by one of Joseph Kony’s murderous fighters.
The thing is that the phenomenon behind the Invisible Children’s slick and rather self-indulgent social media campaign is one of the most ghastly situations I have ever encountered. And if it took the moral indignation sparked by one young American’s exposure to the horror of what was happening in an ignored and quite inexplicable conflict in east central Africa, that’s okay with me.
The leader of the terrorist rapists, slavers and child killers known as the Lord’s Resistance Army is a Ugandan called Joseph Kony. He is number one on the ICC’s list of wanted international war criminals. With good reason; to call him unhinged is the understatement of the century. He has orchestrated the abduction of tens of thousands of children from the north of “The Pearl of Africa”. He has perfected methods for turning normal children into gory acolytes and terrified slaves.
Photo: Normal children are turned into acolytes and terrified slaves set aside to do Kony’s bidding. GREG MARINOVICH.
That the Lord’s Resistance Army is allowed to exist in today’s world, on our continent, is itself a crime for which we are all guilty – guilty for allowing this to continue.
Uganda’s own vaunted military has somehow allowed a ragtag bunch of murderous sadists to continue to brutalise entire swathes of people in and around northern Uganda, and terrorise generations – yes, generations – of their own citizens. There are a lot of theories as to why President Yoweri Museveni’s army cannot eradicate the LRA. Much of it centres around ethnic revenge – the Acholi and Luo of the north were the mainstay of the askaris of the colonial forces, and later, were the core of the army under Milton Obote and Idi Amin Dada, who terrorised the nation. Other theories are that the former revolutionary Museveni needs a fearful and perpetual enemy to ensure his own survival at the polls, and leave him with a free hand in security matters.
Ask a different set of questions, and you enter into the realm of the supernatural. Kony claims to be the spiritual heir of Alice Lakwena, a village girl who led an army of mostly unarmed northerners in rebellion against the evils of the modern world.
Alice said she was guided by a horde of spirits to form the Holy Spirit Movement, and her soldiers – with her at their head – would advance against fully-equipped soldiers armed with nothing but a belief that they were immune to the bullets of their enemy. Alice’s movement had massive support, and recruits flocked to join her idealistic army, guided by a combined belief in Christianity and ancestral spirits. After nearly reaching Kampala, this African Joan of Arc’s legions were finally defeated by government forces and she fled into exile in 1987.
Kony – apparently a distant cousin – claims that when Alice fled, she gifted her spirit guides to him. Or her spirits decided to find a new medium. At any rate, though he initially used the name of the Holy Spirit Movement, he soon changed it to The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Kony continued the insurrection against the Ugandan government. His brutality and disregard for civilian life and property ensured the only assistance he obtained from the local population was by force. Failing to win recruits, he took to kidnapping and press-ganging peasants into his army. He soon discovered that adults were too difficult to control and he switched to mostly abducting children.
These children were indoctrinated through a series of enforced brutalisations – they were often made to kill family members or disobedient fellow abductees – other children. And they were all forced to participate in his mix of Islam, Christianity and animism. Kony claims to want Uganda ruled by the biblical Ten Commandments. Well, he actually said the spirits who guide him want this.
I have travelled to northern Uganda several times to document, and try to understand, what has befallen the people there.
Entire swathes of the countryside appear deserted. Villages and homesteads are left to the rebels, as people flee to the safety of the towns. And if they did not, the Ugandan government decided the only way to combat the LRA was to force the northern population into a series of protected villages; to starve the rebels of either sympathisers or victims of abduction.
Yet these collective villages were really internment centres, where people withered and faded away from starvation and disease. And they proved no remedy to the abductions, either.
Allow me to tell a little about some people I have met in northern Uganda, who managed to escape the LRA’s clutches and return to an uncertain future.
The estimates of how many children have been abducted over the LRA’s existence now sit at about 30,000. The official number of children abducted from their homes in June of 2003 alone was over a thousand. On 22 July, some 80 of these managed to escape from their Lord’s Resistance Army kidnappers and reach the safety of Lira town, about 350km north of the capital Kampala. After being debriefed by the military, they were dropped off at a local NGO – The Concerned Parents Association. Founded by some of the parents of 139 convent girls abducted from nearby Aboke in 1996, the association has become the most effective organisation working with former rebel children and abductees.
The oldest of the former abductees in that group of malnourished, haunted looking folk was 30-year-old Charles E. He had managed to lead a group of abducted children to escape during a forced march through the bush. Earlier in his month-long ordeal, Charles had been forced to take part in the beating to death of two young girls who had tried to escape. Such enforced brutalities are a trademark of the LRA, cruelty designed to keep their victims from attempting to go back to their homes, and create a sense of twisted belonging within the cultish rebel army. Charles seemed to accept that he was not really to blame – the acts had been forced upon him, and he was quite cheerful about going home. Others did not seem to have adapted as well.
Photo: Some of the child soldiers are already young adults by the time they escape. GREG MARINOVICH.
The youngest of that group gathered in the crowded Lira courtyard was one-year-old Lucky, born to his teenage mother Monica from a forced marriage to one of the LRA commanders. She had managed to escape after two years of being a sex-slave.
Many among the group bore the scars of beatings. William (25) underwent several torture sessions that left him scarred for life. When he lifted his shirt, his arms bore the deep marks of having been tightly tied for over 24 hours, his back showed the marks of beatings. The mental damage of what he suffered was not as simple to hide. He too was forced by the rebels to kill. He had to use a traditional wood pestle to club a villager to death.
Photo: William’s back. GREG MARINOVICH.
These escapes had taken place during an upsurge in LRA activity, the rebel columns having penetrated deeper south into Uganda. This despite, or because of, a highly publicised government offensive claimed to be personally led by President Museveni. Was it true? It was difficult to tell, the wide panoply of Ugandan media carried a variety of versions. Whatever the President was or was not doing, it did not seem to be doing his citizens much good.
The rural areas around Lira town were hard hit by rebel activity – abductions, killings and the looting of granaries and personal goods. Burnt mud brick huts punctuated the tropical landscape and an eerie silence hangs over deserted homesteads. A flattened patch of tall grass is pointed out as the site of LRA killings. The banality of it is difficult to convey effectively. One of the men showing me the site is on a bicycle – if the rebels caught him with it, it was an immediate death sentence: the LRA assume that bicycles are used to warn other villagers of their presence.
In 1998, in the northernmost town of Gulu, I met my first abductee: Betty Adyero. She wore a frilly off-white blouse and was 14 years old. She had been abducted in February of 1997, and escaped in May of 1998.
“I had gone to a neighbouring village to see my parents’ relatives and was playing with other children in the compound. We saw a very young boy rebel with a gun. He came in and started harassing us. The boys we were playing with ran away and left us three girls. One girl was sick, so he left her, but forced us two to move with him. We resisted, but he said he would shoot us. After just 300m, we met up with the other rebels that were waiting for him.
“We joined a large group of abductees, more were abducted as we moved, and food was stolen, which we had to carry. We reached an army training camp called Atenga in Kitgum province and we met a Ugandan soldier. He saw us, and fired up into the air, it scared us and in the confusion, some of the abductees managed to escape (the children are used as human shields by the LRA, making it difficult for government soldiers to fight the rebels). One of the girls I had been playing with escaped at that time.
“It took us one week to reach the border and a further two days to cross into Sudan, some died of hunger and thirst. One girl died from part of a bomb that went through her thighs, when a government helicopter gunship attacked the rebels.
“We passed a camp of Arabs (Sudanese government soldiers). They were not bad to us, but if they found a girl, they forced her to be a wife. When we girls went to fetch water, the rebels told us to go in groups otherwise if the Arabs found you, they would rape you. I saw this.
Photo: Many, if not all, of the young girls abducted would be raped and made into sex slaves. LEONIE MARINOVICH.
“We settled in Aru and built houses for our bosses and ourselves. I trained as a soldier, in the ‘Control Altar Brigade’, my weapon was an LMG (light machine gun). I had been given to a man, and was told to stay with him until I grew up, and became his wife. Two other young girls were also given to him. I had small breasts so he left me alone.
“After a month, I was selected to go fight in Uganda. We girls were instructed to not take weapons with us, as we were to carry looted things. We were in a group of 50. It took us one month to enter Uganda, but we were looting food and abducting along the way. In Uganda we joined with another group and attacked Adilang barracks, but we were defeated. We girls were kept a little away, and the fighters returned carrying two guns and said the owners had been killed. They were two young boys, who had been abducted. In the retreat, some of the abductees escaped, but we regrouped. I was scared.
“When we camped for a night, I planned to escape. I had been looking for a chance to escape from the time we left Sudan. I was being bullied a lot, and given too much luggage to carry. I felt mistreated. I was determined to escape. So many had already died.
“After cooking I slipped off and hid in the long grass. I slept alone in the grass, then in the morning I walked until I met a civilian. When I told him who I was, he led me to a military detachment.
“I am scared of being re-abducted. My home is in a very insecure place. If you are caught a second time, you are killed. They know who is a re-abductee. They watch you carefully, they know your colour.”
There is hardly a family in northern Uganda that has not been affected by a murder or abduction at the hands of Kony’s LRA. The lack of success of the Ugandan army, and a belief that Kony uses the spirit world to give him power and knowledge, has led many to believe Kony is unstoppable, even though he has shifted his operations into the remote and lawless border lands of dense jungle that straddle southern Sudan, Central African Republic and the DRC. These are regions within countries that do not have much connection to their central governments, and Kony seems to free to stalk the villages at will.
Earlier this year, the US sent 100 “advisors” to train and assist the military of the affected countries combat and hunt down Kony. The Invisible Children video claims that this is the first time that US troops have been sent on an overseas mission when there is no direct benefit to US safety or commercial interests.
That Uganda found oil – lots of it – just recently might have played a role, but even if this is a mission purely to rid Africa of its most evil individual, and that it took a preppy American to get the world’s only superpower with conscience to intervene, well, that is okay by me. DM
Photo: All photos are by Greg Marinovich.
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