Today, many Western governments regard Uganda as a qualified success from a development standpoint. It has made significant progress against AIDS, promoting condom use and other measures; since the mid-1990s, the prevalence of AIDS cases among Ugandans 15 to 49 years old has fallen, from 18 percent to 6 percent. Still, AIDS remains the leading cause of death of people in that age group. Many countries, including the United States, have applauded the willingness of soldier-politician Yoweri Museveni, the president since 1986, to accede to World Bank and International Monetary Fund dictates on free trade and privatization. Uganda claims a 6.7 percent average annual economic growth over the past ten years.
But that growth is largely confined to the south and Kampala, the capital city, which boasts office towers, fancy restaurants and flashy cars. Elsewhere, deep poverty is the rule. With a per capita income of $240, Uganda is among the world’s poorest countries, with 44 percent of citizens living below the national poverty line. The nation ranks 146th out of 177 countries on the U.N.’s Human Development Index, a composite measure of life expectancy, education and living standard. Donor countries and international lending agencies cover half of Uganda’s annual budget.
Museveni heads a corrupt regime in a nation that has never seen a peaceful change of rule. He seized power at the head of a guerrilla army in a violent coup 19 years ago, and he has since stage-managed two elections. The U.S. State Department calls Uganda’s human rights record “poor” and charges in a 2003 report that Museveni’s security forces “committed unlawful killings” and tortured and beat suspects “to force confessions.”
Museveni’s suppression of the Acholi tribal people, who populate three northern districts, is generally cited as the catalyst of the LRA rebellion. Museveni, a Christian, is a member of the Banyankole tribe, from western Uganda, and the Acholi blame him for atrocities his forces committed when they came to power and for denying the region what they say is their share of development funds. In 1986, an Acholi mystic, Alice Auma “Lakwena,” led a rebel army of some 5,000 aggrieved Acholis to within 50 miles of Kampala before being defeated by regular army forces. (She fled to Kenya, where she remains.) A year later, Joseph Kony—reportedly Lakwena’s cousin—formed what would become the Lord’s Resistance Army and pledged to overthrow Museveni. Since then, thousands of people have been killed in the conflict—no exact casualty figures have been reported—and it has cost the impoverished nation at least $1.3 billion.
It takes four hours, including a crossing of the roiling, whitecapped waters of the NileRiver as it plunges toward a waterfall, to drive from Kampala to Gulu. Nearing the city, villages begin to disappear, replaced by vast, dreary government camps. Gulu is a garrison town, home to the Ugandan Army’s battle-hardened 4th Division, and soldiers with assault rifles stroll along potholed footpaths or drive by in pickup trucks. Crumbling shops built of concrete line the main road. The day before I arrived, LRA fighters, in a trademark mutilation, cut off the lips, ears and fingers of a camp dweller two miles from the city center. His apparent crime was wearing the kind of rubber boots favored by government soldiers, arousing LRA suspicion that he might be one himself. The LRA went on to attack a refugee camp along
, 15 miles away, abducting several children. Over the years, about 15,000 of the children abducted by the LRA have managed to escape or have been rescued by Ugandan Army forces, says Rob Hanawalt, UNICEF’s chief of operations in Uganda. Many former abductees are brought to Gulu, where aid organizations evaluate them and prepare them to return to their home villages.
The Children of War Rehabilitation Center, a facility run by World Vision, an international Christian charity, was hidden behind high shuttered gates, and walls studded with broken glass. Inside, one-story buildings and tents filled the small compound. At the time of my visit, 458 children were awaiting relocation. Some kicked a soccer ball, some skipped rope, others passed the time performing traditional dances. I saw about 20 children who were missing a leg and hobbling on crutches. One could tell the most recent arrivals by their shadowy silences, bowed heads, haunted stares and bone-thin bodies disfigured by sores. Some had been captured or rescued only days earlier, when Ugandan Army helicopter gunships attacked the rebel unit holding them. Jacqueline Akongo, a counselor at the center, said the most deeply scarred children are those whom Kony had ordered, under penalty of death, to kill other children. But virtually all the children are traumatized. “The others who don’t kill by themselves see people being killed, and that disturbs their mind so much,” Akongo told me.
One evening in Gulu at a sanctuary for night commuters, I met 14-year-old George, who said he spent three years with the rebels. He said that as the rebels prepared to break camp one night, a pair of 5-year-old boys complained that they were too tired to walk. “The commander got another young boy with a panga [machete] to kill them,” George said. On another occasion, George went on, he was forced to collect the blood of a murdered child and warm it in a saucepan over a fire. He was told to drink it or be killed. “‘It strengthens the heart,’” George recalled the commander telling him. “ ‘You then don’t fear blood when you see somebody dying.’ ”