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BBC Covers Unknown Soldier

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

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!

In Pictures: Ugandan Comic Book Hero

Update on Kony and the LRA (Feb. – Oct., 2009)

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

UPDF Commandos on the hunt for LRA rebels

UPDF Commandos on the hunt for LRA rebels

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 ForceForces 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.

DRC Arrow boy displays weapons (photo Tim Makulka -UN)

DRC Arrow boy displays weapons (photo Tim Makulka -UN)

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

Displaced people in Ingbokolo gather to receive assistance from an MSN doctor.

Displaced people in Ingbokolo gather to receive assistance from an MSN doctor.

A chronological History of Northern Uganda and the War between the LRA and the UPDF

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

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.

British Colonialists in Uganda

British Colonialists in Uganda

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.

Subdivisions under the Ugandan Protectorate (1926 borders). The areas in red and blue hues had centralized kingdoms prior to British arrival, while the colonialists introduced centralized rule on the Baganda model to areas in yellow. Areas in khaki never had centralized kingdoms.

Subdivisions under the Ugandan Protectorate (1926 borders). The areas in red and blue hues had centralized kingdoms prior to British arrival, while the colonialists introduced centralized rule on the Baganda model to areas in yellow. Areas in khaki never had centralized kingdoms.

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.

Alice Auma, mother of the Holy Spirit Movement

Alice Auma, mother of the Holy Spirit Movement

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.

Joseph Kony and his men in the Bush

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.

PART II

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.”

Betty Bigombe with Lords Resistance Army negotiators.

Betty Bigombe with LRA negotiators.

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.

UPDF at Labuje IDP camp c. 2002

UPDF guards an IDP camp

The situation at this point was not designed for an easy solution.

PART III

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.

Unyama IDP camp

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.

uganda

Kony meets with UNHCR Field Rep during the 2006 peace talks in Sudan

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.

PART IV

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

Unknown Soldier’s Road to the Eisners…

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

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.

THE ABOKE GIRLS

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

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

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.

–    Joshua

Aboke Girls tell their story…

A BBC photo essay on LRA abducted children

A photo of Sister Rachel and an excerpt from the book ABOKE girls, here…

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.