Here’s a link to a fantastic little feature on the BBC website (they even published one of my photographs!). I also did two interviews for the BBC in the last several months. I’ll post those soon. For now click below!
Here’s a link to a fantastic little feature on the BBC website (they even published one of my photographs!). I also did two interviews for the BBC in the last several months. I’ll post those soon. For now click below!
As of our last report on this website (February 2009) Kony and about 250 rebels, reportedly the last of the hardcore, found themselves cornered in a swamp in the Garamba jungle in northeastern DRC. Their only hope, if we were to believe the reports, was surrender. At that time the Ugandan Peoples Defence Force released this statement…
“Soon Kony will have no fighters. He will die of hunger, be captured or get killed.” – UPDF Operation Commander, Brig. Patrick Kankiriho. 24th February 2009.
But that just didn’t happen. The Ugandan Peoples Defense Force, Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (the Congolese Army) and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Forces, three whole armies, failed to neutralize Kony despite overwhelming firepower and tactical knowledge.
With the failure of the three armies to bring in their man the UN, long criticized for under-policing DRC, decided to step up. By March, Ugandan and Sudanese soldiers were pulled back out of DRC and supposedly replaced with a new United Nations military company. The UN Security Council had authorized the deployment of an additional 3,000 troops, an attack helicopter, two transport helicopters, 1,500 Egyptian police, Special Forces and soldiers, all to work in conjunction with the DRC military to stabilize the area and smoke out Kony (as of this writing I can neither confirm nor deny the successful deployment of these forces).
On top of that, the locals had their own ideas. Western Equatoria’s Arrow Boys, a Sudanese self-defense group that use traditional weapons (bows, arrows, spears and clubs) treated with poisonous powder, said they were ready to fight the Ugandan Kony to the death and were urging Kony to surrender before they begin their march. Since then they have killed several LRA soldiers.
But neither the UN nor regional forces have helped in the long haul. As of October the UN reported that 400,000 people in this remote region of northern DRC have fled their homes due to renewed rebel attacks. There have been hundreds of kidnappings as Kony has begun to replenish his once dwindling forces with child soldiers and “wives”. The full, horrible terroristic mechanism that is the LRA is now completely back in business. They are participating in serial murder/machete disfigurations, forcing children to kill their parents and burning people alive inside their homes. Reportedly, roads in northern DRC are now so insecure that only aircraft can bring in supplies and staff. Towns such as Gangala and Banda are absorbing displaced people by the tens of thousands as surrounding fields and villages are being abandoned. And the LRA combatants aren’t just in DRC, there’s another force of more than one thousand in the Central African Republic, led by a deputy of Kony’s.
And yet the DRC government says that everything I’ve told you is just not true… they’re currently denying the presence of the LRA, saying the violence is only happening in neighbouring Central African Republic. DRC’s Information Minister Lambert Mende said that a Medecins Sans Frontiers report that the BBC is riffing off of simply got it wrong. Except of course that Medecins Sans Frontiers isn’t the only org. reporting these findings. Reuters reports that Mende claims…
“It is not true to say that [LRA operating in DRC] because it is thanks to this regional effort that we have succeeded in sending them out of our country. That is why they escaped, and they are trying to bring chaos in the Central African Republic…”
He goes on to say that the rebels are retreating.
“I think they are finishing. You know, they are running, trying to hit some villages and then run, and we are after them. When they go to the Central African Republic, we are (chasing after) them, and now Central African Republic is pushing them. And I think we shall make them disappear. It is a matter of weeks, I think,”
This, of course, is all rhetoric we’ve heard before (see the above quote from Feb. of this year). Governments are constantly talking about how they’ve got Kony on the ropes. And it’s not in Congo’s best interest to be any more destabilized than it already is, that’s the kind of thing that frightens away multinational mining operations.
And yet, Kony himself is actually on the move northwards. Whether this is a retreat or a more aggressive tactical move, there’s no way of knowing. Ugandan special forces are reporting that they’re using helicopters to attack Kony’s personal group from Yambio in southern Sudan. BBC Africa analyst Martin Plaut asks this question…
What is Joseph Kony’s strategy? If reports are confirmed that Kony’s forces are heading towards Darfur, it would allow the LRA to link up with the Janjaweed – the fighters backed by Sudan’s government. In the past Khartoum provided weapons and supplies to the LRA. If Kony reached Darfur this could be done much more easily. The southern Sudanese government has repeatedly accused the authorities in Khartoum of arming the LRA – accusations the north has strenuously denied. But observers – some of whom were sceptical of these claims in the past – are now coming round to the view that the Sudanese government is indeed in league with the LRA – as a means of destabilising the emerging government in southern Sudan. It is a complex situation and little about it is absolutely clear, but if these reports of LRA progress towards Darfur are true, then it is a very dangerous development indeed.
Something else that’s interesting, the Lord’s Resistance Army is no longer a Ugandan, Acholi-speaking rebel group. They have gone multi-national. Eye-witnesses are reporting that Arabic and other languages can now be heard in their ranks as Kony and underlings forcibly draft people from Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and southern Sudan. And that brings up an interesting new question. What exactly is Kony’s objective now? His struggle against the “tyrant” Museveni and the liberation of his people was invalidated last year. He is now a leader of a pan-African terrorist organization with no ideological direction. There’s no “legitimate” political reason for the actions of his organization any longer. He is a thug on the run. A man hunted. Out of spite and fear he continues to operate in the only way he knows how. A pattern abuser. A tiny Hitler. He will spend the rest of his life, however long that is, gnashing and fighting and gnawing and dragging every community he and his acolytes stroll through into his own personal hell.
And as for Acholiland? Well, the aura of suffering that Kony and his LRA emit, while not over, has been exported, and while we should cry for the DRC, CAR and Sudan, all of whom have inherited yet another madman, the people that our comic book is about, the Acholi, are busy rebuilding, re-imagining their world. There’s much to learn as banks and hotels and tourists flood into their post-war patch. What the new Acholi will look like, what of their culture will survive, no one can tell. But if they can hold on to the bucking bastard of modernity, then maybe… someday soon… there will be a whole generation living free and apart from the horrors of war.
– Joshua Dysart
These are the questions I get asked the most, “How did the war begin? What madness drove Kony and his Lords Resistance Army to such extremes? What is it Kony hopes to achieve through his actions?” These are not easy questions to answer. Like most conflicts, it’s part of a long cycle of violence and retaliation. The following is a very reductive explanation of how Northern Uganda became a war zone for over two decades and left as many as 60 to 70% of the population with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
To fully understand, we’ll have to start way back during colonization. British explorers, searching for the source of the Nile, arrived in the aggregate kingdoms now known as Uganda in the 1860’s. True to Western form, they proceeded to conquer, but not with the gun – that would come later – first they conquered with the bible. Protestant missionaries arrived in 1877, Catholics in 1879. Thus began the complex interweaving of Christianity and traditional faith that is such a huge feature of the LRA mindset. (As a side note: the presence of Islamic faith in the region is a holdover from the arrival of Swahili slave traders in the 1830’s).
