She came into the meeting room, in front of important ministers, intelligence chiefs, permanent secretaries and other government people, to forgive him. Though his soldiers had cut her lips off, she was still prepared to offer the ultimate act of charity—to absolve him of this mutilation—for the possibility of peace.
But Joseph Kony, the self-proclaimed profit and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, never showed.
The government of Uganda had brought her to the 2006 peace talks along with its most important military and civilian leaders to show how serious they were about ending the decades of terror the LRA had been enacting on the villages in the north of the country.
It turned out that Kony had only agreed to take part in the long peace process so that he could rest, rearm, and regroup his fighters.
“To see this woman with no lips was really heartbreaking,” said ACSS community member, Colonel Leopold Kyanda, who took part in the failed peace talks as Uganda’s Chief of Military Intelligence and who is now the country’s defense attaché in Washington, D.C. “For the rest of her life anything—dust, wind, bugs—could get into her mouth and she won’t be able to stop it. Kony did that and she was still willing to forgive him.”
The LRA has spread terror through Central Africa for more than two decades. Its weapons of choice against men, women, and children: driving villagers from their homes and burning their communities to the ground, hacking body parts, and torturing, killing, enslaving, and raping innocent people. LRA commanders force little boys to kill other little boys. They give some of the abducted little girls to Sudanese arms dealers who supply their weapons. Others are traded or sold. Kony himself is reported to have taken 60 as “wives.” Those who commit the atrocities are the group’s previous victims—abducted children forced to bury their own humanity.
U.S. officials following the LRA say that the gang is one of Africa’s oldest, most persistent, and most violent groups—a distinction of infamy on a continent littered with ethnic fighting, terrorists, and separatists. Group members, themselves abductees, have taken an estimated 66,000 children from villages in Northern Uganda, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Those children are forced into labor as fighters and sex slaves.
Since 1988, when former Catholic altar boy and Acholi tribe member Kony founded the LRA, the group has displaced some 440,000 people from their homes. It has killed nearly 1,000 people since 2009, according to the NGO Invisible Children, and killed or maimed tens of thousands in its time.
Kony launched the LRA in Northern Uganda from the ashes of his aunt’s insurgent Holy Spirit Movement and his own Uganda Christian Democratic Army, combining cultish spiritual rites and military organization.
He tells his young abductees that he receives instructions directly from the Holy Spirit. He quotes scripture and requires strict adherence to rules and rituals to reinforce his image as a spirit medium connected to divine beings. His aunt, Alice Auma Lakwena, a former prostitute and founder of the Holy Spirit Movement, authored some of the LRA’s current rituals when she led the now-defunct organization, like anointment with “holy oil” to protect group members from the bullets of government soldiers.
“When you go to fight you make the sign of the cross first. If you fail to do this, you will be killed,” a young LRA escapee told Human Rights Watch. “You must also take oil and draw a cross on your chest, your forehead, and each shoulder, and you must make a cross in oil on your gun. They say that the oil is the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Kony’s initial professed goal for the organization was to overthrow the government in Kampala and install another based on the Bible’s Ten Commandments. He said that such a victory would usher forth an era of peace and a purification of his Acholi people. He found a friend in the Sudanese government, which provided funds and a safe haven for the LRA as part of its proxy war against the Ugandan government.
Over time, military victories by Ugandan forces have weakened the group, driving down a core of hardened fighters from as many as 3,000 to the current estimated number of no more than 200.
In its latest campaign against the group that began in 2008, the Uganda People’s Defense Forces have killed 450 LRA fighters and captured 69, while they have also rescued 820 abductees. As of October 2011, the UPDF reports, elements of the LRA have dissolved into parts of Uganda’s northern forest, and have scaled back activities in neighboring countries.
But under continuous pressure, Kony changed his tactics to become harder to find or capture. Ugandan authorities released that Kony is the LRA’s center of gravity, and focused their operations on him. As a result, he moved his operations and bases out of Northern Uganda and into neighboring nations. The group currently ranges in a densely forested and inaccessible area about the size of California that encompasses the borders of Uganda, the DRC, the CAR, and South Sudan.
“He goes into a place, kills people, then scatters,” said Kyanda. “When you take 200 people who are operating like this, and who aren’t holding ground, it becomes very difficult to seek and destroy them.”
Kyanda added that the LRA now operates in an area that has few roads, infrastructure, or government authorities. “It’s not that they are such a big force, it’s because of the terrain and lack of government. Even if they were confined to a smaller area, under these conditions it would be difficult to track them down.”
The heinousness of the LRA’s crimes have slowly garnered the world’s attention and the international community has been building consensus to demand an end to the group’s operations on humanitarian and regional stability grounds. The International Criminal Court indicted Kony in 2005 on war crimes charges. The U.S. Congress enacted the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 to help eliminate the organization and to rebuild from the destruction it has caused. Extending from that authorization, in October 2011 President Barack Obama sent 100 military personnel to advise Uganda and the other countries dealing with the LRA on how to dismantle the group. In November 2011, the African Union formally declared the LRA a terrorist group.
Now the final push is on to rid Central Africa of the scourge. U.S. Special Forces soldiers have set up camps in the CAR and South Sudan near established Ugandan bases being used to hunt the LRA’s leaders, who move between countries to evade capture. The American soldiers, whose mandate is to provide training and technical support, have begun teaching the Ugandans needed skills—showing them on Dec. 6 how to package supplies for airdrops to frontline troops in remote and roadless areas. A majority of U.S. personnel are expected to work inside Uganda and have been told to fire their weapons only in self-defense.
Ambassador J. Anthony Holmes, U.S. Africa Command’s civilian deputy, said AFRICOM is developing the concepts underpinning the U.S. part of the operation and coordinating with the Ugandans and other governments in the fight.
He told members of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies that AFRICOM would work “to understand what the realities are with the LRA—what its impact is, how it operates, where its point of vulnerability might be, and to develop a plan by which U.S. assets—and in this case we’re talking about a small number of special forces soldiers—go in to advise the Ugandan military, as well as the militaries of South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the DRC.”
Ambassador Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said the deployment is a continuation of the assistance the United States has been providing the region to deal with the LRA.
“The LRA will use any reduction in military or political pressure to regroup and rearm,” Carson said during a Dec. 7 seminar on the group held at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “We made the strategic decision to continue to provide logistic support on condition that they remain focused on the mission and do not commit their own abuses. This deployment is focused on the LRA and the LRA alone.”
Carson said the mounting pressure has already started paying dividends, with thousands of women and children being released from the LRA’s ranks in the last two months.
Ambassador William M. Bellamy (ret.), Director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said the fight against the LRA strikes him as remarkable in a number of ways. He said that there is a near universal belief that a military component is required to solve the problem. Also, the arrival of U.S. troops has been met with a “remarkable” degree of warmth by the population under siege.
“There are not too many good precedents to use in describing this situation,” Bellamy said at the same seminar. “Whatever we decide to call it, this is an armed humanitarian mission.”
Bellamy said success would require a sustained diplomatic mission, legitimacy imparted by African Union leadership, and structures to receive demobilized fighters and returning abductees.
“We do have an overriding national interest, when we have a plausible role to play, in this type of humanitarian crisis,” Bellamy said.
Those in the region are tired of the protracted war with Kony and his brainwashed followers, who will be damaged for life even if they are saved from the LRA’s clutches.
“Even normal soldiers need to go through a transition out of service, otherwise they will be traumatized,” Kyanda said. “Kony goes into these villages with inhabitants who have never traveled more than 40 miles away from their homes and brutalizes them, mentally and physically. He makes them cut other people up and boil their parts in pots. We want to see an end to this completely.”