In Gulu I met other former abductees who told equally ghastly tales, and as unbelievable as their experiences may seem, social workers and others who’ve worked in northern Uganda insist that the worst of the children’s reports have been found to be literally true. Nelson, a young man of about 18, stared at the ground as he described helping to beat another boy to death with logs because the boy had tried to escape. Robert, a 14-year-old from Kitgum, said he and some other children were forced to chop the body of a child they had killed into small pieces. “We did as we were told,” he said.
Margaret, a 20-year-old mother I met at the rehabilitation center in Gulu, said she was abducted by LRA forces when she was 12 and repeatedly raped. She said that Kony has 52 wives and that 25 abducted girls will become his sexual slaves once they reach puberty. Margaret, a tall, softvoiced woman with faraway eyes who that day held her 4-year-old son in her lap, said she was the eighth wife of a high-ranking LRA officer killed in a battle last year. Sixteen year-old Beatrice cradled her 1-year-old infant as she recalled her forced “marriage” to an LRA officer. “I was unwilling,” she tells me, “but he put a gun to my head.”
People describe Kony’s actions as those of a megalomaniac. “Kony makes the children kill each other so they feel such an enormous sense of shame and guilt that they believe they can never go back to their homes, trapping them in the LRA,” said Archbishop John Baptist Odama, the Roman Catholic prelate in Gulu and head of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, a Christian and Muslim organization trying to broker an end to the hostilities.
The highest-ranking LRA member in government custody is Kenneth Banya, the rebel group’s third in command. He was captured this past July after a fierce battle near Gulu. One of his wives and a 4-year-old son were killed by helicopter gunship fire, but most of his 135 soldiers got away. Today Banya and other captured LRA officers are held at the government army barracks in Gulu. The army uses him for propaganda, having him speak over a Gulu radio station and urge his former LRA colleagues to surrender.
Banya is in his late 50s. When I met him at the barracks, he said he underwent civilian helicopter training in Dallas, Texas, and military training in Moscow. He claimed that he was himself abducted by LRA fighters, in 1987. He said he advised Kony against abducting children but was ignored. He denied that he ever ordered children to be killed or that he had raped young girls. Banya said that when he arrived at his first LRA camp, water was sprinkled on his bare torso and rebels marked him with crosses of white clay mixed with nut oil. “ ‘That removes your sins, you’re now a new person and the Holy Spirit will look after you,’ ” he recalled of his indoctrination.
When I relayed Banya’s comments to Lt. Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the government’s northern army command, he laughed. Banya, he said, crossed over to Kony of his own volition. Agovernment handout issued at the time of Banya’s capture described him as the “heart and spirit” of the LRA.
The terrorist forces led by Kony, an apocalyptic Christian, could not have flourished without the support of the radical Islamic Sudanese government. For eight years beginning in 1994, Sudan provided the LRA sanctuary—in retaliation for Museveni’s backing a Sudanese Christian rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which was fighting to gain independence for southern Sudan. The Khartoum government gave Kony and his LRA weapons, food and a haven near the southern Sudan city of Juba. There, safe from Ugandan government forces, Kony’s rebels sired children, brainwashed and trained new abductees, grew crops and regrouped after strikes in Uganda. “We had 7,000 fighters there then,” Banya told me.
In March 2002, the Sudanese government, under pressure from the United States, signed a military protocol with Uganda that allowed Ugandan troops to strike the LRA in southern Sudan. The Ugandan Army quickly destroyed the main LRA camps in Sudan. Kony then stepped up raids and abductions in Uganda’s north; according to World Vision, LRA forces captured more than 10,000 children in Uganda between June 2002 and December 2003.
It was around then that Museveni ordered the Acholi population into the relative safety of government camps. “In April 2002 there were 465,000 in the camps displaced by the LRA,” says Ken Davies, director of the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP) in Uganda. “By the end of 2003 there were 1.6 million in the camps.” At last count, there were 135 government camps. In my three decades of covering wars, famines and refugees, I have never seen people forced to live in more wretched conditions.
In a convoy of trucks filled with WFP rations, and accompanied by some 100 armed Ugandan Army soldiers and two armored vehicles mounted with machine guns, I visited the Ongako camp, about ten miles from Gulu.