So, in 1893, through political maneuvering and military force, the Kingdom of Buganda in the south was placed under British protectorateship. Inside of a year, British military expansionism swallowed the kingdoms of Banyoro, Lango and Acholi. By the end of the 1900’s the “Uganda Protectorate” included four separate kingdoms and a myriad of clan cultures. The British deposed kings and leaders and installed their own governors from Buganda. The British encouraged political/economic development in the south, while the Acholi and other northern groups had their development virtually stopped. The northern groups quickly became the manual labor and military of the new collage-nation, creating a military ethnocracy and installing a systemic tendency for militant aggression in the North. By 1900 the British had created “Uganda” – a country divided against itself – and set the stage for constant struggle between northern ethnic groups and the dominant kingdom of Buganda to the South.
Some 70 years later, in October of 1962 Uganda claimed its independence. The nation had fragmented along religious and ethnic lines to the point of chaos and the British had retreated. What followed was a series of power and identity battles for the nation’s soul. Among the first leaders was a man named Apolo Milton Obote, a Lango, from the north, and a Protestant. He was deposed by Idi Amin Dada in 1971, also a northerner, but a Muslim. Then, in 1979 a group of exiled Ugandans with the help of Tanzanian forces, overthrew Amin in the Uganda-Tanzania War and Obote came back to power in what many viewed as a rigged election.
The perception of unfair electoral behavior led to ethnic civil war. From this tumult arose several guerrilla rebellions. One led by a man named Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (the current President of Uganda) in 1981. Approximately 100,000 people died as a result of fighting between Obote’s Army and the guerrilla factions during “The War in the Bush”.
In 1986, Museveni, a born-again Christian from the extreme southwest, took the capital. By March his forces had occupied Acholiland in the north. Now, former government soldiers from Acholiland who had sought sanctuary in southern Sudan moved to get Museveni’s troops out of the north and began fighting for Acholi rights in the essentially Buganda governed nation. This resistance to the southern leader, Museveni, spread and several rebel groups appeared. From 1986 until 2006, war became a constant of Acholi existence. Among these groups came Alice Auma and her HOLLY SPIRIT MOVEMENT (HSM). Alice was an Acholi spirit-medium who claimed to channel a dead Italian army officer called “Lakwena” (messenger) which the Acholi believed to be a manifestation of the Christian Holy Spirit. This started a trend of Mystic-Christian military leaders in Acholiland, which would culminate, just one year later, in Christian extremist Joseph Kony.
In 1987 Alice Auma’s group was disbanded after an unsuccessful attempt to march on the Ugandan Capital. The remnants of the HSM fell into banditry as members drifted away or were defeated by government forces and other rebels. But from the ashes of the HSM came Kony, a 26 year-old Acholi who claimed he was the spokesperson of God and a medium of the Christian Holy Spirit. Superstition was at the heart of his rhetoric and he had his followers use tree-oil to ward-off bullets and evil.
His group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), operated as a guerrilla organization attempting to establish a theocratic government based on the Christian Bible and the Ten Commandments in Uganda. The LRA, reached an astounding level of brutality under Kony’s command, participating in sadistic murder, abduction, mutilation, sexual enslavement, and forcing children to operate as soldiers. As of 1987 they have abducted an estimated 60,000 people.
HISTORY OF THE LRA (THE FIRST DECADE)
Recap, simplified (I know this stuff can be pretty dense reading)… in Jan. of 1986, the rebel-who-would-be-president, Yoweri Museveni overthrew the Acholi-led government that came to power after Idi Amin. The key here is that Museveni (still president of Uganda to this day) is from the south, yet he deposed northern leadership. Ethnic conflicts run deep, so by August a predictable insurgency against Museveni bloomed throughout the Acholi areas of northern Uganda.
Exactly one year after Museveni took power, in Jan. of ’87, 26 year-old Joseph Kony appeared on the scene. He was a product of the Holy Spirit Movement. A Christian mystic soldier. He claimed to be possessed by spirits and called his rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army. Their goal was to overthrow Museveni’s government and establish a theocracy based on Kony’s interpretation of the Ten Commandments. They raided Acholi villages (they’re own people) in an effort to show that Museveni was unable, or unwilling, to protect the populace. It is not certain when Kony began abducting children for indoctrination into military service, but it’s most likely after he began to loose support amongst the Acholi themselves.
Between 1987 and 1991 the LRA remained active, but President Museveni seemed barely interested. The most cynical say that the war was to his political advantage. It destabilized the north where he had little support to begin with, so the Acholi were less and less able to participate in the political process. There was also some speculation that Museveni was receiving aid to fight the rebels from the African Union and other nations. Aid that he was funneling into development of the South and even, possibly, his own pockets.
Throughout the 90’s the United States began the Front Line States Initiative, in which Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea were identified as linchpins in containing Sudan. Uganda was suddenly provided “defensive, non-lethal military assistance” against Sudan-backed insurgencies. In March of 1991 President Museveni, ever subservient to Western powers, launched “Operation North” in the hopes of stabilizing the LRA activity along the Sudan border. “Operation North” armed local Acholi villages, whose opinion had now turned firmly against the LRA (but not in favor of Museveni). This flooded even more weapons into the region. In retaliation Kony began to systemically massacre and mutilate. He, descending into paranoia like Amin before him, suspected everyone around him of secretly being a government supporter. The suffering of the Acholi population was taken to the next level.
From ‘91 to ‘94 the LRA became more and more violent. Kony himself vacillated between mad, religious ravings and making actual, reasonable demands on behalf of the Acholi people. But his organization reflected his true nature: cruel, ambitious and unreasonable. By 1994 the Acholi had begun to flee their villages, moving in masses into Sudan or central Uganda. There began to be talk amongst the conspiratorial –minded that Museveni was selling off the abandoned land. This is never proven.
In 1993 a member of Uganda’s parliament, an Acholi woman named Betty Bigombe, did the extraordinary, she went out into the bush and initiated peace talks with Kony on her own. For this she was named Uganda’s “Woman of the Year.”
In Feb. 1994, however, Bigombe’s Peace talks failed. Many reported the talks were sabotaged due to jealousy by Museveni’s army. This prompted further the belief amongst the Acholi that Museveni was profiting both politically and financially from their misery. After the peace-talk failure, Kony began to establish bases in Southern Sudan. In April,Uganda broke off diplomatic ties with Sudan for aiding the LRA.
October 1996, 10 years into the conflict. 200 LRA rebels raided St. Mary’s College in Aboke, abducting 139 girls. Many were given to LRA commanders as “wives”. Others died in captivity. This single incident was the first from the conflict to be reported in the global media. The Ugandan Government began forcibly moving virtually the entire Acholi population onto IDP camps “for their protection”. But the camps were overcrowded, disease infested and totally susceptible to LRA attacks. Suspicion that this was really about further Acholi disenfranchisement as well as a land grab by Museveni ran rampant.
The situation at this point was not designed for an easy solution.
HISTORY OF THE LRA (THE SECOND DECADE)
Again, a recap, simplified… by 1997 the Acholi had been forced off their land and onto some 200 Internally Displaced Persons camps across the north of Uganda. Despite the need for troops to stabilize this region, most of the Ugandan army was sent to Zaire to take part in a conflict that would change the name of that country to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda was interested in deposing the CIA/Belgium propped up leader Mobutu who had proved immensely unstable.
A year later Ugandan troops again intervened in the newly named DRC, but this time on the side of rebels seeking to overthrow the leader they helped install. Why would they do this? Well, in 2005 The Hague Criminal Court charged Uganda’s President Museveni with stealing natural resources from DRC during this war. So it seems Museveni was sending valuable troops on a military adventure to plunder resources instead of fighting the LRA at home.
But by 1999 Oil in Sudan began to change the game. China suddenly moved into Southern Sudan with Petrochina’s in-production, oil pipeline. There were rumors, which still persist to this day, of massive amounts of Chinese troops sent in to protect China’s interest. Now the Sudan/Ugandan border, a border the LRA rebels freely moved across, needed to be stabilized more than ever. Museveni offered amnesty to the LRA’s estimated 4,000 fighters.
By 2000 this had caused the LRA to split into two factions: one willing to negotiate with the government, and one determined to fight on. New cooperation between Uganda and Sudan began to put even greater strain on the LRA. And it seemed the end of the war was near.
Hoping he would be facing a weakened and split rebel force, Museveni initiated “Operation Iron Fist” in March of 2002, a massive military offensive that swept across northern Uganda and into South Sudan. But it did not end the LRA. In fact, the rebels launched a bloody counteroffensive. Areas untouched by the conflict were now absorbed in war and further displacement of human beings occurred. The fight was now at its absolute bloodiest. This is when our comic book takes place.
November 2003. Despite global interest in the months-old Iraq War, the UN’s top humanitarian official said, “I cannot find any other part of the world that is having an emergency on the scale of Uganda.” Museveni asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Kony and other LRA leaders for war crimes. In May, Uganda pulled the last of its troops from eastern DRC and they were immediately stationed in Acholiland. Regular attacks against IDP camps ending in unfathomable amounts of civilian bloodshed began to occur more and more frequently. Northern Uganda became hell on earth.
In October of 2005 the ICC issued arrest warrants – the first since its 2002 founding. Kony and 4 of his top lieutenants were cited for murder, rape, mutilation, sexual slavery and enlistment of children as combatants. With the Iraq war becoming old news, global reportage slowly began to turn towards Acholiland.
In July 2006, peace talks began between the recognized Ugandan government and the LRA in Juba, Southern Sudan. The LRA was weakened by endless war. Kony, who had been in the bush for 20 years, was tired and at talks he appears saner than ever. By August both sides agreed to a temporary ceasefire. The Ugandan government established “satellite camps” – smaller IDP camps with access to farmland – as it was difficult to send the Acholi back to their villages and farms now that the entire region was heavily land-mined. However peace talks continued to be marred by regular walkouts.
In October of 2007, with the peace process moving forward in fits and starts, it was revealed that Kony had murdered his own Deputy-Leader (one of the 5 wanted by the ICC). The man’s name was Vincent Otti and Kony claimed that Otti was given money to assassinate him by international interests. Kony was showing his old signs of paranoia and his obstruction of the peace process was becoming a sore spot for the Ugandan government.
For the next year the peace talks were static, then, on December 13, 2008, two months after we began publishing our humble comic book, a massive military attack was made against Kony by armies of the Ugandan, DRC and Southern Sudanese governments.
THE LRA in 2009 (AFTER THE FAILURE OF THE SECOND PEACE PROCESS)
Ssemusota guli mu ntamu. Bw’ogutta tolya, bw’oguleka tolya.
(A snake in the cooking pot is a dilemma. Hit it and you break the pot. Leave it and you starve.) – Ugandan saying
Recap… On December 13, 2008 – after two years of convoluted peace talks with no definitive plan materializing – Operation “Lightning Thunder” was carried out by Ugandan air force and artillery and backed up by the Congolese and Sudan Peoples Liberation forces. AFRICOM provided satellite phones, intelligence and fuel. US advisors – authorized by George W. Bush – lent expertise. They attacked LRA camps in Garamba National Park, DRC, with helicopter gun-ships and MiG23 jets. A ground force then moved in. And that should’ve been the end of it. Game over. But due to poor planning and basic botchy-ness, Kony and survivors escaped deeper into DRC and towards the Central African Republic (CAR), away from the Ugandan border… and they’ve been acting like monsters ever since.
Following the attack, in January of 2009 alone, LRA soldiers were fingered for the deaths in DRC and South Sudan of more than 900 people, the displacement of 130,000 refugees and the kidnapping of hundreds of children. Take a moment. Think about those figures. That’s one month. Northern Uganda, the source from which all this hardship had sprung, remained essentially untouched (and still does as of this writing) but Kony, reactivated, had cut a swath of death across DRC.
It was a tough political move, President Museveni attacks a currently peaceful Kony and everything suddenly goes batshit crazy again. Complaints in the Ugandan government ranged from concerns regarding the moral complications of a war fought against children (the perennial argument), to the impatience of the Ugandan Government with the peace process, to the idea that a successful peace negotiation had more of a chance of healing social wounds than a combat victory did. Supporters of the strike, however, believe this was Uganda’s opportunity to ensure Kony’s utter destruction and achieve permanent peace.
The LRA claimed that this was a power play by President Museveni. That he hoped to push into Congo and steal resources as he had before. That it was Museveni’s troops who were responsible for the atrocities. They were using the 2005 International Court Of Justice ruling which found Uganda liable for war crimes during the Congo War as evidence of what Museveni was capable of.
Now, undeniably Museveni has marginalized this conflict and stalled its peace processes repeatedly. He’s compromised his ability to protect the Acholi and acted in a questionable manor towards his neighboring nations. But the LRA simply couldn’t be trusted. They had made a modus operandi out of kidnapping children, slaughtering innocents and terrorizing populations. And now they were bogged down in a Jungle swamp.
By February of 2009, Kony and about 250 rebels, reportedly the last of the hardcore, found themselves cornered in a swamp in the Garamba jungle in northeastern DRC. Their only hope, if we were to believe the reports, was surrender.
The rest? Well, this post is a history lesson, and what follows next is current events. There are plenty of posts following Kony’s current activities on this site, I don’t need to echo them here.
I hope this has answered some very difficult questions as to why this war started and why it’s managed to continue for so long. Thanks for reading,
- Joshua Dysart
Though nominated, Unknown Soldier did not win for Best New Series in 2009.
That honor went to Invincible Iron Man. Congratulations to writer Matt Fraction, artist Salvador Larroca, colorist Frankie D’Armata, letterer Chris Eliopoulos, editor Warren Simons and assistant editorAlejandro Arbona.
However… the Examiner.com did something really cool. They interviewed me before the Eisner competition and then caught up with me afterwards, and published both things as separate articles.
You can find what I had to say the day of the award ceremony here.
And then my response the next day, after loosing, here.
So several months ago I got an email from a filmmaker named Will Raee.
The email read…
I just picked up some copies of your comic book. I’m directing a film with Uma Thurman about the LRA, Kony, and Child Soldiers. She is playing the lead, a nun. We are doing the film based on the books Stolen Angels, and Girl Soldier. The film is called “Girl Soldier” as well. I just wanted to reach out and say hello. This is obviously very important work, and I would like to talk to you and see if we can pool our resources.
I love your work too by the way. A friend suggested it last week after I told him about the film. Please give me a call or email when you get a chance.
What has followed has been an interesting friendship with Will. So I’m happy to say that recently it was all announced and made official. You can find the official announcement here.
The interesting thing is that our first story arc of Unknown Soldier is loosely based on the Aboke Girls incident, which I wrote about in depth here. This is also part of the story they’ll be telling in “Girl Soldier”.
