Uganda: The Secret War
by Tim Judah
War, cannibalism, sex slavery, massacre, and mayhem are not usually words that one associates with Uganda. Indeed, if you mention this East African country to people outside East Africa they will likely say: “But I thought Uganda was one of the more successful African nations.” In many respects it is, but one of its greatest successes has been in concealing from the outside world the brutal war that has afflicted its northern region for eighteen years.
For the last decade or so Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, has been praised for his government’s success in fighting AIDS. Depending on which figure you choose to believe, the prevalence of the infection has tumbled from either 30 percent or 19 percent of the population to a national average of between 4 percent and 6 percent. But few people outside Uganda know that, mainly in three large northern districts, the Museveni government is fighting a rebel group—the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—that abducts children; that 95 percent of the population in this part of northern Uganda have been forced by war from their homes; and that 1.8 million Ugandans—out of a population of 24.7 million—now live in refugee camps for fear of being attacked and killed in their villages.
No one knows exactly how many thousands have died in the long conflict in northern Uganda—some say the figure is about 30,000. But the appalling stories I have heard, including from former rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and from children who have escaped from them, confirm the view of Jan Egeland, the UN’s undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, when he said last November that this conflict was the “biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world.”
Again and again I have heard the same stories that human rights activists have been collecting for years, while their reports, for all the hard work that has gone into them, have hardly been mentioned in the press.1 Children told me how they had been forced by the rebels at gunpoint to abduct and murder other children and to drink their blood. A former commander of the rebel group told me that he had forced villagers to chop up, cook, and eat their neighbors before he killed them, too. I saw thousands of children walking into northern towns at night for fear of abduction, remaining until morning before they returned to their homes on the towns’ outskirts.
In recent months the world press has concentrated on the Darfur region of Sudan, calling it the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” In fact this claim is incorrect, although the situation in Darfur is indeed horrifying, as John Ryle has recently shown in these pages.2 But the Ugandan conflict has been going on a lot longer, fewer people may have died in Darfur than in northern Uganda, and almost twice as many Ugandans have been forced to flee their villages as have non-Arab Sudanese in Darfur.
What has been little noticed is the link between the two disasters, although they seem at first very different. The rebels of northern Uganda have long been armed and supported by the same Islamist government in Khartoum that has been sponsoring the camel- and horse-mounted militias of Darfur. The Ugandan rebels are not Muslims and they are not engaged in ethnic conflict in Uganda itself. But Khartoum has given the rebels support because they have been willing to fight the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) secessionist forces in southern Sudan—forces that have been supported by Museveni’s government. The LRA is led by a mysterious man called Joseph Kony, who says he wants Uganda to live by the laws of the Ten Commandments. He and most of his fighters are from northern Uganda’s Acholi tribe, as are most of their victims. Kony says he is guided by spirits who tell him what to do and whom to kill. In this sense his group is more a fanatical, murderous cult than a political movement with definable objectives.
Before leaving for Uganda I read UN reports estimating that between June 2002 and October 2003 the LRA had abducted more than 10,000 children, bringing the total of such children since 1986, when the war began, to some 20,000. I was at first skeptical, but soon after arriving, I began visiting some of the camps for displaced people in northern Uganda. When I asked if anyone had been abducted, or had family members who had been kidnapped, virtually everyone had a story to tell.
In Kitgum, which, if there were no war, might otherwise be a pleasant little market town, there are two local organizations that look after former rebels and escaped or freed children, and help them to readjust to ordinary life before sending them back to their families. When I visited one of them, the Kitgum Concerned Women’s Association, I saw three boys and a young woman who had just arrived that morning sitting in the shade. Their stories were typical.
Pamela Aber, aged eighteen, was abducted by the rebels in February and kept prisoner for five months before she escaped. Her job was to cook and gather firewood for the rebels and, as she put it delicately, she was also “given to a commander to be a wife.” Although she did not say so herself, in effect she was his sex slave. This, apparently, is the fate of most of the young women and girls abducted by the rebels, many of whom have children by their captors. Pamela then told me how, soon after being kidnapped, she had had to take part in the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl called Adok, who had been caught trying to escape. First, all the other new captives in the group, ten of them, were told “to bite that girl to death.” So, she said,
we started biting her but she did not die. When we were biting her she was pleading to the rebels saying they should forgive her and that she would not escape again. She was bleeding all over but still she did not die. Then we were told to pinch her and she did not die. Later we were all told to beat her with a log, one after the other, until she died.
I asked what she felt when she was doing this and she said, as had the others I talked to: “I was frightened, but we were told that if we did not kill they would kill us. So you had to pretend to be brave.”
Richard Abonga, aged twelve, spent five days with the rebels and escaped only a few days before I met him. Typically, he had spent his time with them carrying heavy loads of stolen food. When another boy, aged eleven, complained that he was tired, the rebels told him to put down his load and the other children were told to gather around him:
They started chopping off his feet with a hoe, one rebel, one foot each and then his hands and then his eyelids were cut off with razor blades and then his arms tied behind his back. He was still conscious. Then they hung him up on a tree, hanging head down and we were told to box his head until he was dead. There were nineteen of us.
Nassan Opiyo, also twelve, spent just over a year in captivity. He told me that he had been ordered to kill another boy, aged ten or eleven, who had tried to escape. “After killing the boy I was ordered to let the blood come out and to drink it and I did it. I was told if I did not do it I would be killed myself.” The rebels caught the blood with a big leaf and other captives were also forced to drink it. “They said, ‘If you try to escape, the spirit of that boy will follow you wherever you go and kill you.’” Nassan told me that he himself did not believe this but that many others do believe in such spirits, and that is one reason the LRA can hold so many people in thrall. Joseph Kony himself is guided by them.
The town of Gulu also has two organizations that take care of former fighters and captives. In one, run by the charity World Vision, I met Captain Vincent Okello Pakorom. He is twenty-nine years old and had been captured by the LRA in 1991, when he was sixteen. He became a rebel fighter after two months and eventually rose to become one of Kony’s bodyguards. As with the other witnesses I spoke to, he offered no evidence for what he told me, but I had heard similar accounts and human rights organizations have recorded others. Captain Pakorom told me that Kony was an “ordinary human being” but that he “had the power”; that is, “the ability to foretell what would happen in one week or in two months and, at the beginning, everything happened as he foretold.” Pakorom recently deserted with twelve of his men because although “he still has the spirit, it is not as powerful as before.”
Captain Pakorom and others I talked to described Kony as a tall man who seems friendly until the spirits begin to talk through him. When they speak, somebody in his entourage writes down what he says. “The most cruel spirit,” Pakorom said, “is Who Are You.” I thought I had misheard him, but a very well-known spirit really is called Who Are You. Pakorom told me that the spirit was Congolese and “commands killings and massacres,” using the words “these people should be killed.” Another spirit is called Juma Oris. “He is the head of all the spirits.” A female spirit who speaks through Kony, called Selindi, is Sudanese and she mostly gives directions concerning camp life. An American spirit who speaks through Kony is called Ali Salango. Another person told me, however, that Who Are You was actually a dead American soldier who also went by the name of Jim Rickey.
To a Westerner the idea that war can be waged by a man who controls people by giving voice to cruel spirits sounds utterly bizarre; but in fact such a belief in spirit voices and commands has long been part of African tradition. It was, I found, not just former rebels who believed that Kony had special powers, but also educated people in Kitgum and Gulu who despised Kony and everything he was doing.
In the compound of the Concerned Parent’s Association of Kitgum, one of the groups that help to rehabilitate former rebels, I met a man with bloodshot eyes called Thomas Kopkulu. He is thirty years old and had been with the LRA since he was eighteen. He had been a commander of one hundred men and, before that, part of a special forty-man squad called Kafun, which, he told me, specialized in killing rather than fighting. When I asked him why he had done what he had done he said: “We could not ask why. We just followed the instructions of the spirits through Kony.”
Kopkulu told me he had killed hundreds of people, if not more. Now that he has given himself up, he will not have to stand trial because he benefits from Uganda’s amnesty law. In the hope of depriving the rebels of their support, the Ugandan government has offered a blanket amnesty to anyone who abandons them.
When he was initiated into the LRA Kopkulu told me he had to capture a man and a woman and, in a ceremony that included thirty-nine other men, eighty victims were laid out on the ground in rows. Kopkulu was told to kill the couple he had captured and eat their brains. The other men did so as well. Four years ago, he told me, the LRA was in southern Sudan fighting for the Khartoum government against its enemies, the secessionist SPLA. He and his troops captured dozens of villagers, and Kony told them how the villagers should be treated. After nine of them were killed, other villagers were forced, at gunpoint, to chop them into small pieces. These were then put in a big pot, salted, and boiled. After they finished eating, Kopkulu said, “all those people were killed.”
