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.