Sixty years after Allied soldiers liberated the Nazi death camps, the world stands silent in the face of another holocaustone so horrifying that U.N. officials call it "one of the worst human-rights crises of the past century."
The perpetrators commit atrocities with such malevolence that even the most irreligious people familiar with their acts describe them as "unrestrained evil." The targets of the butchery are children. They rape, mutilate, and kill them with a rapaciousness that staggers the imagination. Worse, they compel children to kill one another and their own families, fighting as "soldiers" in an armed force deliberately composed of children.
Perhaps the greatest atrocity is teaching these children that they spread this carnage by the power of the Holy Spirit to purify the "unrepentant," twisting Christianity into a religion of horror to their victims. It is spiritual warfare at its very worst, and it could not be more satanic.
Religion of Evil
The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is one of the larger terrorist organizations in the world. It has killed more people than many other violent groups, yet few Westerners have ever heard of it, since nearly all its violence is perpetrated in the border region between Uganda and Sudan in East Africa.
On a continent plagued with endless guerilla warfare, where war crimes are standard fighting fare, the LRA stands apart as an especially odious group. LRA crimes against humanity are so repulsive that its only former ally, the Islamic government of Sudan, jettisoned its relationship with the LRA to improve Sudan's international relations. (Credible sources in Uganda insist Sudan still supplies weapons to the LRA, however.)
What began in 1986 as a rebellion against the Ugandan government has metamorphosed into a military millenarian cult. Its reason for existence is to perpetuate the power of its leader, a ruthless witchcraft practitioner named Joseph Kony.
He claims to be fighting Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni's government on behalf of the ethnic Acholi people, who populate the nation's three northernmost districts of Kitgum, Gulu, and Pader. The Acholi have a longstanding grievance with the more prosperous southern Ugandans, much of it rooted in 19th-century British colonial policies that favored southerners in education and business, while relegating the Acholi to army service. However, the LRA attacks the Acholi, the very people they claim to defend, far more often than the Ugandan military.
Kony, 41, envisions an Acholiland ruled by a warped interpretation of the Ten Commandments. He uses passages from the Pentateuch to justify mutilation and murder. He promotes a demonic spirituality crafted from an eclectic mix of Christianity, Islam, and African witchcraft.
Any resemblance to these religions is superficial: While the army observes rituals such as praying the rosary and bowing toward Mecca, there is no prescribed theology in the conventional sense. Kony's beliefs are a haphazard mix from the Bible and the Qur'an, tailored around his wishful thinking, personal desires, and practical needs of the moment. Jesus is the Son of God. But instead of saving the world from sin through his sacrificial love on the Cross, he is a source of power employed for killing those who oppose Kony. The Holy Spirit is not the Divine Comforter, but one who directs Kony's tactical military decisions.
Despite dabbling in the Bible and the Qur'an, Kony's real spiritual obsession is witchcraft. He burns toy military vehicles and figurines to predict the course of battles from their burn patterns. He uses reptiles in magic rituals to sicken those who anger him or to detect traitors in his midst. He claims to receive military direction from spirits of dead men from different countries, including Americans. He teaches that an impending apocalypse will usher in "The Silent World," where only primitive weapons, such as machetes and clubs, will bring victory.
Sadly, reports of LRA savagery are not isolated incidents. The children I interviewed in Uganda and southern Sudan who escaped LRA captivity, along with thousands of documented cases, demonstrate that these monstrosities are standard operating procedure. Nearly 90 percent of LRA fighters are enslaved children, kidnapped from their families. [Editor's warning: The rest of this section contains graphic descriptions of brutality.]
Under threat of death, LRA child soldiers attack villages, shooting and cutting off people's lips, ears, hands, feet, or breasts, at times force-feeding the severed body parts to victims' families. Some cut open the bellies of pregnant women and tear their babies out. Men and women are gang-raped. As a warning to those who might report them to Ugandan authorities, they bore holes in the lips of victims and padlock them shut. Victims are burned alive or beaten to death with machetes and clubs. The murderous task is considered properly executed only when the victim is mutilated beyond recognition and his or her blood spatters the killer's clothing.
