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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The latest phase of the war began in early 1994. In February the peace talks collapsed after President Museveni gave LRA leaders seven days to lay down their arms. Meanwhile, the Sudan Government began to provide the LRA with military and logistical support, which gave the movement the means to intensify its activity. In 1995 the scale of violence and child abduction increased. In August 1995, for example, LRA units active in Kitgum were reported to have been set a figure of 1,200 children to abduct. Church sources report that by the end of the year 730 children had been abducted in Pajule, over 250 in Puranga, 502 in Patongo and over 600 in Atanga.

Schools are a common target. Between 1993 and July 1996 70 teachers were killed by the LRA in Kitgum District. In Gulu District in July and August 1996, 11 teachers and over 100 children were killed, 250 primary school children abducted and 59 primary schools burnt down, leading to the closure of 136 out of 180 primary schools. On 25 July 1996, 23 girls were abducted from St Mary's College and on 21 August 39 boys from Sir Samuel Baker School, two secondary schools near Gulu. On 10 October 1996, in an incident that has since galvanized public awareness of child abduction, 139 girls were abducted from St Mary's College, at Aboke in Apac District. Among the LRA raiders were boys from Sir Samuel Baker School. In the words of a team of investigating parliamentarians, ''there is hardly any meaningful education going on in the North''.(6)

Since July 1996 nearly 50% of the population of Gulu District, some 200,000 people who normally live in communities of scattered farms surrounded by fields, have been forced to flee their homes. In April 1997 the number of displaced was estimated to be over 180,000.(7) Some have moved into Gulu town, others are concentrated around outlying trading centres or small army posts (known as detaches) in so-called protected villages. In Kitgum District tens of thousands of people fled LRA attacks on Lamwo County in January 1997. In July 1997 unofficial estimates put the number of internally displaced in the district at approximately 60,000. Health centres in outlying areas are destroyed or are no longer able to provide services; children cannot be vaccinated.

The UPDF emphasizes that villagers are fleeing the LRA.(8) While for many, perhaps the majority, this is undoubtedly true, it also true that others are responding to encouragement and in some situations coercion by the UPDF, who are interested in isolating the LRA in the countryside and in cutting them off from sources of food. Unable to cultivate, many villagers are now dependent on relief assistance supplied by the World Food Program (WFP), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), World Vision Uganda, AVSI and other agencies.

Neither the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena nor the LRA of Joseph Kony have presented political programs that are readily understandable to outsiders, beyond calling for Uganda to be ruled according to the biblical Ten Commandments. As the testimony of children who have escaped describes, extreme violence is a deliberate tool used to terrorize civilians into providing support or newly abducted persons into staying with their captors, and as punishment for not following edicts laid down by LRA commanders. For civilians in the countryside, edicts include no riding bicycles (persons on bicycles can quickly reach army detaches); no habitation near roads (where people may witness landmines being planted or ambushes being laid); and no keeping pigs (which appears to be a response to support from the Islamist Sudan Government).

For Acholi civilians for whom religious belief is a formative part of daily life the power of violence is compounded by the claimed spirit possession of LRA leaders and an emphasis on spiritual purity. Rituals of purification are a recurring theme in the testimony of escaping children. Newly abducted children are often anointed with oil made from shea nuts shortly after being "arrested". To quote 15-year old A., abducted in October 1996: