Theater of Cruelty

With darkness comes the horrors

The war in Northern Uganda is a conspiracy of religious madness and political power struggle.


[GULU / KAMPALA] Driving over the Karume Bridge on the road between Kampala and Gulu city is crossing a political border. You leave Uganda and enter a no-man's land. Only refugees, soldiers and aid workers meet one in this torn piece of Uganda. Even those who drive the boda-boda – as the bicycle taxis are called – have understood the importance of hoisting the white flag on the vehicle.

In Gulu city, the red dust settles like a blanket above everything and everyone. It's the trucks from the World Food Program that have swirled it up. Children's feet carry a stream of children every night to the somewhat safer cities, and in the gray light they take the long road home to areas ravaged by the war between Joseph Kony's brutal guerrilla movement of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) and the government army (UPDF).

Not the only victims

These night hikers are the most visible victims of the war, and they are the reason why the outside world has taken note of the conflict at all. But the children who wake up to the cold concrete floors of the city's makeshift shelters are not the only victims.

In this northern part of Uganda, which is called Acholiland after the dominant ethnic group in the districts of Gulu, Pader and Kitgum, 1,6 million people are displaced in their own country. And rarely does the coverage of the hikers' suffering, the very mark of depictions from Northern Uganda, take the war seriously as a political phenomenon. For like any war, this is also the continuation of politics by other means. The challenge is to understand what political tensions are beneath. The answer you get depends on who you ask.

Split land

The UPDF and the government claim that the LRA is a gang of bandits and a terrorist organization. At the same time, the one-party regime of President Yoweri K. Museveni is accused of having an interest in continuing the war.

- It is not the ability to stop the LRA that is missing, but the political will, says Sam Tindifa who has been researching the conflict for a number of years.

According to Tindifa, who is linked to the Human Rights and Peace Center in Kampala, Museveni has never wanted to negotiate seriously.

- The government argues that the opponent has no legitimate demands at all, he says, and continues.

- But one can not understand the conflict in northern Uganda without looking at the historical context.

When Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) took power twenty years ago, it was from regimes that had their power base among the Acholi in the north. During the bloody dictatorships of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, they dominated the administration, the security services and not least the army.

"Museveni is still playing on the fear that the acholi will return," says Tindifa.

ghost Soldiers

Today, it is a distant thought for the rest of Uganda that there is a war in the country, and sharp ethnic divides are being glimpsed beneath the surface. But behind this is also economic and political interests. As much as 600 billion Ugandan shillings (2,2 billion) should have gone to ghost soldiers, ie soldiers found only on paper. Those who have exploited the war situation financially are people in the army.

- There is an abundance of conflict contractors in UPDF. At the highest level, there is a planned economic exploitation of the conflict, says Tindifa.

In Gulu city you see how the war economy works on the ground level. Two well-known LRA commanders, Sam Kolo and Kenneth Banya, both of whom have come out of the bush over the past two years, live permanently at the Acholi Inn. The hotel, like many others in the area, is owned by an UPDF summit.

But the worst thing is that the soldiers are accused of abusing the civilian population they are meant to protect. Not only were many forcibly relocated to so-called safe camps where freedom of movement is minimal – in some cases people are not allowed to move more than 300 meters outside the camps. UPDF is also said to have been behind looting and rape, although to a much lesser extent than LRA. And people who are on the roads after the curfew risk being killed by scared and inexperienced UPDF soldiers.


Tindifa also points to the diplomatic gains the war has given Museveni. An anti-terror law passed just after September 11, 2001, stamps the LRA as a terrorist organization and anyone who has anything to do with the guerrillas as collaborators.

"It fits hand in glove with American and British policy," Tindifa said.

The strategy has produced results. When UPDF launched its major offensive against LRA's bases in southern Sudan in the early summer of 2002, "Operation Iron Fist," it had $ XNUMX billion in support from the United States.

Uganda's increasingly militarized political life can also give Museveni a headache. If the well-born army is not kept alive, there is a danger that parts of it may turn against him.

- It is difficult to see how Museveni would handle his own army if it was not a war they could deal with, says Tindifa, and adds:

- The longer Museveni stays in power, the longer the war against the LRA will last.

Possessed by spirits

The LRA emerged in the early 1990s as a continuation, partly from the remnants of the crashed Obote regime, and partly, but more importantly, by Alice Auma's Holy Spirit Movement (HSM). The movement arose in the wake of the abuses and marginalization of the Acholians was exposed when NRM came to power in 1986. HSM had political goals and a form and rhetoric that blended Christianity and traditional Acholi faith and gained wide appeal among young unemployed Acholians. Alice believed herself possessed by several spirits with powers that strengthened the Acholians in the fight against NRM and took the nickname Lakwena (the messenger) after what was supposed to be the spirit of an Italian physician living in the area around 1900. This was primarily a way of describing complex political conditions in a language that was recognizable in the Acholic culture.