At St. Joseph's Hospital in Kitgum, I listened as relatives of four adult LRA victims recounted recent assaults. Many surviving victims cannot speak for themselves, because their lips have been sliced off. With their mouths reduced to gaping holes, they gazed at me with what combat veterans call the thousand-yard stare.
Many don't survive an attack. In one case, the LRA attacked a 14-year-old boy who suffered compound fractures in both legs when beaten with pangas (large machetes). He crawled for a week to reach the hospital. But, despite the efforts of surgeons from Doctors Without Borders, the teen died the next day. He is buried outside the hospital in a grave marked with two sticks, his name unknown. Since 1986, the LRA is estimated to have abducted as many as 50,000 children. Many more Ugandans have been maimed and traumatized. About 1.6 million have been driven from their homes. The death toll from the conflict is estimated at more than 30,000 children.
During attacks, LRA fighters, themselves traumatized captives, abduct more children and embark on a trek through the African bush that mimics the Bataan Death March in barbarity. Adult commanders force children to carry supplies for up to a week, marching from dawn to dusk on bare feet, without food or water in the equatorial heat. Potable water is reserved for commanders. Children have been forced to drink urine or drink from muddy ditches to survive. Their feet become infected and swollen. Any child who cannot keep pace is killed. Any child caught in an attempted escape is killed. Children may be murdered for crying or failing to obey commands quickly enough. Moreover, it is the other children who must execute the transgressors, which is done by hacking them to pieces with machetes or burning them alive.
Commanders frequently compel children to kill their own siblings, lest family bonds supersede those to the LRA. Leaders demand every abducted child kill another child within a week of capture. Afterward, they're told they'll never be accepted by society because of their criminal acts, so they must stay with the LRA to survive. They coerce the children into identifying with their captors by emotionally blackmailing them with their own guilt.
The physical and sexual torture of children is a deliberate process intended to create killers without conscience. Tragically, it works. Most current LRA commanders were once abducted boys who, having been through this process, are now committed to Joseph Kony and his bloodthirsty vision.
Children Escaping in the Night
During my travels through the region, I interviewed several children who escaped captivity. All were acutely anxious, withdrawn, and could hardly speak above a whisper or make eye contact. They were terrified of re-abduction.
Mary was abducted at age 12 and remained in captivity for two years. She escaped during a firefight with the Ugandan army. The army treats escapees as victims, not criminals or prisoners of war.
Recovering in a hospital from a gunshot wound to the jaw, she told me, "I was shot by a commander for hiding behind a tree during battle." Mary insisted the children's accounts of captivity are true. "We were beaten all the time, sometimes with clubs, sometimes with pangas. I had to beat another girl until she diedthe soldier said he would kill me if I did not make her die. I had to walk for a very long time, carrying heavy things. Once, I was too slow, so they beat me and said they would kill me. I saw them kill others for being too slow." Her badly infected foot was swollen to nearly twice its size.
The LRA takes most abductees to base camps in southern Sudan, where they are indoctrinated in spiritual darkness. Attractive girls may be used as sexual slaves. Men regularly rape them.
Plainer girls are, at times, used for what can only be called "murder practice." Many boys are frightfully traumatized when forced to rape women captured in ambushes. The children are regularly beaten to harden them for battle, some so savagely that they are disfigured for life. They work 12 hours a day with little food or water. Escapees told of eating leaves to survive.
Child soldiers are given rudimentary training with assault rifles to ambush the Ugandan army. Told the Holy Spirit will protect them if they apply holy oil to their bodies with the sign of the cross, they are ordered to walk upright into enemy gunfire. Children killed or wounded "deserve their fate" for exhibiting fear instead of faith in God.
David, 13, was captured by the LRA when he was 10 and held for about two years. Like other children, having killed others troubles him greatly. "I was captured with two women. The LRA gave me a panga and told me to kill one, or they would kill me. I beat her with it when she was on the ground. I kept cutting her and cutting her while she screamed." He began to cry and said, "I was always afraid they would kill me."
Despite the risks, most children attempt escape. World Vision operates the Children of War Rehabilitation Center in Gulu that ministers to escaped LRA children, giving them medical treatment, counseling, and the gospel. Desperate parents arrive at the center each morning looking for their missing children. If they do find them, their joy may turn to shock, seeing sons without limbs or daughters holding their own infants.
There are serious obstacles to social readjustment. Nearly all girls who escape the LRA have sexually transmitted diseases. They are all suspected of being HIV positive and viewed as sexually defiled. Their prospects for marriage are grim.
Joshua Obonu, director of the Kitgum Concerned Women's Association child rehabilitation center, explains: "Sex is not spoken about in our culture, and rape is a shameful thing, so they will not talk about it. The children will admit to killing people but not raping or being raped, unless they have many weeks of counseling."
Many families are wiped out in LRA attacks. Children who have escaped have nowhere to go. Children who do return to their villages often find the inhabitants unforgiving. Captivity interrupted their education and catching up is difficult. Children who grew up in captivity not only lack the ABCs, but also a basic knowledge of how society can work without constant violence.
Northern Uganda's nightmare is further compounded by the phenomenon of "night commuters"children who are seeking to avoid the LRA's nighttime raids. Every afternoon, thousands of rural children journey alone out of the bush for several miles to sleep on the sidewalks of district towns.
Often girls are sexually abused along the way by boys making the same journey or by drunken men in town. Teenage boys roam the sidewalks in packs, bullying younger children. Children are beaten in the dark every night. But these risks are preferable to being abducted by the LRA. Few children carry any food during their nocturnal sojourn, which can last 16 hours from departure to return, and they are still vulnerable to LRA attack in transit.
In Kitgum, I witnessed several small children caring for toddlers in these conditions. After a restless night of defending themselves and a three-hour hike back to their villages, some of these children manage to attend village schools.
Slowly, more is being done to protect night commuters. Christian ministries are taking up the challenge. Wes Bentley, director of Far Reaching Ministries, which operates the Maranatha Children's Center 15 miles outside Kitgum, estimates up to 3,000 children per night come to the center.
"The sanctuary right now is just a place for kids to sleep safely at night. I suspect, including women and other people who need safety for the night, there might be 7,000 people inside." The center is a fortified compound encircled by fences topped with razor wire and protected by armed guards.
Political Solution Remote
The LRA rebellion has become a political quagmire. Although the LRA claims to be fighting for Acholi independence, it has no political platform or clear objectives upon which to base negotiations for peace.
Nevertheless, the Ugandan government and concerned intermediaries continue to attempt negotiations. The efforts of one woman in particular are heroic. Betty Bigombe, 51, a former Ugandan government minister who is also Acholi, has met with LRA leaders several times at great personal risk, trying to negotiate a settlement to end the fighting.
Currently a consultant for the World Bank, she has taken unpaid leaves and spent a small fortune in savings to help both parties navigate a peace process in one of today's most intractable conflicts. In an effort to save children by ending the conflict in any way possible, the Ugandan government passed an Amnesty Act in 1999, which shields from prosecution any LRA fighter who surrenders to the government. The act also offers surrendered fighters $150 in "starting over" money. Terms of the act extend to Kony and his top commanders. Experts agree that LRA leaders' recent discussions with Bigombe about ending the conflict were a huge step forward.
However, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Kony and his top four commanders on October 13, attempts to mediate the conflict broke down.
Ruth Kahurananga, World Vision's child protection officer with the United Nations, paused cautiously when asked about the indictments. "We are not against the ICC; however, the timing is crucial. We feel that the talks Betty Bigombe had started with some of the commanders in the LRA were enabling some kind of political negotiation to happen. By the ICC indicting five of the top LRA commanders, World Vision is very concerned, because that is possibly not a guarantee to the end of the conflict."
In reality, there is evidence that the fighting has become more savage.
"Even looking at the history of the LRA, we have seen that especially when they think they are being weakened, they retaliate with a lot of violence, a lot of abductions, a lot of maiming," Kahurananga explained.
It is not just Kony and his lieutenants who are in jeopardy from the indictments. "We are also very concerned that those called as witnesses in future trials, especially children, are protected," Kahurananga said. "That they're given immunity from prosecution, and that they and their families are protected from retaliation."
