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

View More Research

"So they made us to go to where we were going to sleep. There they put some moya. They said it is holy oil. It comes from a tree. So they smeared us, put a cross in front here [A. indicated her chest], and here, and here and then on our hands also."

LRA leaders appear to regard violence as a way of purging society of impurity; those who die, whether civilians, government troops or LRA child soldiers, are those who are believed to have broken spiritual or religious commands (often as laid down by leaders claiming divine instruction). During an address to LRA troops at a base camp in Sudan in mid-1996, T., a 17-year old boy abducted in March 1996, heard Joseph Kony threatening to destroy Lacor Hospital near Gulu, because wounded people "were cared for there, instead of dying".

The terror inflicted by the LRA represents a pathological response to a history of violence and social trauma. Acholi society in Gulu and Kitgum is traumatized; the LRA is both the result and, in a terrible dynamic, in part the cause. The complex social forces that give rise to the violence and routine abuse of human rights require an equally complex response. Military success by the UPDF will reduce weapon supply and restrict the capacity of the LRA but history has shown that lasting peace can only be built on a solid foundation of respect for human rights. In northern Uganda building respect for human rights needs conflict resolution based on a commitment to justice and reconciliation within the communities of Gulu, Kitgum and neighbouring districts, between the Uganda Government and the people of the north, and between northerners and society in the rest of Uganda.

The official response to escaping or captured LRA soldiers is a positive and important contribution in this direction as it chooses to recognize that the majority of LRA soldiers are abducted children whose actions stem from the brutalization and systematic abuse to which they are subjected. Since 1995 the UPDF has handed over former combatants to two non-governmental organizations (NGOs), World Vision Uganda and Gulu Support for Children Organization (GUSCO), for psycho-social counselling and therapy. The work of both NGOs has its origin in family members of abducted children recognizing that returnees are often deeply disturbed by their experiences -- and sometimes dangerous to those around them. The programs allow former combatants and their community to begin the process of coming to terms with the violence to which they have been subjected and which they have perpetrated.

However, on its own this work will not break the cycle of violence in which northern Ugandan children are the principle victims. This report concludes with further recommendations aimed at building respect for human rights within the framework of conflict resolution.

The involvement of the Sudan Government

Sudan Government support for the LRA has been a critical factor in the movement's operation since 1994. Without Sudanese support the LRA would not have had many of the weapons used to commit human rights abuses or the relatively secure rear bases to which abducted children are taken for training, often sited close to Sudan army units. The Sudan army uses the LRA as a militia to fight the SPLA (and to destabilize Uganda in response to the Uganda Government's alleged support for the SPLA). The Sudan Government's active engagement means that it can be held responsible for the abduction of children and other serious human rights abuses carried out by the LRA.

Working with the LRA is the extension across an international border of a method of war used by the Sudanese since 1985. Within Sudan there are several similar militia groups, notionally independent of the Sudanese authorities, but in reality armed by them and working closely with the Sudan army. Examples include a force led by Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, a former SPLA commander, which since late 1994 has operated out of government-controlled towns in northern Bahr al-Ghazal, and the Anya-Nya Two, led by Paulino Matip Nhial, which has operated in western Upper Nile since 1983.(9)

Seventeen year old T. describes what he saw in May 1996: