Talking with the devil in northern Uganda

Camp for displaced persons on the outskirts of Lira in northern Uganda
Camp for displaced persons on the outskirts of Lira in northern Uganda  (© Eric Beauchemin)

In northern Uganda in 2004, war had been raging for nearly two decades, and it was showing no signs of abating. People had grown tired of the government’s pledges that it would end the rebellion by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a group which is fighting to establish a government based on the Ten Commandments. Increasingly they were asking for talks between the government and the rebels.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: April 21, 2004


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Talking with the devil in northern Uganda”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

They don’t see themselves as being part of Ugandan society after what they have done. So in fact the war becomes an end in itself.

Even if we punish them, does it equal the number of people that they have already killed? It doesn’t. So we’re saying, please come back and stop that.

People have been dying all these years. Can’t we try something else?

Northern Uganda has been under siege for nearly two decades. A rebel group – called the LRA, the Lord’s Resistance Army – is at war with the Ugandan authorities. The rebels claim they want to establish a government based on the 10 Commandments, but they constantly violate those very commandments. 90% of their fighters are children. Every day, the rebels abduct more children and force them to fight, to mutilate civilians and murder other children. The people of northern Uganda have been experiencing the sheer viciousness and cruelty of the war for 18 years…and they’re tired. They want peace…even if that means talking with the devil who’s been tormenting them.

1½ million people in northern Uganda have been forced to flee their homes and villages because of the fighting. They’ve wound up in what are known officially as camps for displaced people. But these are hell holes…even by African standards.

Tens of thousands of people have taken refuge on the outskirts of Lira, a city about 4 hours north of the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Over 5000 of them are living in this abandoned starch factory. As women cook over open fires on the factory grounds, children walk around naked and quiet. It’s a desolate scene.

Lili Late’s village lies 40 kilometres away. Six months ago, she and her community fled the LRA rebels, who are led by the self-styled mystic, Joseph Kony. Since they arrived in the starch factory, they’ve received no assistance from the government or aid organisations, except for a bit of food from the Christian charity, CCF.

Kony also followed us and took 8 of these children away from us. They abducted them from here. / Now we have a lot of problems. Food is not even enough. Even the distribution is not so even. Now even we don’t have medicine. We lack water. / At least we need the help of the army to come and maintain the security around us because even here we are vulnerable to the attacks by Kony and his men because even they do come around town and attack here.

Mary  (© Eric Beauchemin)

Many of the people in the camp have horrific stories to tell about the attacks the Lord’s Resistance Army carried out on their villages. 40-year-old Mary’s face and upper body are covered with white blotches…the result of an LRA attack.

What happened is that the rebels boiled water and poured the hot water on me. And after that, they even tried to roast me. They wanted to roast the whole body and that’s why you see all these wounds I have from the head up to the chest. You know it is in the habit of the rebels to kill, abduct, torture. They just do anything they feel like. Whether they want to ax, to kill you or even just to hit you with a mortar. Anything these use. And they don’t care. So it’s always on your luck. Now for me, I just survived narrowly. But my children were killed. The two of them died. They just axed them and they died.

The brutality which Mary and others were subjected to is common. The rebels are also known to cut off the lips, noses and ears of their victims. Aside from the LRA’s savagery and its desire to set up a government based on the 10 Commandments, little is known about the rebel group. It was formed in the mid-1980s by people belonging to northern Uganda’s Acholi tribe. Uganda’s former leader was an Acholi and he was ousted by the current president Yoweri Museveni. But the LRA today has nothing to do with ethnicity or tribalism, since most of the LRA’s victims are Acholi, says lawyer and human rights worker Barney Afaku.

I think the LRA should not just be seen as an army with political motivations, although no doubt it has fed on grievances from the past, grievances about the people of northern Uganda being ushered forcibly from power and without a stake in the national politics and economy. But that is a frozen view of Uganda of early 1986, when Museveni’s government took power. That is a snap-shot that the LRA took with it to the bush.

Barney Afaku
Barney Afaku  (© Eric Beauchemin)

In the bush, the LRA became quite successful, thanks largely to support from Sudan, Uganda’s neighbour to the north. The Sudanese authorities were engaged in their own civil war with a rebel group in southern Sudan. They provided military support to the LRA to fight a proxy war. That war is now coming to an end, and two years ago, the Sudanese government officially kicked out the LRA. But that has only led to an increase in LRA attacks in Uganda itself. The massive human rights violations they’ve committed against the people of northern Uganda mean that the rebels have little choice but to continue fighting, says Barney Afaku.

It’s not so much that they have a political agenda but it is that they don’t see themselves as being part of Ugandan society after what they have done. So in fact the war becomes an end in itself. They have no notion of political opinions. For instance, they do not like President Museveni, and I think they take pride in the fact that they have not been defeated. So for them, every day that they are out in the bush is a victory. It’s achieving their aim. That’s why they have never tried to take any town or establish a government or name a cabinet because they are interested in that at all. I think they are out there to survive.

Lieutenant Colonel Walter Ochura, the chairman of the Gulu local district council
Lieutenant Colonel Walter Ochura, the chairman of the Gulu local district council  (© Eric Beauchemin)

Survive they have for 18 years now, despite the Ugandan army’s attempts to defeat the LRA. The military has been hampered by a number of factors, says Lieutenant Colonel Walter Ochura, the chairman of the Gulu local district council, where much of the fighting has been taking place.