Wes Bentley confirmed that the LRA's attacks are increasing and becoming more savage. "They've really stepped up their attacks in the last six months," he said. "Our center was attacked while we were building it. There have been a lot more killings and mutilations. We couldn't get it up fast enough, so many people were seeking protection at night."
Even while LRA terrorism directed against children has intensified, the U.S. government has not made the conflict a high priority. Many believe that without U.S. involvement, the abductions, killing, and maiming will continue.
In August 2004, the U.S. government enacted the Northern Uganda Crisis Response Act, which essentially calls LRA terrorism a great tragedy, offers limited support for a negotiated solution, and warns Sudan not to support the LRA.
Several congressmen visited northern Uganda to witness the devastation firsthand, but they were frustrated to see no end in sight. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said, "I will remain committed to stopping the horror that has stolen the innocence of so many Ugandan children."
The Bush administration has placed the LRA on tier two of its Terrorist Exclusion List, which means the LRA is judged not to be a threat to U.S. interests. "There are a lot of sympathetic [members of Congress], but no significant leadership to move the issue to the point where there are congressional hearings, and hearings are one of the first important steps to focus administration and congressional attention on the severity of the issue," said Rory Anderson, senior Africa policy adviser for World Vision. "Hearings will not happen unless people contact their members of Congress and demand it."
The people most familiar with LRA terrorism agree that the best hope for ending the carnage is putting it on the radar screen of the Western world.
Akello Lwanga, a physician, spent two years treating LRA victims at an internally displaced persons camp in Pader. "If Americans saw this on TV as often as they see the Middle East," he said, "it would stop."
"People need to see what's happening in northern Uganda," said U.S. ambassador to Uganda Jimmy Kolker. "The suffering of these children is unimaginable. Absolutely, it is important for the public to know about this as a step toward bringing it to an end."
Ordinary Christians can help stop LRA terrorism. Presenting the issue to churches, continuing in intercessory prayer over the conflict, donating to Christian agencies that work with Ugandan children, and pressing government officials for action all work to save LRA victims.
Michael Oruni, director of Uganda's Children of War Rehabilitation Center, told CT he was urging Christians to get involved: "Imagine your own child taken away, being raped as your family is killed in front of your eyes. If it were you, what would you feel like?
"Kids in Ugandakids just like yoursare taken every night and enslaved, raped, mutilated, murdered. You can make a difference. Talk to your government. Help us."
J. Carter Johnson is a journalist based in Arizona.
How to HELP
Here are key Christian and charitable organizations that work with the victims of the lra conflict in northern Uganda.
Far Reaching Ministries
Save the Children
Jesuit Refugee Service
Write your congressman: www.house.gov/writerep
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Peace Not out of Reach | What American Christians can do to help resolve the LRA conflict.
More Christianity Today articles on Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army include:
Two Missionaries Killed in Uganda | Couple was willing to help anyone, anywhere, anytime. (March 23, 2004)
Ebola Outbreak Leads to Suspension of Church Services | Panic and terror spread like virus as infections and deaths increase. (Oct. 20, 2000)
Innocence Stolen | A paramilitary group in Uganda is abducting younger children to fill its ranks. Those who manage to escape are plagued with haunting memories. (July 13, 2000)
Under Suspicion | Following cultic deaths of 900, independent Christian groups in Uganda come under a cloud of mistrust and fear. (May 3, 2000)
The BBC has done extensive reporting on the LRA:
Profile: Uganda's LRA rebels | The Lord's Resistance Army, which has been fighting the Ugandan Government for nearly 18 years, has become know for its brutality, but the reasons for their rebellion are less well known. (February 6, 2004)
In pictures | The 'night commuters' who flee their homes each day (February 6, 2004)
Uganda's fallen child rebels | There are few things which can prepare you for the terrible reality of witnessing a "military victory" against the kidnapped child soldiers of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). (April 8, 2004)
Uganda's atrocious war | Uganda's rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has become synonymous with torture, abductions and killings (June 12, 2003)
Uganda army in 'rights abuses' | The Ugandan army has been accused of carrying out severe human rights abuses on the civilian population in the north of the country. (July16, 2003)
Uganda business prepares for peace | For the casual visitor, Gulu does not seem like a town at the centre of a 17-year-old war. (February 26, 2004)
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