Global Policy Forum

Lord’s Resistance Army Uses Truce to Rearm and Spread Fear In Uganda

December 16. 2008

For eight days Raymond Kpiolebeyo was marched at gunpoint through the Congolese jungle, not knowing whether he would live or die. At night he slept with eight other prisoners, pinned under a plastic sheet weighted down with bags and stones to prevent escape. Their sweat condensed on the sheeting, inches above their faces, before dripping back and turning their plastic prison into a stinking, choking sauna. He was a prisoner of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a band of pitiless commanders and their brutalised child soldiers. "They told us that if one of us tried to escape we would all be shot," said Raymond, 28, a teacher from Doruma, close to the border with southern Sudan. He had been captured by a raiding party looking for porters, sex slaves and soldiers to continue the LRA's 20-year struggle to overthrow the Ugandan Government.

His experience deep in the bush and interviews with one of the LRA's most senior defectors offer an extraordinary insight into the workings of the world's most bizarre guerrilla movement. The LRA is now in the world spotlight, as southern Sudan, Congo and Uganda have mounted joint operations to force it to negotiate or, failing that, wipe it out. This war is supposed to be over. After two years of negotiations, Joseph Kony, the LRA's reclusive leader, was expected to sign a peace deal in April. He failed to show up; his aides said that he was suffering from diarrhoea, before announcing that he would not be signing at all.

Negotiators still hope that a war that has forced two million people into squalid aid camps is close to an end. Many of its victims in northern Uganda have slowly begun leaving the sprawling shack cities where one generation was born and another died. The border towns of the Democratic Republic of Congo tell a different story; one where slaving parties slog through the jungle, snatching children barely big enough to carry AK47 rifles. In the past few months an estimated 75,000 people have been forced from their homes in a fresh wave of attacks.

Defectors in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, say that General Kony - who claims to receive his instructions directly from God - never had any intention of laying down his weapons. Instead, he used the ceasefire to rearm, recruit and stockpile food donated by well-meaning charities and supporters abroad. For the first time they have described a well-ordered fighting force, whose senior officers have been trained by Sudan, Iran and Iraq. This year his fighters have roamed through southern Sudan, the Central African Republic and Congo, kidnapping more than 300 children and turning a Ugandan war into a regional conflict.

After walking for ten hours a day for six days with a sack on his back and another balanced on his head, Raymond arrived at a camp filled with children. "They were mobile. All the time they were organising," he said, sitting in the office of Doruma school where he teaches primary-age children. "Some were leaving for other villages and others were arriving." General Kony is thought to have settled in Congo two years ago, disappearing into Garamba National Park in the far northeast of the country. It was part of a gentlemen's agreement with the Congolese Government: he was offered a safe haven from which to begin seeking peace, and in return his troops would stay away from locals. Raymond said that the camp was a bustling town. Thatched huts stood in neat rows; labourers farmed sweet potato, maize and beans. At night a solar-powered television would be brought out and the young soldiers would cheer as they watched noisy American war films. Anything starring Chuck Norris was a big hit. After six nights in General Kony's jungle headquarters Raymond had the chance of escape. He was woken by a tap on the head from another prisoner. It was the signal to leave. The two tiptoed over sleeping soldiers before breaking for the thick bush around the camp. He was lucky to escape the LRA. Others have not been so fortunate.

Sitting on a low bamboo bench in the shade of a mango tree in Doruma, Christine Kutiote described how her 13-year-old niece, Marie, was taken as she tried to cross the river for a visit. Now, she keeps her own four children close to home. "I'm a Christian and I pray for them and that security will get better," she said. But her simple home told a different story. Its mud walls bore a pattern of white spots used by witchdoctors to ward off evil. This is a region used to conflict. Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola all sent troops for a five-year war that claimed at least three million lives by its end in 2002. Once again the Congolese jungle is being used for someone else's war.

An intelligence document compiled by the United Nations mission to Congo, known as Monuc, spells out the scale of the threat. It says that the LRA cynically used the peace talks to organise itself into a regional fighting force. The 670-strong band of fighters now has more than 150 satellite telephones, many bought with cash meant to aid communications during the talks. "Simply put, Kony now has the ability to divide his forces into very simple groups and to reassemble them at will," the report says. "When put together with his proven mastery of bush warfare, this gives him new potency within his area of operations." They were given tonnes of food by a charity, Caritas Uganda, to discourage the looting of villages, and fistfuls of dollars by southern Sudan's new leaders, whom they once fought.

General Kony is stronger than ever, the report concludes: "Recent abduction patterns suggest that he is now in the process of perfecting the new skill of recruiting and controlling an international force of his own." The general has long been an enigma. His use of child soldiers, tight control over his lieutenants and frequent movement mean that little is known of his life. He was the altar boy who grew up to be a guerrilla leader. He was the wizard who used magic to protect his brainwashed adherents. And he was the deluded man from the bush who wanted to rule Uganda according to the Ten Commandments. Yet those who know him best say that the picture of a crazed, self-proclaimed prophet is far from the mark. "To describe him is very difficult for me. He is not mad," said Patrick Opiyo Makasi, who was General Kony's director of operations until last year when he walked out of the jungle. "But he is a religious man. All the time he is talking about God. Every time he keeps calling many people to teach them about the legends and about God. That is how he leads people."

Colonel Makasi was snatched from his home in Gulu, northern Uganda, at the age of 12. He was handed a Kalashnikov and his school lessons were replaced by instruction in anti-tank mines, surface-to-air missiles and machineguns. Over the next 20 years he rose to become one of General Kony's most trusted confidants. Then, a year ago, Colonel Makasi strolled out of the Kony's camp, knowing that no one would suspect the LRA's director of operations of defecting. A day earlier General Kony had murdered Vincent Otti, the LRA's second-in-command. Any chance of peace was finished. Colonel Makasi brought with him details of an array of weaponry supplied by the Sudanese Government in Khartoum, which once used the LRA as a proxy army in a doomed attempt to put down southern rebels. The LRA had been given crates of AK47s, mines, heavy machineguns and even surface-to-air missiles. The colonel's comrades spent eight months burying the booty in caches dotted across southern Sudan. They are now being excavated as General Kony returns to war. Senior officers also used to visit Khartoum for instruction, he said. Some were flown on to Iran and Iraq to learn leadership skills, tactics and training for new weapons. Now the general is displaying the behaviour of a cornered man. "He still thinks he can become President of Uganda, running the country as some sort of theocracy, so it seems as if he is digging in," a military source said. Africa's most bizarre and brutal war seems no closer to a conclusion.

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