Child Soldiers and the Lord's Resistance Army
Every night about 11:00 P.M., after four hours of more or less continued operation, the electric power goes out in Adjumani, Uganda. The night becomes black, dotted with a kerosene lamp here and there and maybe a rare solar-powered lamp. It is a small town of a few thousand people, a northern point of Uganda, not far from Congo, 10 miles on the east side of the Nile, 25 miles south of the border with Sudan. Late June nights are warm from the day’s abundant sun and frequent rains.
One night in June 2003, a dozen armed members of the Lord’s Resistance Army entered Adjumani from the surrounding tall grass and trees of the bush and moved silently through the eastern part of town toward Holy Redeemer Orphanage, which is directed by an indigenous African congregation, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
The L.R.A. is a cult-like group that came into existence in 1986 in the north of Uganda when the current president, Yoweri Museveni, took power. It operates in the north and the central-east section of the country, led by Joseph Kony, a charismatic and malignant dictator who has no ideology other than periodic fuzzy statements about ruling the country by the Ten Commandments. The L.R.A. specializes in the slaughter of innocent people: a village is looted and burned to the ground, the inhabitants locked in their flaming houses; a bus is shot up on the way south to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, passengers pulled out and hacked to death; a health clinic is raided and pilfered, its workers murdered; a pickup truck is ambushed, its passengers butchered and the truck torched; grade schools, high schools and seminaries are raided, and 10, 20, 30 students abducted.
Abduction of children is the most depressing and horrifying tactic of the L.R.A. In the past 17 years, the number has approached 20,000. These child “recruits” are forced into submission and made to carry weapons; and almost immediately after they have been abducted, they are terrorized into committing their own atrocities. These can involve beating one of their classmates to death—the alternative is to be bludgeoned to death themselves—or being forced to plunder their own village and kill relatives, so that they will have no place to which they might return. The girls are given to L.R.A. commanders as sex slaves. Many who escape their abductors come back with unwanted children and a host of sexually transmitted diseases. As the months pass, the abducted children lose track of their personal lives, their family culture and any kind of moral code. They learn indifference and brutality. Children are transformed into killers. Some escape. Some are rescued. Some are killed or die violently, as did 50 girls who drowned earlier this year in the Moroto River. They had been forced into the river by the L.R.A. as they were running from the Ugandan army.
The dozen L.R.A. members, between 16 and 25 years of age, stopped at the local parish that night and awakened Father Zachary, a member of an indigenous African congregation, the Apostles of Jesus. Zachary was roughed up, his room ransacked and most of his personal belongings taken. He was then forced at gunpoint to proceed with the L.R.A. people to the orphanage, 200 meters from the church. Once the security of the orphanage was breached—a flimsy wooden gate with a terrified gatekeeper—they proceeded to the dormitory of the orphans. One of the Sacred Heart sisters sleeping in a residence adjacent to the dormitory awoke, realized what was happening and pleaded with the abductors to stop. They forced her back into her room, gathered the now frightened and screaming children, ages 7 to 18, nine of them girls, and began to make them run in single file out of the compound. Two other sisters awoke at the noise of the running and screaming, but it was too late. It was about 2 a.m. One of the sisters called a local contingent of the Ugandan army, placed there by the government for the town’s protection. They arrived hours later.
Because of the L.R.A., a great swath of northern Uganda writhes in social convulsion, a world sabotaged by uncertainty and tragedy. There are now over one million internally displaced people in the north, in a country of 23 million, living in squalid government protection camps. Malnutrition, cholera, tuberculosis, measles, dysentery and malaria sweep through the camps. Here are the real death statistics of this war, the unseen bottom of the killing iceberg. And to make things worse, the camps are easy targets for attacks by the L.R.A. toughs, who circle their victims—indigenous Ugandans, not Sudanese refugees—like sharks. And with all this chaos comes a pervading sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Recently Johan Van Heckehim, a Belgian member of the European Parliament who has long experience in African humanitarian causes, especially in Uganda, said, “This ongoing war is the worst abuse of human rights in the world, and the West has forgotten it.”
Local religious leaders and civil leaders have tried to broker peace deals, but the efforts failed; so the slaughter continues daily. In the three years I have been in this country, I cannot recall a day when the Ugandan press did not record an L.R.A. incident. In spite of its talk about making advances against the insurgency, the Ugandan government appears impotent, and the Ugandan military often outmaneuvered. The army does manage to kill many members of the L.R.A., if one can believe the reports. But they kill the kids who kill, kids who were once students, seminarians and joyful boys and girls.
Father Zachary brought up the rear of a line that was moving in pitch darkness; and at an opportune time, heart pounding, he slipped off into the tall grass of the bush. The L.R.A. and their latest victims moved east, grabbing a few adults along the way, who, if normal procedure was followed, were then killed in the bush by the abducted children. Their bodies will never be found. One kills or is killed. It is the kind of chilling pressure under which most 14-year-olds will cave in. Zachary waited until the sounds faded away and cautiously made his way back to the mission church. Some of the children escaped and returned, but others have never been seen or heard of again.
Although the Jesuit Refugee Service works primarily with the refugees from Sudan who live in northern Uganda, the L.R.A. affects life and inflicts its terror directly and indirectly. Father Zachary is part of the J.R.S. pastoral team in Adjumani, and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart have deep connections with all of us who work in the north. The Holy Redeemer Orphanage is adjacent to the living compound of international J.R.S. staff. For us, a noise in the night is no longer just a noise in the night. Here in Adjumani two years ago, a bus was ambushed several miles out of town and many of the J.R.S. staff lost relatives and friends. (The Adjumani project includes 35 people who work exclusively in educational programs for some 90,000 Sudanese refugees.) A year ago the L.R.A. rampaged through refugee villages in a southern zone of our pastoral commitment area. Sudanese were killed, children abducted. Recently one of the J.R.S. project directors in the Sudanese town of Labone was driven to an airfield several kilometers away to catch a plane for Kampala, Uganda’s southern capital. On the way back to Labone, the car was stopped, the driver and two teenage passengers murdered and the car burned. The Sudanese driver, a father of two, was 26.
In Rhino Camp, where J.R.S. has a major pastoral project, there was an influx last year of internally displaced persons fleeing across the Nile to escape from Kony. We were grieved because many of those who were fleeing died of exposure, disease and fatigue. Recently, the L.R.A. attacked a health clinic 10 kilometers from Adjumani, stole all its drugs and kidnapped the workers. A week later, two secondary school girls from a J.R.S. project in Nimule (a Sudanese town on the border of Uganda) were abducted as they crossed into Uganda to pay a visit to friends. On top of all this, the J.R.S. project must frequently suspend pastoral and education work in targeted areas because of the security risk. Chapels cannot be visited, and schools are closed. There is always a lurking anxiety throughout the north and the east. Where and when will the marauders hit again? Are we seeing a slow version of Rwanda—not tribe against tribe with a million deaths a month, but crazed warriors in Uganda, with guns, clubs and pangas (cutting tools) used against the innocent, who are unprotected by their government? Another 10 years, another 50,000 dead? Another 20,000 children abducted?
Father Zachary is a soft-spoken and unobtrusive man, a native of the north of Uganda. His upper lip quivers as he talks quietly about the night he was captured. His ordeal was small, he points out, when compared with what happened to the children who were abducted. Had he not escaped, he knows he would have been killed—too much extra luggage to carry. A man without guile, he makes no big deal about his life of sacrifice, puts on no airs and gently goes about his pastoral work in the Adjumani refugee camps. He admits to being shaken by that night, but he is determined to go on and serve.
Standing back and looking at this attack on the orphanage and the years of Uganda’s torture by carnage, one must admire Father Zachary’s commitment to his ministry. He inspires me; he is the human antidote to the poison. On the edges and within the ebb and flow of these events stands the Jesuit Refugee Service, walking with him. Even as J.R.S. has served the refugees from the 23-year civil war in the Sudan, it always, warily and wearily, has had to watch the L.R.A. J.R.S. too is an antidote. By its work, it counteracts—with many others—the poison of the L.R.A.’s rejection of each human’s dignity. It seeks, like Zachary, to carry on the mission of Christ, to accompany all those rendered homeless by the raiders of the night and the enemies of human dignity. It serves the refugee and the displaced and all who are hurled into chaos by the likes of the L.R.A. It advocates for the afflicted, saying to the world that the madness must stop, and that as long as brothers and sisters are wounded, the whole world is wounded.