I look forward to visiting the set when they’re up and rolling, and I’ll keep reporting on this first feature film about this conflict.
I want to thank everyone for reading our first story arc and for following this blog. This book has changed my life and as long as it exists it will continue to do so. But of course, it cannot exist without you, so again, deeply, thank you.
This comic is a real work of passion for me. And every month it’s a battle to write. Traveling to East Africa, living with the Acholi, Lango and Baganda people, staying in their homes, eating food from their tables, witnessing the joy and sorrow of their existence… nothing else in my life has compared to these experiences and hammering that raw humanity I witnessed into a war book has not been easy. Sometimes I question if it’s the right thing to do at all. But having everyone come here and comment and get involved in this conversation about what I feel is the continent of the future, well, it gives me hope that the commercial decisions we’re making in this book go a long way to actually getting new and interesting ideas about Africa out there.
And now, being nominated for an Eisner for best new series, well, it just pushes our intentions out even further, to a wider audience, and I’m so excited about that.
We’ve discovered with this little web page that there isn’t a lot of places you can go on the net to get concise information about the LRA and the efforts to neutralize them. We even received a communication from an Acholi non-profit group telling us we had posted dates about Ugandan troop with-drawls from DRC before they’d heard anything about it and asking what our sources were (a deep web research tendency and several Ugandans I keep in close touch with). So I’ve decided to keep this site live and use it to blog about further news from Acholiland, East Africa and the continent as a whole as often as I can. Which, sadly, is not this month because of taxes and deadlines, but soon… soon.
And please, keep reading Unknown soldier! Because we’re just getting started!
One last time…
– Joshua Dysart
This month I want to talk about the CIA’s involvement in the overthrow and assassination of Lumumba, a democratically elected leader in 1960 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and how that has led to constant destabilization of the country and the region.
UPDATE ON OPERATION “LIGHTNING THUNDER”
“Soon Kony will have no fighters. He will die of hunger, be captured or get killed.”
– UPDF Operation Commander, Brig. Patrick Kankiriho. 24th February 2009.
As I write this, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) chief Joseph Kony and about 250 rebels are reportedly cornered in a swamp in the Garamba jungle in northeastern DRC by three separate armies. These armies are the Ugandan Peoples Defense Force, Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (the Congolese Army) and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Forces. Since the beginning of this offensive these three armies have failed to neutralize Kony despite overwhelming firepower and tactical knowledge.
If you’re not familiar with how this situation got to where it is, or of operation “Lightning Thunder” in general, which was carried out by the above mentioned three armies along with AFRICOM providing satellite phones, intelligence and fuel and US advisors – authorized by Bush – lending expertise, then please check out past posts on this site.
Suffice to say that since the attack in December on the LRA, Kony has cut a swath of death across DRC. Last January alone LRA soldiers were fingered for the deaths in DRC and South Sudan of more than 900 people, the displacement of 130,000 refugees and the kidnapping of hundreds of children. Some are saying the death toll is now, in late Feb. up to 15,000.
But with the failure of Uganda and Sudan to bring in their man the UN, long criticized for under-policing DRC, is stepping up. This coming Saturday, Feb. 28, Ugandan and Sudanese soldiers will pull back out of DRC. The report is that they’ll be replaced with a new United Nations military company. The UN Security Council has authorized the deployment of an additional 3,000 troops, an attack helicopter and two transport helicopters and 1,500 Egyptian police, Special Forces and soldiers, all to work in conjunction with the DRC military to stabilize the area and smoke out Kony.
But the locals have their own ideas. Western Equatoria’s Arrow Boys, a Sudanese self-defense group that use traditional weapons (bows, arrows, spears and clubs) treated with poisonous powder, have said they’re ready to fight the Ugandan Kony to the death and are urging Kony to surrender before they begin their march.
Is this Kony’s last stand? After two decades in the bush, his entire adult life, is this how and where it ends?
I don’t know, this war has been so close to ending so many times… It’s hard to get ones hope up. I can say only this, the suffering, while not over, has been exported, and while we should cry for the Congolese and Sudanese who’ve inherited yet another madman, the people that our current story-arc is about, the Acholi, are busy rebuilding and re-imagining their world. There’s much to learn as banks and hotels and tourists flood into their post-war patch of land. What the new Acholi will look like, what of their culture will survive, no one can tell. But if they can hold on to the bucking bastard of modernity, then maybe someday soon there will be a generation who never knew war. And even though they’re on the brink of this, for now, it still seems almost more than we can hope for.
We’ll keep you posted…
Moving on, in this month’s issue of Unknown Soldier (#5), we see a 20 year-old Jack referring to the assassination of Lumumba and America’s involvement in it. So let’s jump back to 1961. The height of the Cold War and fill in the back the story with the…
THE HORRIBLE DEATH OF PATRICE LUMUMBA
Patrice Émery Lumumba (2 July 1925 – 17 January 1961) was a catholic, publicly educated member of the liberal anti-colonial movement in the Republic of the Congo during its time as a Belgium colony. He was so influential over the politics of his time and place that the Belgium colonialists were forced to release him from an unjust prison term in Jan of 1960 and send him to Brussels to participate in the signing of the declaration of Congolese independence. National Congolese elections followed in May, and Lumumba, at 35 years old, became Congo’s first democratically elected Prime Minister.
Shortly after his election Lumumba raised the pay of all government employees except for the army. A fatal mistake. By July 5, a mutiny among the nations soldiers had erupted (their anger compounded by the fact that they still had to answer to Belgian officers who were slow to release power). The rule of law quickly broke and looting and violence overran the young country before it could even solidify its government.
Katanga, a significantly large southern province, declared independence on July 11, 1960. This move was backed and supported by the Belgium government and Belgian corporations who were effectively now sabotaging Congo’s bid for stability and therefore a lasting freedom. They ultimately hope to retain control of Congo’s vast resources. Katanga fueled the fire of the erupting new nation and United Nations troops were dispatched, but the unrest could not be quelled.
Lumumba turned to Dwight D. Eisenhower and the United States for assistance, but when the US refused to help him stabilize his nation he was forced to seek aid from the only power left, the Soviet Union. He begged the USSR to help him subdue Katanga and keep them from splitting the Congo Republic into two nations, which would bring about total civil war. The minute he asked for Soviet help, however, Eisenhower, ensconced in the Cold War, branded Lumumba a communist. A Soviet invasion of the rebellious Katanga was attempted and failed. The failure due to the intensity of jungle fighting, something the Russians were not used to. After that, everyone, except for the vast majority of the Congolese people, turned their back on the ill-fated Lumumba.
It has since been revealed by a declassified interview with then-US National Security Council minute keeper Robert Johnson that it was after the failed Soviet invasion of Belgian controlled Katanga that Eisenhower said to CIA chief Allen Dulles that Lumumba should be eliminated. Allen Dulles then ordered Lumumba’s assassination as “an urgent and prime objective”.
In September, amongst all the chaos, a coup organized by Congo Republic Army Chief of Staff Colonel Joseph Mobutu, once a personal friend of Lumumba’s, and funded by the CIA (who, by this time, had attempted at least one documented assassination of Lumumba and was in the midst of plotting another) successfully removed the Prime Minister from power and placed him under house arrest. Only ten weeks after his democratic election Lumumba’s government had been deposed by western powers and their puppets.