Ever since Uganda gained independence in 1962, its politics has been violent and particularly brutal. In more than forty years, there has never been a peaceful transfer of power. Yoweri Museveni became president in 1986 after years of struggle in the bush; he also used child soldiers. During the terrible period between 1971 and 1979 Uganda was ruled by the former British colonial sergeant Idi Amin. He was overthrown by a Tanzanian force and replaced by a succession of leaders, including the former president Milton Obote, until Museveni took over. As many as 500,000 Ugandans are believed to have died during these years.
Traditionally the country has been divided, among many other reasons, by conflict between its northern and southern regions. In the north the Acholi people, who speak a Nilotic language, were traditionally well represented in the Ugandan military. Acholi soldiers took part in killings of civilians during the fight against Museveni, whose troops (like Museveni himself) were largely from the Bantu-speaking southern people. In 1986 Museveni overthrew the short-lived military regime of an Acholi, General Tito Okello, and then Museveni’s troops took their bloody revenge. Now, although there are Acholis in the Ugandan government and military, their power and influence are extremely limited.
In 1986, as Museveni consolidated his power, Acholi troops from the previous regimes fled to Sudan, where they regrouped to continue their fight. Soon, however, many of them were absorbed by a crusading movement led by a woman called Alice Auma, a thirty-year-old fish seller who claimed she spoke for the spirit of an Italian soldier called Lakwena, which prompted her to change her name to Alice Lakwena. That year, following the orders of the spirit Lakwena, she formed the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces, which soon found support from embittered former Acholi soldiers bent on revenge against Museveni. Her movement combined elements of Christianity and Acholi ritual. Her soldiers, I was told, believed that if they smeared themselves with shea nut butter they could not be shot and killed.
As her rebellion gathered increasing Acholi support, her troops went far beyond the Acholi regions to the town of Jinja, close to the capital city of Kampala, where they were crushed in November 1987. Lakwena fled to Kenya, where she remains, but her cause was then taken up by her father, Severino, who after his capture in 1989 pledged to give up violence. But the spirit itself was not dead. It now passed to Kony, who is widely believed to be related to Alice Lakwena. Ever since, the war between Muse-veni’s army and Kony’s followers has alternated between periods of calm and periods of intense brutality. But the LRA, which Kony formed out of his earlier organization, Uganda People’s Democratic Christian Army, has rarely fought the Ugandan military head on, preferring to attack civilians instead.
Why has the rebellion gone on so long? Many Acholi believe that President Museveni, at least at first, underestimated the rebels; but then, I was also told, he was not unhappy to have a continuing low-level insurgency, because it kept the Acholi occupied, hence they would not be able to meddle in Kampala politics. Indeed, when you are in Kampala you have a distinct feeling that there are two countries in Uganda. Kampala, in the relatively prosperous south, is a bustling city, with new buildings going up, while the north seems devastated by the war. At a dinner in Kampala, a Ugandan journalist asked me if I had ever been to the country before. I said that when I was a student in 1987 I had traveled through the country briefly and that Kampala was then a miserable place compared to what it looks and feels like now. “Oh yes,” she told me, the misery I saw was “thanks to those bloody Acholi who had been running the place until Museveni took over, so that’s why so many people think that if the Acholi want to kill themselves that is just fine so long as they keep out of our business.”
In 1994 and again in late 2002 and early 2003, attempts by government officials and church leaders to make peace with the LRA came to nothing. One churchman long involved in attempting to find a peaceful solution told me flatly that Museveni did not want peace; others say he has no confidence in talks and believes only in a military solution. Conversely, soldiers I talked to say that talks can never succeed because Kony is insane. While church leaders, among others, have managed to talk to some of his subordinates they have very rarely managed to speak to Kony personally. Besides, all agreed that a man possessed by spirits is bound to be unpredictable and may be impossible to deal with.
