Uganda’s north was the inexplicable war that I first heard about during my London days in the early 1990s. Reporting on it from Britain, it seemed an unfathomable conflict: bands of children marauding through the countryside, killing people, setting buildings and refugee camps alight and kidnapping other children.
Years later I made my way to Kampala, but there were no explanations there, either: after President Yoweri Museveni ended his war against the previous Ugandan government in 1985, Ugandans outside of the north benefitted from the dividends of peace and the country boomed. And for many of them, the northern war was elsewhere, over there: the Acholi people were seen as largely animist people with strange customs, who couldn’t rein in their fellow Acholi, Joseph Kony, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The northern Ugandan war went on for more than two decades, invisible to all but its victims. I spent years in northern Uganda, following the LRA war, drawn back again and again. It was another trail in a lifetime of following mass atrocities and broken children.
The Acholi population of northern Uganda were the primary victims of the war waged by the LRA. At the same time, the northerners also saw themselves as completely marginalised in the government that formed under President Museveni in 1985, after a protracted rebellion waged by Museveni against the governments of Milton Obote and Obote’s successor, Tito Okello.
Museveni’s military victory signalled the end of the repression of the preceding Idi Amin/Obote/Okello years: at the same time, northern Ugandans had formed the backbone of the army that Museveni overthrew. Soldiers from northern Uganda had also committed atrocities and waged a campaign against the areas from where Museveni (a southerner) drew his support from during his rebellion, particularly in the region known as the Luweero Triangle.
The soldiers of Obote’s and Okello’s armies fled home after they had been defeated in the middle of the eighties. Still armed, they caused great insecurity in the northern region. The new government of Museveni didn’t have enough troops to control the entire area… When Museveni finally took the north, the Acholi soldiers crossed into Sudan, where they regrouped and resumed the war. They feared reprisals for earlier massacres, particularly in the Luwero Triangle. With their propaganda they caused large parts of the population to follow them. Alice Lakwena had been a crucial factor in uniting and organising the resistance against the new regime. When her army was defeated, most former soldiers accepted Museveni’s offer of amnesty and put down their arms, spurring on the majority of the refugees to return home. But a hard core continued fighting.
This history is crucial to understanding the formation of the LRA. The conflict had definable political dates and precedents. It was not an offshoot of some bizarre, historically-unmoored spiritualist cult, as it is often characterised.
Bashir and Kony
Sudanese president (and fellow ICC indictee), Omar al-Bashir, was the patron and main supporter of the LRA and its leader, Joseph Kony, throughout the civil war in Uganda. During the South Sudanese liberation struggle, the LRA had its bases in then-southern Sudan, and had for years attacked civilians in the area.
The LRA were part of a broader ideological battle happening in east Africa at the time, played out between Uganda and Sudan. Bashir saw the group as a force against the growing pan-Africanist base and ideology that emanated from Kampala. In turn, Uganda’s President Museveni was the main backer of the South Sudanese liberation struggle, waged by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
Each time when I was in Kampala and I wanted to go up to Gulu, the main northern town, a major attack would just have occurred and it was considered too dangerous to go. Besides, Ugandans did not travel to the north, so there were few reference points for me on safety. Eventually, I got tired of waiting for the right moment to present itself. After another major attack on the outskirts of Gulu, I decided that it was now or never and booked a plane flight, slung my backpack over my shoulder and went off by myself.
For a long time, the safest way to access northern Uganda was by air. You could travel by road, but the roads were unsafe: buses were regularly ambushed by bands of LRA fighters, emerging from the tall grass onto a deserted national road, and holding everybody up.
Gulu was also often the centre point for those fleeing the LRA. Pabbo camp was a large camp for internally displaced people at the edge of the town and housed families, including children rescued or escaped from LRA captivity. Gulu was also one of the main military bases in the fight against the LRA, including housing a military unit that comprised of former LRA child soldiers.Any change or battles raging would immediately be felt in Gulu. But even though the centre of town seldom had
Any change or battles raging would immediately be felt in Gulu. But even though the centre of town seldom had direct fire, you always listened for signs of an attack. When there were major power outages at night across the town, you’d start listening nervously for any disturbance outside. When I walked within the precincts of Gulu town, I had been warned not to stray from the few streets in the town centre and not to go off wandering or exploring the town’s central areas. With large parts of the national roads and areas around the town surrounded by high grass, there was constant talk of villagers unexpectedly encountering armed LRA children.But it was not only the brutalised children of the LRA that I was scared of. Gulu housed a major army base within the town, and the fear of the army among the displaced was profound. The Ugandan military did not guarantee safety.
But it was not only the brutalised children of the LRA that I was scared of. Gulu housed a major army base within the town, and the fear of the army among the displaced was profound. The Ugandan military did not guarantee safety.
The army base was near where I usually stayed in Gulu and I avoided going anywhere near it. I also avoided any venues or streets where there were groups of soldiers. If I was scared of the LRA, I was also scared of the government soldiers.
Uganda is one of the most beautiful, lush places I have visited, with multiple shades of green everywhere. But once you crossed into northern Uganda, the aerial view was of a denuded landscape: abandoned homesteads and large tracts of land overgrown and shorn of people. Then the isolated clusters of the camps that the government had moved most of the northern civilians into as a way to cut support to the LRA.
LRA activities and the Ugandan government’s response to the insurgency have had a devastating effect on the local population – especially on civilians in the north. It is estimated that up to 80 per cent of civilians in the three Acholi districts (Gulu, Kitgum, Pader) live in displacement camps, with others living in bigger towns or displaced to other areas. More than a million people are estimated to live in displacement camps.
But the camps have brought no security. Camp residents have been killed, raped and assaulted regularly by the army guarding the camps, and often civilians have been tortured, assaulted and killed when they have gone out of the camp for the day to hunt or to tend their crops. (They are then accused of being rebel collaborators.) The LRA have also regularly staged audacious raids into the hearts of the camps, with soldiers often either running away, or not coming to help in time.
LRA’s abduction strategy
In Gulu, a recurring conversation during the war years was the strategy behind the child abductions. A common belief in northern Uganda was that children were deliberately abducted because it was much easier to brainwash them so that they would not escape from the LRA. Children would also be easier to manipulate and scare into believing in Kony’s “supernatural” powers, including that God spoke to him directly. Various people I spoke to in northern Uganda would often mention that adults would not believe the common LRA indoctrination dressed up as spirituality which posited Kony as all-powerful and all-seeing, with a direct line to God.
The absence of light
I would come back from northern Uganda, a complete absence of light settling over my life. It was not unusual. Years before, when I was living in Freetown at the tail-end of that war, I would find it hard to adjust to “normality” after leaving. When I left Sierra Leone, everywhere I looked, just at the corner of my eye I would see random people whom I thought had their hands chopped off – similar to what I had seen every day in Freetown. This would happen in movie theatres, shopping malls and restaurants. It would take a few beats before I could talk myself back into my body, assuring myself that here, that does not happen, that look, there, that person has her hands.
But the talking myself down only worked sometimes, and it never worked when I’d see babies or very small children playing and my brain would play tricks on me. I would think that the babies’ hands were chopped off. The mutilated little ones I saw in Sierra Leone never left my field of vision, no matter how far away I went from Freetown.
In Uganda, the distress was everywhere, and I carried it with me. A psychologist who specialised in working with children tried to give me context, hoping to comfort me: the torture and violence I heard about day after day, that’s what happens when children are brutalised. Logically, I knew what she was saying made sense, but I carried it, carried it everywhere.
In the weeks and months when the abductions were at their highest, by three o’clock streams of children, often still in school uniforms, would head into town to sleep in warehouses and under roofs, walking after school because soon the road would be insecure and the LRA would kidnap them. Locally, they were called “night commuters”, the children who spent their childhood sleeping in warehouses every night. When the LRA raids got very bad in the area, there’d be children sleeping in the open in town, under verandas.
The children who had been abducted more than once would be disruptive and aggressive. And everybody it seemed had been abducted at least once, even the middle class and educated people from the community who were now running the social programmes dealing with returning abductees. I’d go see them at night to get information: in the buildings across Gulu, the rows and rows of mattresses on the floor, any space made available for the children to sleep. The very young ones would be playing and the older children would be doing their homework. Available space across the small town turned into dormitories every night. The children would immediately start to sing and wave a welcome when I came through the door. My heart would break.
I’d always make up an excuse to go outside, to cry. I would then come back and be swamped by eager children, all excited to talk.