Lumumba, still enjoying virtually unanimous voter support, escaped house arrest and fled to Stanleyville where he attempted to set up his own government and army to fight back against the illegitimate and remote controlled government now in place. But in December Mobutu’s men again arrested Lumumba.
Lumumba was transferred to the Katanga Province, the separatist region he had sought to contain. There is no just reason for his being sent there. There was no intention of any trial. The CIA was aware of this breach of legal action, as were the Belgians, who had controlling interest in Katanga.
On Jan. 17, 1961 Lumumba, upon arriving in Katanga, was tortured and gagged. Later that night, the democratically elected Prime Minister was driven to an isolated spot where three firing squads commanded by Captain Julien Gat and Police Commissioner Verschurre, both Belgians, were waiting. There have since been unearthed written orders from the Belgian government requesting Lumumba’s murder. The execution most likely took place between 9:40PM and 9:43PM. Lumumba’s corpse was then buried in an unmarked grave nearby.
The next day, fueled by rumors that the burial had been observed, Belgian Police Commissioner Gerard Soete and his brother dug up the body and took it to the Rhodesia border for reburial. Then, on January 21, Commissioner Soete and his brother dug up Lumumba’s corpse again, cut it into pieces and dissolved it in a trashcan full of sulfuric acid. They kept as souvenirs, some teeth, skull fragments and bullets that survived the acid bath.
By now rumors had begun to circulate that the people’s chosen leader had been murdered, but it wasn’t until three weeks later that his death was announced on Katangese radio. It was said that Lumumba had escaped imprisonment – where he was awaiting his fair trial – and was killed by enraged villagers.
After the announcement of Lumumba’s death, street protests erupted across European. In Belgrade, protesters sacked the Belgian embassy, in London clashes with police turned to chaos and violence.
CIA records released in 2000 show two partly censored CIA cables from Katanga on January 17, the day of Lumumba’s murder, and January 18, the day of the first exhumation. The first cable is mostly censored, and consists of communication about what exactly should be done with Lumumba. The second cable sent to the CIA expresses thanks for Lumumba being delivered to Katanga and then says that, had they known he was coming, they would have “baked a snake”. The same CIA records show that David Doyle, the then chief of Elizabethville base in Katanga, where Lumumba was held, told CIA officers that he was keeping Lumumba’s body in the trunk of his car until he could figure out what to do with it.
Mobutu, who it is no exaggeration to say was installed by the United States, went on to create a 32-year long totalitarian regime, infamous for it’s human rights violations. He embezzled some $5 billion USD from his own country (half of the Congo GDP during his time in power), plunging it into severe poverty from which it has never recovered. He is ranked as the third-most corrupt leader in the past two decades and the most corrupt African leader of his time. His name is now synonymous with the idea of African kleptocracy.
The truth is that DRC never had a chance for a brighter future. From the United States, hopped up on a Cold War roid-rage, willing to leap at shadows, to the bitter colonialist Belgians refusing to let go of the endless resources belonging to a people that had successfully demanded their independence to the inevitable growing pains of the new, democratic Congo, it’s fate was sealed in just one year.
But beyond the politics, beyond the history, there is this man, Lumumba. A single human being who grew up believing in the rule of law and in the power of democracy. Lumumba spoke with passion and captured the imagination of his people. He was a new leader for a new Congo, a new Africa. A beacon of hope. Now imagine that man in the bush in the middle of the night. Beaten, dragged, spit on, treated like an animal, on his knees, looking up at the barrall of a white man’s gun, his greatest crime his passion for his nation.
What a cold and terrorfying moment, before the bullet hit, when he realized that everything he believed in was a lie. And that even the nation that claim to be the great harbringer of democracy was really just another thug with a gun.
Thanks for reading…
The Life and Times of Patrice Lumumba…
The CIA in the Congo…
The fourth issue has hit… and so, as per our contract with you the reader, the fourth installment of the six part web-series is up. First we’ll update you on what’s happened with the hunt for Kony and his reactivated militia since last month and then we’ll talk a little about the psychological state of the child soldier in Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
THE AFTERMATH OF OPERATION “LIGHTNING THUNDER”
On December 13, 2008, the Ugandan Peoples Defence Force (UPDF, government army) Special Forces, air force and artillery, in tangent with the Congolese and Sudan Peoples Liberation forces, began operation “LIGHTNING THUNDER”. A full fledged air campaign followed by artillery and infantry that attacked Kony’s base in Democratic Republic of Congo and began to drive him and his LRA west, deeper into the Garamba jungle. See last month’s entry for more details.
At the time it looked to me, from my cozy chair here in California, like the military offensive was successfully dismantling the LRA and weakening Kony’s strength. That might still be true. But there have been terrible, terrible side-affects of this conflict, side-affects that were the primary concern of those opposed to the military strike in the first place.
It seems that “splinter gangs” of LRA soldiers, largely inactive for over two-years now, are being fingered for the deaths in DRC and South Sudan of more than 900 people and the displacement of over 130,000 refugees, as well as the kidnapping of hundreds of children, this has all happened over the last month, according to an estimate by the United Nations. If these allegations are true, then these are the worst LRA attacks in four years.
However, Alex Oloya, an LRA spokesman, has called for an independent investigation apart from the UN, ? “We categorically deny those allegations. Kony himself has indicated his position and whereabouts. The LRA is not in the area. We have been in Congo for two years and not killed civilians. Why now? They are not our enemy.”
The United Nations responds, “In an apparent desperate attempt to escape and on the search for food to survive, the rebels have intensified their slaughter of Congolese civilians, with attacks recorded in the villages of Tomati, Sambia and Durba. These attacks have, in general, worsened the security and humanitarian situation MONUC underlines.” (MONUC: the UN’s mission in Congo).
The LRA is claiming that this is a power play by Ugandan President Museveni. That he hopes to push his troops deeper into east Congo and begin to steal resources from DRC, and that it is Museveni’s troops who are responsible for the atrocities. They’re using the International Court Of Justice (ICJ) ruling from 2005, which found Uganda liable for war crimes and destruction in Congo during the Congo War as evidence that Museveni is capable of this.
It is undeniable that Museveni has attempted to marginalize this conflict, undeniable that over its 23-year history he has stalled its peace processes, compromised his own ability to protect the Acholi people and acted in an ethically questionable manor in regards to his neighboring nations. It is also undeniable that it is in Uganda’s best interest to push into Eastern Congo to hold back another, separate, rebel army (Laurent Nkunda’s army – a story for another day) from spilling into West Uganda. But as any reader of this page knows, the LRA simply cannot be trusted. They have made a modus operandi out of the kidnapping of children, the slaughter of innocents and the terrorizing of populations. For now, the United Nations independent investigations committee is, by far, the most trusted group involved, and the closest thing to reliable information we can get coming out of this conflict.
Here’s a news article on why the initial bombing of the LRA camps in mid-December went wrong. Garamba air raid: Maruru speaks out
The LRA has torched a church in DRC, indicating a shift in policy (not that any LRA policies are ever firmly set) regarding Christian institutions.
THE CHILD SOLDIER IN THE LRA
“Early on when my brothers and I were captured, the LRA explained to us that all five brothers couldn´t serve in the LRA because we would not perform well. So they tied up my two younger brothers and invited us to watch. Then they beat them with sticks until two of them died. They told us it would give us strength to fight. My youngest brother was nine years old.” Former child soldier, aged 13.