On the condition of anonymity, many people, both Ugandans and foreigners, gave me a different explanation for the continuing war. Aid workers, for example, told me that too many people had too great a financial stake in the war to want it finished quickly. Some said that senior Ugandan army officers, among others, sold supplies to the LRA, including army uniforms, and that many officers profited from a phenomenon known as “ghost soldiers,” a scandal which has recently been reported in the Ugandan press. Army officers have been inflating the numbers of soldiers in their units with fake names and then pocketing the pay of the nonexistent fighters. If the war comes to an end, they will lose their chance to make money.
Similarly, some prosperous businessmen may lose lucrative opportunities such as selling food and other items to the local and international organizations that help keep the refugees alive. A Catholic priest in Kitgum told me that some local people in Kitgum and Gulu are also widely believed to have profited because family members who are with the rebels have been sending home money or goods they have stolen. The money is used to open shops or build houses. “It is blood money,” he said.
In the meantime, the Khartoum government in Sudan has supported the LRA for its own reasons. Uganda has for years been backing the SPLA in southern Sudan. The Sudanese government has armed and supported the LRA, using it to fight the SPLA. Under international pressure, however, Khartoum agreed in 2002 to let Ugandan troops enter southern Sudan to fight the LRA in what was called Operation Fist. The result was disastrous for the northern Ugandans. After the Ugandan army flushed out many LRA rebels from Sudan, the rebels returned to northern Uganda, attacking villages for food and abducting people, especially children, whom they could convert to their cause and then arm to fight for them. People who work for aid organizations and others I talked to believe that some 90 percent of the LRA’s fighters—numbers range between hundreds and thousands—are themselves abducted children. In response to the upsurge of violence in the north, the government ordered people to move to camps where it claimed they would be better protected.
Because a great many people in the countryside were now crammed into camps, the fields they usually cultivated turned back to bush, except on the outskirts, within a mile or two, of camps and towns. With hardly any food left in the countryside, the LRA began attacking these populated regions as well. This has left at least 1.6 million people dependent on the UN’s World Food Program. Pedro Amolat, the head of the WFP office in Gulu, told me that now only 4 percent of arable land in Gulu district—an area of some 10,031 square miles—was under cultivation and that “96 percent is going to waste.” The situation is similar in all the other northern regions of Uganda that have been affected by the war; together they cover an area similar in size to a small country such as Rwanda—about one third of Uganda’s total land mass. When I traveled with the WFP to see its staff members distributing food in the camps near Gulu and Kitgum, the convoys were being escorted by Ugandan soldiers.
Sometimes the Ugandan troops in the camps have succeeded in repelling attacks; many times they have not. In February of this year between two hundred and three hundred people died in a massacre in Barlonyo camp. I heard frequent stories describing how LRA men had walked into camps and drank with the Ugandan soldiers or, in one story which I could not confirm, even played soccer with them before killing them along with the civilians. The incompetent soldiers had simply thought that the LRA men were from mobile patrols whom they did not know.
While the WFP feeds the refugees and keeps them alive, the Uganda Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Geneva, have become indispensable in other ways. The Uganda Red Cross took me to a camp called Laguti some twenty miles from Kitgum, where its staff distributed soap and other basic supplies. Here I met women who had been waiting for seven hours to get to the front of the line at a water pump. Everyone I spoke to told me that since they could not get to their fields to work for fear of abduction, food was their greatest need. Alcoholism is also chronic. Drunken men become violent, fight among themselves, and rape women. In the camps, poverty drives some of the girls and women into prostitution. HIV/AIDS rates are believed to be soaring in the camps. Tests made at a hospital in Gulu suggested that some 13 percent may be infected, far above the national average. The Red Cross can hand out supplies, but medical services in the camps are virtually nonexistent. In the camp of Palabek Kal, which is home to almost 16,000 people, there is a pitiful but admirable effort to maintain schools. In one of the classes I visited, I saw 274 pupils being taught by one teacher. Hilary Kupajo of the Uganda Red Cross told me: “We are overwhelmed with the needs of the vulnerable.”
Dr. Lawrence Ojom has been the director of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Kitgum for fifteen years. “This is the worst,” he said. “It has never been this bad.” The hospital has 350 beds and, on the day I visited, it had 910 patients. In the past, a special hospital unit for feeding chronically malnourished children treated between twenty and thirty children a day. When I visited the hospital there were 115 of these children. “It can,” he said, “go up to 200.”