Then, the weekends with what passed as good news.
There would be the excitement as news spread across the town that a group of children had been freed by the army during a firefight, or that they had escaped. When I would go to talk to the freed children, I already knew what there would be: often young-young girls, eyes not looking at me, not looking at anything, sitting on a chair with two or three of their own children around them. The girls still visibly in their teens would also often have an emaciated baby on their lap. The toddlers were often in similar physical shape: I’d notice how large the baby’s head was and how stick-like the extended arms and legs that kept clutching aimlessly at anything, often crawling over and clutching at their mothers, who showed no connection to their children and would often never look at or acknowledge any of the other children clinging to them.
But it was the keening, the aimless non-wail, the thing that came out of the depth of the baby, that I can still hear. The mother would sit there, not looking, not reacting. The emaciated babies, keening, almost unable to fully cry, restless; not able to stop, keening and clutching at their mother’s body. Throughout Uganda, Sierra Leone and Liberia, these girl-woman survivors of extreme torture were called “wives” and “bush wives” – as if ceremony and consent had anything to do with their violation.
Community workers always made a point of showing me little children who were suspected to be “Kony’s child”, or they would tell me if there were rumours that any of the freed girls were one of Kony’s “wives”.
I was wary of the older teenage boys who were rescued from the LRA camps and was careful not to wander into isolated spots in the dormitories where they were housed after being freed. They would not look at me nor ever meet my eyes. On my trips to their welcoming centres, I was always aware of constantly being watched by the boys.
During one visit, I was at a welcoming centre in Gulu, and met young men, just freed or escaped from the LRA camps. The centre’s managers said that I could walk through the dormitory where they slept. There were two rows of beds, with the rows very close together. I had to walk through the middle path while each of the boys stood at the foot of their bed as a mark of respect. They were around 12, 13, 14 years old. Nobody looked at me, even though I said hello to each one in turn. At the same time I was aware of being watched as I made the walk. The passageway between the two beds, with the boys standing on either side, meant that I just fitted in between the boys. I walked, just about touching each boy as I walked past, but still they would not move, nor make eye contact. They stood still so that I had to brush past each of their bodies. I knew that if I displayed the least discomfort, or turned my body slightly to avoiding bumping into them, they would see it as a sign of weakness.
The LRA moving out of northern Uganda had an immediate effect. For the first time in decades northern Uganda experienced peace. I remember driving to Gulu soon after the war abated, silently angry with my travelling companions because it was close to sunset when we were arriving. In all the time that I spent in Gulu up to that point, arriving at nightfall would have been the height of recklessness. We drove past Pabbo displacement camp at sunset, me nervous and scared. But when we passed the camp, I was completely amazed: instead of being dark, there were people everywhere. Children were not cowering in the camps’ huts, but were playing on the road. People were socialising outside. Through the months that followed, for the first time I drove across the beauty of northern Uganda, even venturing to the outskirts of Gulu town – which up to then had been too dangerous to venture to.
I walked around. I talked to people. But the familiar was still there: the naked man who walked around the town, traumatised out of his mind; the people who had come into Gulu after their noses, lips and ears had been hacked off by the LRA children. But Gulu also looked as if it was experiencing some of the dividends of peace. There was a bustle to the town, and people could now freely move across the north, even if it was only the beginning for them finding out what long-term effects the war had left in northern Uganda.
 Museveni initially joined a rebellion against Idi Amin, whom they overthrew in 1979. He served as a minister in the post-Amin government, but launched a rebellion in 1981, after claiming that the 1980 elections were rigged.
 Spelt either as Luweero or Luwero
 The Luweero/Luwero Triangle is an area near the capital Kampala from where Yoweri Museveni’s rebellion started and from where it drew most of its support
 Lakwena founded the Holy Spirit Movement, which fought against Museveni. It was a precursor to the LRA.
 De Temmerman, E. Aboke Girls: Children Abducted in Northern Uganda, Fountain Publishers, Kampala 2002, pp.39-40
 Williams, K.
 Locally the sexually enslaved girls were referred to as “wives”.
Aboke Girls: Children Abducted in Northern Uganda – Els De Temmerman, Fountain Publishers, 2002
Williams, K: The challenge and meaning of justice in northern Uganda, African Security Review 16.1. Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria
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Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.