The role of children over the course of this two-decades long conflict is a debated topic. The International Criminal Court stated in 2004 that the “LRA base of combatants… [are] mostly aged between 11 and 15… according to reports over 85% of the LRA’s forces are made up of children, used as soldiers, porters, labourers and sexual slaves…”
Yet UNICEF contradicted these figures. Saying that two-thirds of those abducted between 1990 and 2001 were over 18. And that most of the abducted were released within a year. Even noted specialist on the topic, Tim Allen, whose work I use, copy, and downright plagiarize, says, “The emphasis on the LRA’s child soldiers can therefore at times seem disproportionate.”
He goes on to claim that the emphasis on child soldiers allows us to allocate juvenile status to the LRA and deflect attention from the fact that President Museveni’s government recruits child soldiers as well. Something we briefly hint at in this month’s issue of the comic.
But while we can debate all day the extent to which child combatants were used in Uganda and are now being used in DRC, it cannot be denied that they have, IN FACT, been used. Again and again I have come across documents, interviews and even, during my time in Uganda, heard eyewitness accounts, of child combatants. While the greatly respected (certainly by me) Allen makes legitimate arguments in regards to the dangers of over-infantilizing the LRA, the phenomena and psychology of the child soldier persists.
Whether a dominant amount of these children were and are being trained for combat, forced to kill relatives in order to have their moral compass and personal sense of self compromised or just made to hump Maize flour or coffee across the Sudan border, they are still children caught in conflict, often finding themselves at the center of firefights, under the blazing bullets of Ugandan Gunships and sent out as decoys in the heat of battle. These are child soldiers. There is no other term for it. And the question is how do you re-integrate the children once they’ve escaped the LRA? How do you help them overcome the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the nightmares? How do you rebuild a society on the back of a generation orphaned and traumatized by war?
Several organizations are working on this problem. And we’ll explore it more in the comic during the next story arc, “Easy Kill”. Many of these organizations are using art therapy, the power of storytelling, and other therapeutic techniques to resocialize war-affected youth.
But the problem persists, even with a two-year peace in the Northern Uganda area. In this culture of healing, the physics of good intentions can backfire. It has, for instance, been reported that some, during the height of the conflict, expressed a desire to be abducted due to the financial assistance and opportunities afforded to the escaped abductees. There were opportunities for education, psychological rehabilitation and financial assistance that Northern children who labored in the terrible disease ridden camps simply did not receive.
It is a terrifying concept. A world where abduction is a potential key to a brighter world and safety is a lock on suffering. It is the kind of topsy-turvy world that Kony and Museveni built, brick by brick, child by child, year after year in the North of Uganda.
- Joshua Dysart
Welcome to the third installment of our companion web series to the Vertigo comic book “Unknown Soldier”. This month we talk about the infamous Aboke girls’ abduction, which issue #3 is very loosely based on.
But first, there’s breaking news from Uganda and if the web is good for anything, it’s good for immediacy. I’ve been ending each monthly entry here with a strong sense of hope. Even though Joseph Kony, leader of the rebel group known as THE LORD’S RESISTANCE ARMY (LRA), has been evasive on the peace process for the last two years, he also has been largely inactive. A large percentage of people have left the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps for either home or more manageable satellite camps, the Night Commuter phenomena stopped some two years ago and financial institutions are flooding into Gulu, promising future development for the people of the north. All good stuff.
My hope for a lasting peace in the region has not flagged one bit. However, last Sunday, December 13, 2008, the 22 year-long war flared up again and I think we need to cover it here before moving on.
OPERATION “LIGHTNING THUNDER”
Operation “Lightning Thunder”, Carried out by the Ugandan Peoples Defence Force (UPDF, government army) Special Forces, air force and artillery and backed up by the Congolese and Sudan Peoples Liberation forces, began with air attacks on LRA camps in Garamba National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Five LRA camps were destroyed by helicopter gun-ships and MiG23 jet fighters. Next, a large ground force moved in, putting Kony and his fighters on the run. This new attack is said to be in response to Kony’s lack of commitment to the 2 year-old peace process. Reportedly, a message has been sent to Kony that there’s a non-military base at Ri-kwangba, in West Equatoria, Sudan, near the border with the DRC, where he can go and re-commit himself to signing the final peace agreement.
But the full damage to the LRA from this massive offensive has yet to be assessed. It’s even possible that Kony is dead, however, an LRA delegation leader has said that the attacks will “escalate the war and anguish of the people in the north.” And claimed that Kony and his fighters are safe.
Ssemusota guli mu ntamu. Bw’ogutta tolya, bw’oguleka tolya.
(A snake in the cooking pot is a dilemma; hit it and you break the pot. Leave it and you starve.)
– Ugandan saying
Many in the Uganda government, particularly Members of Parliament from Northern Uganda, have spoken out against the military action. Their complaints vary. Some claim there was confusion as to who was supposed to sign the agreement first, President Museveni or Kony – to me this argument seems political, and quite honestly, I don’t see Museveni pulling the kind of confusing power tactics he did during previous attempts at peace. More substantial concerns are regarding the moral complications of a war fought against children, or the impatience of the Ugandan Government to the peace process and the idea that a successful peace process has more of a chance of healing social wounds in the region than a combat victory. Supporters of the military strike, on the other hand, believe this is the Ugandan government’s opportunity to prove to its people and the international community that this time President Museveni is truly prepared to ensure Kony is utterly destroyed and that permanent peace is achieved after 22 long years of struggle, and half-hearted attempts at stabilizing the region.
One week after the attacks, on Sunday 21st (I’m writing this on the 22nd, so the data here will be two days old by the time you read it), the UPDF captured vital documents belonging to LRA rebels at “Eskimo Camp” (the LRA operational center and sick bay) as it continued to pursue them through the Garamba jungle. In particular was the passport of a man wanted by the World Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and “security” documents, which the army did not describe. Also seized were 30 machine guns, 100 bullets, SMG and sub-machine guns, 10 walkie-talkies, two solar panel chargers, a pair of binoculars, high frequency military communication radios, two satellite phones, maize flour, beans, simsim and cooking oil.
The UPDF spokesman for the military operation said, “[Kony] is under pressure. When somebody abandons communication equipment, weapons and food, there is no other better indication. Without food supplies and a base to operate from, we shall get him soon.” I agree. And this is where my note of hope comes from this time around. Kony is done. It has taken 22 years, but he is simply incapable of continuing this fight. He is outgunned, outnumbered and on the run. I also imagine he’s damn tired. The man is 48 years old and has spent his entire adult life at war (by his own choice, unlike the children combatants in his army). It is not impossible that during our first story arc, the LRA will have ceased to exist. I am no warmonger, but I agree that it is time to put this beast down. Even if Kony disappears into the jungle, he will never have the power to destabilize the Acholi and the Lango again. We can only hope he doesn’t begin to terrorize people further west.