Every evening St. Joseph’s Hospital gives shelter to “night commuters,” some of the up to 45,000 children who, because of their fear of abduction, stream into Gulu, Kitgum, and other towns every evening to sleep in the relative safety of the hospitals or specially built shelters. Some lie down in the streets. At St. Joseph’s as many as seven thousand people can arrive every night when the situation is particularly bad.
Ugandan military officers told me that despite what I had seen, the war was in fact virtually over. Every day the Ugandan papers report that more LRA members are giving themselves up and that more are being captured. Colonel Charles Otema, who coordinates military intelligence in the north, claimed that the LRA had only three hundred serious fighters left. This figure is hard to believe, since 1.8 million people have been displaced and the killings continue, although at a lower rate. Practically all the people I talked to pinned their hopes on the peace deal struck this spring between the SPLA in southern Sudan and the Sudanese government. If that agreement holds, they believe, peace might well come to northern Uganda. But if US and international pressures on Sudan to stop the violence in Darfur cause the agreement over southern Sudan to fall apart, then virtually everyone I spoke to is certain that the government in Khartoum, which had recently cut back on support for Kony, would once again begin arming his forces in order to destabilize the pro-American Uganda. The Museveni government would then once again support the SPLA, with perhaps additional help from the US military.
It may be relevant to the prospect of such help that on July 14, General Charles Wald, the deputy commander of the US European Command with responsibility for Africa, visited Gulu, reportedly to assess the security situation in the region and to see how the $2 million worth of aid that the US gives the Ugandan military was being spent. In July, General Aronda Nyakairima, the head of the Ugandan army, openly accused the Sudanese of sheltering Kony, and the Ugandan government asked the Sudanese to hand him over. However, on July 28, saying they had Sudanese government permission, the Ugandan army raided an LRA camp in an area normally out of bounds to them. They said that while they had captured four of his wives and thirteen of his children, Kony himself had escaped.
I met few people who believe the disastrous situation in northern Uganda is coming to an end. After all, they pointed out, the Ugandan authorities have been saying this for eighteen years. They have been playing down the violence in order to preserve the otherwise good image that the country has built up under Museveni. One diplomat told me he was not optimistic but admitted that the recent capture and surrender of hundreds of LRA members made him feel “less pessimistic.” According to the Ugandan army, since the beginning of the year, 519 rebels have given themselves up, including twenty-two senior commanders, and it has captured 215 rebels and killed some eight hundred more. The army claims it has freed 1,768 people, mostly children, who were abducted by the rebels. Many thought that even though the LRA forces may be disintegrating now, thanks to military pressure, criminal gangs posing as rebels are already taking their place.
Uganda is bringing a complaint against the LRA to the new International Criminal Court in The Hague. On July 29, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the court’s prosecutor, announced he was beginning a formal investigation. If the court decides to take the case, this could lead to further problems. Thus far, even the worst killers have been protected from prosecution thanks to Uganda’s amnesty law. What will happen if the ICC in The Hague decides to indict people who have benefited from this amnesty? No one at the ICC was willing to talk to me about Uganda on the record. One source close to the prosecution told me why:
They don’t want to take a high profile because they are scared that Kony’s response will be a pile of bodies with a note pinned on top for the prosecutor.
The retired Anglican bishop of Kitgum, Baker Ochola, has for years been one of the most prominent leaders who are trying to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. He told me that the problem with a military solution is that most of the rebels are abducted children. When the army kills them, it says they are rebels; if they are captured, or escape, the army claims success in having freed the abductees. But the rebels meanwhile continue to abduct more children. Still, he was optimistic that new peace moves might lower the level of violence. He wanted negotiations with LRA officers. When I asked if he thought it just that people who had caused so much suffering should benefit from an amnesty, he replied that above all he wanted the killing to stop, “and the only way to do that is to bring them to the table.”
Oryem Henry Okello, a government minister, an Acholi, and Kitgum’s representative in parliament—who is also the son of Tito Okello, the general deposed by President Museveni—scoffed at the bishop’s hopes. Referring to the abductions and the indoctrination of children to turn them into fighters, he said, “How is the army supposed to respond? Should they wave biscuits, sweets, and roses at them?” Talk, he said, was simply a waste of time. Not only was military action required; so were the basic necessities of food and medicine that would save lives. For 2004, the UN has appealed for $112 million for aid to northern Uganda. So far only one third of this has arrived.