Uganda: "Breaking God's commands": The destruction of childhood by the Lord's Resistance Army

September 17, 1997

Uganda: "Breaking God's commands": The destruction of childhood by the Lord's Resistance Army

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From the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s successive governments gave Uganda the unenviable international reputation of being a byword for the systematic and gross violation of human rights. In the 1970s Idi Amin's government used massacres and "disappearances" to create a reign of terror. Many Acholi and Langi soldiers in the Uganda Army were among those slaughtered. After his overthrow the new government's Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), heavily recruited from northern Uganda, took reprisals against civilians in Amin's home area of West Nile. In the years that followed the UNLA was responsible for mass killings in West Nile, Bushenyi, Mpigi and Luwero, all areas where the government of Milton Obote was facing armed opposition. In Mpigi and Luwero tens of thousands of people lost their lives; far from international borders people were unable to flee the violence. In July 1985 a power struggle between Langi and Acholi troops in the UNLA culminated in the Acholi senior army officers Tito Okello and Basilio Okello seizing power.

The military government was short-lived and when the primarily southern and western-based National Resistance Army (NRA) of Yoweri Museveni took power in Kampala in January 1986, the Okellos and many troops fled northwards. Some soldiers buried their weapons and uniforms and returned to their homes. Others passed beyond Kitgum and Gulu Districts into Sudan. There the troops regrouped and in August 1986 reinvaded Uganda calling themselves the Uganda People's Democratic Movement/Army (UPDM/A). So began 11 years of conflict in Gulu, Kitgum and neighbouring districts. The NRA victory did not end conflict in Uganda; it moved it to more outlying areas.

The war in Kitgum and Gulu has gone through many phases since 1986. Human rights violations by government troops deployed in the north fuelled the conflict in late 1986. However, the UPDA did not last long as a military force. By 1988 most UPDA troops had given themselves up to the authorities and UPDA leaders reconciled with the government in 1990. Meanwhile a woman called Alice Auma, also known as Lakwena (Acholi for messenger), created a force that became known as the Holy Spirit Movement. By late 1986 Alice Lakwena had mobilized deserting UPDA soldiers, former members of the UNLA and Acholi and other Luo civilians through a powerful combination of local ideas about the spirit world and Christian beliefs. Her forces were eventually defeated outside Jinja in November 1987.

Following her defeat, an armed group led by Joseph Kony, initially known as Lakwena Two before becoming known as the Holy Spirit Movement, emerged as the focus of military opposition to the NRA in Gulu District. Like Alice Lakwena, Joseph Kony claims to be possessed by religious forces that use him as a medium. From the very beginning, forces led by Joseph Kony have committed serious human rights abuses against civilians.

In late October 1988 the NRA launched an offensive in Gulu District. Soldiers were responsible for extrajudicial executions, the internal displacement of thousands of people and the destruction of homes and granaries. It did not defeat the Kony's forces, which by early 1991 were called the United Christian Democratic Army (UCDA). During 1991 the NRA mounted another major military offensive which included sealing the north from the rest of the country. Although militarily effective, it was again tarnished by significant human rights violations. In 1992 new NRA commanders in the area worked with the civilian authorities on a more politically orientated counter-insurgency strategy, and in late 1993 and early 1994 government officials held peace talks with Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leaders, as Kony's forces were by then known.