And now, here’s a fine example of why I, I general pacifist and strong opponent to the death penalty in many cases, have no problem with seeing Joseph Kony hanged, back to the past… 12 years to be exact… to 1996…
THE ABOKE GIRLS
Most LRA activity throughout the 80’s and 90’s took place within the three districts referred to as Acholiland, Uganda. They are Gulu, Pader and Kitgum. All in the north. However, on March 21st, 1989, the LRA carried out a raid on St. Mary’s College, a Catholic school for girls in the town of Aboke in the Apac District, which borders Gulu and Pader to the south. 10 schoolgirls and 33 seminarians were abducted. Nine of the girls eventually escaped, another was killed in battle years later. In the aftermath of this raid a UPDF unit was assigned to protect the college.
For seven years the college lay unmolested, but by 1996, the security situation had gone lax and the region was again hosting rebels trying to push south towards the capital of Kampala. At this point the UPDF detail at the local college had been replaced by Local Defense Unit militia (LDU) who had been armed by the Ugandan government. Rumors began to circulate that the LRA was again considering attacking St. Mary’s to acquire “wives” for their soldiers. In September 1996, the Local Defense Unit militia moved from the college 16 kilometers away to a town called Ikeme, leaving the school was left defenseless.
On October 10th, 1996, one day after the Ugandan Independence Day, at 2:30 am, LRA rebels attacked. They burned the school’s only vehicle, ransacked the clinic, attempted to burn several buildings (unsuccessfully), raped at least one of the students and by dawn had left the school with 139 female secondary school girls as their prisoners.
The deputy head mistress of the college at the time was a white, Italian nun named Sister Rachele Fassera. An astonishing woman, what she did next is one of the great courageous acts in the whole history of the war. She took money from the school office in the hopes of buying the girls back and, without hesitation, headed out in pursuit of the rebels. She had done this once before, after the original ’89 raid, but she was forced to turn around that time when she was caught in the middle of a fierce battle between the LRA and the UPDF. This time a male teacher named Bosco volunteered to accompany her.
The two left the college at 7 a.m. The LRA had stolen a large amount of candy and drinks that the college had bought for the Independence Day celebrations. Sister Fassera and Bosco were actually able to follow a trail of candy wrappers and bottles through the bush (never forget the LRA is predominately a child army). Sister Fassera and Bosco were eventually joined by a woman whose child had also been abducted by the passing band and after a time the three of them marched right into the rebel’s hands.
The three brave souls were now on the march with the LRA and the children, though eventually the mother was forced by the LRA to turn back. During the journey the unit, its prisoners and its new guests hid from UPDF helicopter gunships, came under fire from UPDF soldiers and forcibly marched for more than four hours as a rearguard of rebels engaged the UPDF soldiers who followed.
The group, losing the UPDF, eventually arrived at a larger camp. It was here that the LRA Unit leader told Fassera the terrible news. That he would release109 girls but keep 30 which he had already selected for “desirable traits”.
And here I’d like to break narrative to emphasize the horror of this. Imagine being Sister Fassera, a woman with the courage to walk out into the bush, to cross a live war zone, to dodge land minds the rebels left in their wake, to face the rifles of rebels no more than 14 years old… all of this, and still have to leave 30 girls behind. Imagine the crying, the begging from these girls that she must’ve loved so unconditionally that her own life paled in importance.
At one point one of the girls who was forced to stay behind slipped secretly into the larger group that was leaving. But Sister Fassera told the girl to go back to the group of girls remaining in captivity, fearful that the rebels would discover one had snuck one out and would decide to keep them all, or worse, kill them all.
And so Fassera and Bosco made the arduous journey back to the college with the 109 girls.
The history of the girls that were left behind is a mixture of drama, brutality and even, to a certain degree, joy. Shortly after the abduction, a girl named Jennifer attempted a failed escape. The other girls were ordered to beat her to death under penalty of execution themselves. Afterwards Jennifer’s corpse was left out in the open and anyone who cried was also violently beaten. Two girls, Judith and Caterina, were bound and bludgeoned with sticks, bicycle chains and machetes. Caterina died, but Judith survived and, as punishment for asking for water, the rebels tied her to a tree in the forest and left her there. Her corpse was later found. After a week’s march, the Aboke girls were taken north to Kony in Southern Sudan where they were given to commanders as “wives”. However, by 2006 all but 2 of the others had escaped, many baring children born from their forced marriages.
Sister Fassera and the parents of the abducted children began, almost immediately, to organize. They formed the Concerned Parents Association (CPA), and were relentless about raising awareness of the abductions. Through their work the Aboke girls became one of the first major incidences from the war to reach the global mainstream media, after ten years of brutal conflict. The CPA engaged the UN, the Pope and US first lady Clinton. Journalist Els De Temmerman reconstructed the journey of two of the Aboke girls who escaped as well as told the story of one of the abductors, a fourteen-year old boy who was part of Kony’s elite troops, in a book called, appropriately enough, THE ABOKE GIRLS. The book has been translated into several languages and is considered one of the key texts on the conflict.
A 2006 study estimated that 66,000 children had been abducted over the course of the war.
THANKS FOR READING…
It was a long entry this issue. And the story of the Aboke girls is an emotionally hard one. If you made it all the way to the end here then you are officially two kinds of awesome (you’re one kind of awesome for being interested enough to come to this site at all). I wrote this, along with issue 8 of the comic book, while traveling for Christmas. On planes and in cars and at my mother’s house. Not exactly the best places for concentration. So forgive any typos. I just wanted to get it up and enjoy my Christmas.
Happy, Merry Hanakwanzasaturnaliamas.
And because it saddens me that all we ever talk about is the horror of this region, here’s a wonderful short video of Northern Ugandan women dancing in the land of sorrow and joy.
Issue #2 of Unknown Soldier has just hit the stands and so, as it will go for the remainder of the first story arc, installment #2 of our web-extra series is up as well. Here you can follow the creative process on the book from script to page. You can also read further into the complex political and social world of Northern Uganda. This month we focus on the Night Commuters.
Here’s some helpful terms, names and acronyms…
Last month I talked about the forced migration of virtually the entire Acholi population onto the IDP camps. President Museveni’s government claimed this move would be in the interest of the Acholi people and would protect them from the ravages of the war between the government and the LRA. What it actually did was displace them from their lands and rob them of their autonomy.
On top of this, the quality of security in the camps was extremely low. Even when each camp had its stated pre-requisite of one Army detachment, safety was far from guaranteed. UPDF soldiers were known to flee at the first sign of an LRA attack. Worse, fear of possible conflict has been reported to drive UPDF guards to unpredictable and dangerous abuses. Including beating people in the camps who made too much noise at night. There was also the danger of soldiers raping the women in the camp. The youthful make-up of the UPDF (a child of 16 can enlist – making what some have called a government-sanctioned child army), fear of Kony’s perceived military and mystical power and the fatigue the government soldiers felt – many of whom had been re-stationed immediately after Congo War II – made for an ineffective, and easily routed fighting force.