When Joseph Kony claimed to be Alice's successor in 1990, however, the political aspect quickly disappeared while the brutality that has become the hallmark of the LRA is legitimized through an ideology that can hardly be described as anything but esoteric (see own case).

In particular, recruitment is incomprehensible and cruel. Among the 20.000 children who have been abducted, there are those who are forced to kill relatives and playmates, often in a bestial manner. The stories are many.

A Ugandan journalist who writes a book about some of these children tells of an eight-year-old boy who, after refusing to kill a woman with the panga agricultural equipment, had to stone her to death for not even being killed. Then the boy had to crush the woman's two-year-old child in a mortar. After one massacre, the victims were cooked in large pots and the child soldiers were forced to eat them.


The intention is to make it more difficult for the abducted to return from the bush – to villages they themselves have helped to destroy. The LRA's military strength is currently difficult to determine. Probably a few hundred fighting. But in addition, several thousand abducted children still live and live in Kony's sect-like society. Many are forcibly married to each other and new children are born in captivity. Kony herself has taken 58 wives and is said to have 220 children. The latter gave Kony the name George Bush – because he was born in the bush.

According to Paddy Ankunda, one of the UPDF government spokesmen who has spent several years in Northern Uganda, there is simply no will to stop this madness missing.

- Had only the donor community, which accounts for half of Uganda's national budget, allowed more to be spent on the military, the case would have been out of the world a long time ago, he says.

According to Ankunda, it should only be a matter of months before Kony is defeated. On the other hand, he has little faith in the peace efforts. For UPDF, the LRA is devoid of strategy or political objectives and thus no real negotiating partner.

- This government has always wanted peace, but the LRA is impossible. Kony is an irrational cult leader with brainwashed soldiers who obey blindly, says Ankunda.

The allegations of discrimination and marginalization in the north he calls revengeism after the Acholians lost power to the NRM.

Serious insult

Something that also makes it difficult to get a grip on the LRA is the support the political opposition in Uganda gives the guerrilla, we believe the UPDF spokesman.

- Not only does the opposition use the conflict to portray Museveni as war incitement. They have also supported Kony and encouraged him to continue the war, he says.

In November and December last year, Kizza Besigye, the biggest challenger to the presidential election this February, was in custody, among other things, for having cooperated with the LRA. Only in the last three weeks has he been able to participate in the election campaign after being released on bail.

- What will you answer those who claim that the government has interests in keeping the conflict going?

- It is a gross insult to us who have been up there all these years. Nothing would make this government more popular than if we could create peace.

President with peace of mind?

Perhaps the most important reason the LRA has been able to hold on for so long is the support Kony has received from Sudan. Since the NRM government has long supported the SPLA's fight against the Khartoum regime, Sudan's President Omar Al Bashir gave the LRA weapons and military training. In return, the LRA would attack SPLA's supply routes in Northern Uganda. But with the peace agreement in place between SPLA / M and the government in Sudan just over a year ago, LRA support has officially been withdrawn. Uganda has also been allowed to pursue the LRA some distance into South Sudan. With that, Kony lost its most important free port.

- But Kony and a significant part of the LRA are still in Sudan's huge and inaccessible southern areas, says Lars Erik Skaansar.

Skaansar has been deployed by the UN to Northern Uganda, among other things, to facilitate and monitor the attempt to launch new peace talks.

According to Skaansar, the LRA is significantly reduced. But there are some elements in Sudan's security services that support the guerrilla.

When it comes to the question of President Museveni's will for peace, Skaansar is crystal clear:

- The government here wants peace. It is not the political will that matters. Whether the ability to combat a guerrilla movement like the LRA is present is another question.

Votes to fetch

The UN envoy believes Museveni will have a solution before the election.

- If he becomes a peace president, there are many votes to be gained, Skaansar says.

According to Skaansar, who has daily contact with the LRA leadership, and especially with Kony's second-in-command Vincent Otti, who is currently in Congo, there is now a willingness to trace.

Although the International Criminal Court in The Hague recently issued arrest warrants on Kony, Otti and three other LRA peaks, something many saw as a blow to the peace process, Otti has expressed his willingness to enter into dialogue.

- The episodes of violence we see today are most reminiscent of convulsions, he says.

The strategy now is to make contact with the interlayer in the LRA and persuade them to surrender. Skaansar believes in a solution with the LRA within a year.

- If not, I will be disappointed.

But even if a peace agreement is in place tomorrow, much remains.

- Northern Uganda will need help for another four to five years. The whole society is destroyed after 20 years of war.

In particular, reintegration is difficult. The returning LRA peaks Kolo and Banya have re-entered society, but for the regular LRA soldier, little more than a tub, a bar of soap, a little money and some food awaits. The former child soldiers we talk to in Gulu City are without jobs or high expectations for the future. They are just a few of many victims of a conflict the government of Uganda apparently cannot live with or without.

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