The civil war in northern Uganda has been described as the world's biggest neglected humanitarian emergency. Jeevan Vasagar looks at the roots of the conflict
Tuesday November 2, 2004
It starts after sunset. The columns of children walk for hours along dusty country roads lined with tall grass and banana shrubs. First a trickle, and then a flood of tiny figures trudge with knapsacks on their shoulders to the nearest towns, and the hope of safety from a nightmare enemy.
The danger comes from another group of children, armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, who come out after dark to murder and kidnap.
The 18-year war in northern Uganda, where children are both fighters and victims of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) guerrillas, was recently described as the "biggest neglected humanitarian emergency in the world" by the UN's head of humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, who called on countries to help end what he called "a litany of horrors".
The war is brutal in the extreme - rebel fighters have been known to hack off the lips, noses and ears of civilians - and bizarre. The LRA leader, Joseph Kony, claims to be a medium who is guided by spirits, including an American named King Bruce, who can turn stones into hand grenades.
If this crisis has been ignored by the world, that may be because it looks like one of those insoluble African riddles, a war without a meaning in a place where peace will never come.
But that is too facile a reading. To understand the LRA, you have to look beyond their spiritual trappings.
The LRA has its roots in dissatisfaction among the northern Acholi people, who were favoured by the colonial British and subsequent regimes, but lost influence after Yoweri Museveni, a southerner, became president in 1986.
The movement began that year as a rebellion against Museveni, led by Alice Lakwena - lakwena means spirit medium - who claimed to channel messages from the ghost of an Italian war veteran.
She began a quasi-religious style of warfare, instructing soldiers to rub their chests with nut oil to immunise themselves against bullets, and sing Christian hymns as they marched into battle. Her forces scored some early victories, and reached the Bugembe forest, just 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Kampala, before they were crushed.
Why did the Acholi people follow Alice? According to a respected US government study of the war, it seems that many Acholis regarded rule by the southern-led government as an alien imposition.
"Many Acholis shared a collective identity as proud and able professional soldiers in the colonial and post-independence uniformed services," according to the 1997 Gersony report.
"This included the long-held view that Acholis do not surrender, especially in their home areas, and to some degree that 'only Acholis should rule in Acholi'."
Their loss of power and influence did not only result in a "profound sense of military humiliation". It also had a major economic impact.
"A great number of Acholi families depended on their jobs in the army, police and prisons for a livelihood. It was the largest single source of cash employment, the equivalent of a major industry ... It seems likely that the Acholis lost well over 10,000 jobs [as a result of losing power]."
Lakwena's forces were vanquished but a well of grievances remained and was tapped by Joseph Kony, a cousin of Alice who assumed her mantle in 1987.
Like her, Kony claimed spiritual powers. He was said to be in contact with a "spirit general staff", including a Chinese ghost who commanded an imaginary jeep battalion.
At first, he enjoyed some popular support, but under him the rebellion has increasingly lost contact with its original ethnic power base. As support for the rebels has waned among the Acholis, many civilians in the north have joined self-defence militias, originally armed only with bows and arrows, to protect their villages from attack. The rebels reacted with fury to the establishment of these militias, regarding their members as "collaborators" who are punished with savage mutilation or death.
Kony has come to believe that only children are fitting recruits because their souls are "purer" than those of the Acholi adults who have 'betrayed' him. Of course, children are also easier to brainwash.
The Ugandan government claims to be winning the war against the LRA. In July, they almost took the prize scalp when more than 100 rebels were killed in a Ugandan army raid on an LRA base in southern Sudan. Some of Kony's many wives and children were captured, as well as his two-way radio and the military epaulettes he had awarded himself. At first, the Ugandan army believed Kony too was dead, but he had given them the slip once more.
Western donors are sceptical about Uganda's attempts to crush the LRA militarily. Even if the beast is mauled, observers fear, it can still do terrible damage - a fact that was made plain in February when rebel fighters slaughtered more than 190 people at a refugee camp in the north of the country.
Instead, the international community is pushing for a negotiated solution that will bring Kony's cadres out of the bush, but that leaves Uganda with a conundrum: how do you negotiate with a nihilistic enemy whose only stated aim is the overthrow of the government?
"Asking 'what does the LRA want?' is a bit like asking, 'what do the Hell's Angels want?'" noted one western analyst.
The way to deal with the LRA, he suggested, is not to view them a political movement but as a band of outcasts whose chief concern is for their own survival. They might be tempted to lay down their weapons by offering them a source of income - some farmland of their own, perhaps - and immunity for themselves and the members of their families who choose to stay with them.
In the meantime, the people of northern Uganda are wearily repeating an old African proverb: "When two elephants fight, it's the grass that gets trampled".