Since the LRA almost always came at night to abduct future soldiers, workers and wives into their ranks, and often operated right in the heart of the camps, the ever self-reliant Acholi children began to take the matter of their safety into their own hands, and in so doing, created a phenomena that eventually became one of the strongest images to emerge from the war. They began to “commute” daily by the thousands. Before dark, vast swarms of children from 6 to 16 years old began the trek from their camps, scattered across Gulu District, to the larger towns. The blankets they carried and the clothes they wore were their only possessions in the world. They traveled from four to ten miles each day, simply to sleep in schools and dispensaries, in the awnings of shops and in Catholic Missions. Only to wake up at the crack of dawn and begin the journey back to their respective camps to tend to their families or avoid being accused of rebel activity by the UPDF. By 2004 it was estimated that every night more than 25,000 children where taking to the roads in search of safety before nightfall. At one point Noah’s Ark, one of Gulu’s shelters for night commuters, stated, that it was taking in more than 6,000 children per night. Each and every one of them terrified for their safety. But even this massive, daily movement of human beings could not guarantee protection. Reports of young women transacting sex for safe harbor in the night was not uncommon and if the shelters were full, sleeping under a car did not, in any way, offer a strong sense of security.
This was all part of the natural outgrowth of the terror campaign waged by Joseph Kony on the Acholi (his own people). The LRA would target very young children in their raids. Smashing the heads of infants and throwing toddlers into fires. These stories spread fear amongst youth who had not yet been a part of an LRA attack. And if abducted, then the child’s fate was unpredictable. Would they be a worker, resigned to constant physical abuse while carrying goods for miles and miles, only then to be let go immediately afterward? Let go to spread the word of LRA cruelty, their very freedom born from the whims of a man with a gun, the child’s life a symbol of the LRA’s power and the child’s powerlessness? Would the child be forced to kill their own parents as an act of indoctrination into the new moral order that exists inside the twisted LRA culture, leaving the child ripe for programming and training as a soldier in their forces? Would the be forced (if they were a woman) to marry a highly placed officer in the LRA, a man often much, much older than themselves, who would regularly rape them, who has complete control over them, and who will, most likely, be the father of their child? You can see how the fear of abduction becomes a strategy. It displaces the culture, keeps them from organizing, takes the already palpable dread of the enemy to a legendary level that cannot be psychologically coped with or rallied against. The persistence of the Night Commuter phenomena throughout this war is a testament to the effectiveness of the psychological aspect of the abductions.
However, it has also backfired on Kony. The images of thousands upon thousands of children – owning nothing, dragging tired bodies, walking on swollen barefoot feet across miles of dusty road simply to sleep in safety – stunned the world when they finally began to matriculate out into the global mainstream press, which had, up to this point, been criminally negligent in its coverage of the conflict. It could be argued that transmission of the Night Commuter imagery through various media outlets in developed nations brought about a public awareness that would eventually force President Museveni to take more seriously the possibility of peace talks and by 2007, Night Commuting had ended.
Despite the failure of the peace process between the Ugandan Government and the LRA, and even minor reactivity on the abduction front as of last month, the Night Commuters have not taken back to the roads. This is a good sign. A sign that the Acholi are done with war. That they are done with empowering a madman (Kony). Done with his fear tactics. They want to rebuild, to reclaim, to have their culture be reborn. What the new Acholi people, the post-war Acholi people, will act like, think like, is anybody’s guess. Wounds run deep. More than one generation is scarred by this conflict. The old Acholi ways, living in the villages, nightly gatherings to tell stories, rural traditions, these things are most likely gone forever, ground up by the all-consuming conflict. But there will be peace, if only because the people of Northern Uganda are too exhausted for anything else. And with this comes new hope.
The Wikipedia Page for the Global Night Commute, a worldwide protest in the name of the Acholi children that took place on April 29, 2006.
A video featuring night commuters talking about why they flee and how one organization is trying to give them purpose in their lives now that the war is essentially over. It has some audio problems, but it’s still an interesting view.
Globally there are over 24 million Internally Displaced People, human beings forced to flee their habitual place of residence yet have crossed no recognized international border. They are not, technically, refugees, and are not afforded the same rights as such under international law. According to the IDMC (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre) more than 11 million of those IDPs are in Africa. Numbers vary on how many exist in northern Ugandan alone, but in 2006, consensus rested between 1.4 and 2 million people.
Lord’s Resistance Army’s (LRA) violent rebel campaign against the Ugandan government of President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and the President’s haphazard, uncommitted and, sometimes even, draconian response back has left much of the three Acholi districts (Gulu, Pader and Kitgum) in the northwest of the country completely abandoned save for the IDP CAMPS that strategically hug major roads and the outskirts of towns. By 1996 – approximately 10 years after the rise of the first Christian/mystic military leaders in the area and 8 years after the appearance of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army who has claimed to be possessed by the spirit of Jesus Christ – the Ugandan military began to forcibly, sometimes violently, displace human beings and relocate them to the camps. It is not uncommon to hear an Acholi voice conspiratorial sentiments. Such as the belief that Uganda’s President Museveni was making a grab for their land or that the president simply wanted to remove the Acholi people from the Ugandan political process by making them, essentially, a homeless tribe. More than once people referred to their homes as “concentration camps” in my presence. However, despite some very questionable behavior by the President (who came to power through violence in 1986), I personally feel that the camps were simply a misguided attempt at anti-insurgency on the part of the Ugandan Military. Part of a long line of feeble policies implemented by a president who, until relatively recently, seemed unconcerned with truly ending the war.
A year later, in 1997, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) began delivering food to the camps. By 2006 more than 80 percent of the Acholi population had been relocated and classified as IDPs. Their land, their traditions, their culture, their progress as a people in a developing world, all compromised by the inhuman living conditions of their new, mass homes.
High mortality rates and adults leaving to find jobs caused a large population of unattended children to amass in the camps. They are everywhere. Moving in flocks. Sick, skinny, dirty. As one Acholi told me during my visit to Kitgum, “We no longer understand our children. We do not move forward together, as a people. The children are a tribe of their own now.”
With dense population, poor sanitation, abundance of disease and malnutrition, no clean water, virtually all food coming from relief aid, the common threat of fire and being barely secured by the UPDF (Ugandan Army) the camps represent neither safety nor hope. To attempt to wander off and cultivate land on your own is to run the risk of rebel abduction; or of you, yourself, being identified as a rebel by the UPDF; or of simply stepping on a discarded landmine.
But there is good news. In September 2006 a ceasefire was declared after peace talks. The dampening of the war throughout the peace process has caused Acholi to begin to return to their familial land. It is estimated that since 2006 more than half the IDPs have left the camps. In May of 2007, however, I still found the camps to be a large, unnerving presence and I was told by one WFP (United Nations World Food Programme) driver that the numbers of those leaving the camps had been inflated by President Museveni’s government who increasingly finds itself on the world stage these days (Uganda was just allowed a temporary seat on the UN Security Council a few weeks ago). Those who do return home, the driver told me, often return to land that is riddled with mines.
Since my trip, the peace process has collapsed. Joseph Kony, who seems able to turn the sanity off and on, has reminded us again of his mental volatility by murdering one of his own deputy-leaders (Vincent Otti) and pulling out of the process. At least one case of abduction by the LRA has been reported, literally, within weeks of the printing of our first issue. Whether or not these events reverse the Acholi migration back to the camps and reinstall the northern Ugandan culture of horror that persisted for 20 years is unknown. What is known is that the people want peace. They feel its need in their bones. They want to rebuild. To heal. To put suffering behind them. And one day, when there is no more war on this patch of land… these camps will stand like ghost towns, slowly being swallowed by the sub-Sahara bush.
– Joshua Dysart
Photos by Joshua Dysart
While the film is a little soft on the condition in the camps it’s still the most positive and expressive work of art to emerge from this conflict. The film is guaranteed to make you cry.