First-fold, the army is under instructions to secure as many of these abducted children as possible. So the operation is such that you give an opportunity, do a kind of delaying tactics and that’s the reason why so many children have been rescued by the army. But if it was just to finish the war, they would have mowed all these. And of course, if Sudan had not continued supplying the Lord’s Resistance Army, by now these would have surrendered.

The army’s failure to defeat the rebels is surprising given the government’s high-level of military spending. The international community – which has been critical of the $150 million a year the country allocates to the military – reduced its aid to Uganda. In response, the authorities cut spending for all other ministries by nearly 25% to maintain the defence budget. The high military expenditure has not brought an end to the war any closer. Every year, the government promises a final push on the LRA, but when the rainy season starts and the grass grows high again, the rebels simply resume their activities. The authorities’ failure to deliver on their promises has caused frustration and anger among the general public.

By now, I don’t think they believe their own utterances because they’ve given so many deadlines for the end of Joseph Kony and the LRA, and those deadlines have come and gone. As you know, army commanders have said that they would resign if they hadn’t won the war by a particular date, and those dates have passed and there’s still been no military solution. I think the government has grossly underestimated the staying power of the LRA. The LRA is able to survive because for a long time it has had a rear-base in Sudan. But even if now the Sudan government says that it is no longer supplying the LRA, but southern Sudan is such that the LRA can come and go and form alliances with other people who can give them support. So even if the Sudan government were being truthful – which is disputed by the Ugandans that they have ceased to support the LRA – it’s still the case that they are able to operate because of bases in Sudan. But the evidence is also that they are able to come into Uganda and stay out of reach of the army or keep eluding the military engagements.

The authorities remain convinced that the military option is the key to defeating the rebels. Walter Ochura, the government’s most senior official in Gulu, has met with the LRA leadership, including Joseph Kony, and he too believes that arms are the only to eliminate the rebels.

The Lord’s Resistance Army, especially the higher command, must be given real pressure by the army because Kony on his own and Nyokol Tolbat who’s the army commander, these are die-hards who know the crimes that they have done and they feel the community will never accept them back. So it is better they die in the bush. So those are the kind that should be forced to talk. But on their own, believe me you, they will never out, at least those high commanders I know because I have been here for long. I operated here with them. I know what it is. The door for peace should be left open, but pressure should be seen to be beared on the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Ugandans have been hearing the same message for 18 years now, and they’re disillusioned and angry about the government’s inability to end the war. Angelina Atyam’s daughter was among 139 girls who were abducted from a school in 1996. An Italian nun was able to get 109 of them freed, but Angelina’s daughter is still with the rebels. She and other parents set up the Concerned Parents’ Association, which is trying to obtain the release of all the 20,000 children who’ve been abducted by the rebels.

Angelina Atyam
Angelina Atyam  (© Eric Beauchemin)

The bullets have been flying. People have been dying all these years. Can’t we try something else? Non-military options. Maybe talk. You are seeing the abject poverty in this place. Can’t we use our resources for something better? And talking, it costs something, maybe one person flying from one place to the next to be available at meetings, but it is cheaper if you compare it to the amount of money we are spending on wars, and the destruction which is actually in the country. This is not an external invasion. It’s a national thing which we have failed to resolve, and we believe that the military option has been given a chance for too long. We need something else. But we as parents are saying, we don’t believe in putting off fire with petrol. We think it is high time somebody talks.

The government has made attempts to open a dialogue. In late 2002, President Museveni named a high-level team, including senior cabinet ministers, to talk with the LRA. But the talks have got nowhere.

The LRA is bound to be suspicious of the government. They are not politically as well equipped as the government to handle dialogue. In that situation they are bound to look at any attempts at dialogue with suspicion, fearing that they might be sold out. I think that one of their main fears is that dialogue would not be genuine, but it would be an attempt to lure them into a situation where they might either be arrested or they might fear the worst. I personally don’t think that the form of dialogue that is being attempted is appropriate. It’s simply not appropriate to have senior lawyers attempting to engage the LRA at this stage. I think it would be much better to continue and encourage new initiatives at the much lower level. It may even be that the military in Uganda has a bigger role to play in this. Up to this point, they have almost exclusively been engaged in military efforts. But the LRA is largely military. It doesn’t have a political wing to speak of. So it may well be that it feels more comfortable engaging with the Ugandan military when it’s ready to talk because their main concerns will be about security. Their main concerns will be about disarmament. At what point will they disarm and what are the guarantees for their safety? And unless they see military people around the table giving guarantees and they’re being liaison officers they can meet with and establish some kind of rapport and trust, then there will be difficulties.

Father José Carlos Rodríguez has been trying to build trust among the two parties. He belongs to the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative, which brings together Christian and Moslem representatives in Acholiland. For the past three years, they’ve been trying to start a dialogue between the rebels and the government. But neither side has shown good will. In fact, says Father Rodrígeuz, the government thwarted four of their attempts to bring about peaceful negotiations.

For instance, the first face-to-face meeting we were supposed to have with the military and the rebels was on March 6, 2003. But on that very morning, before we went for the meeting, the army launched an offensive in the area where we were supposed to meet. In August 2002, I and two other priests were meeting with the rebels in the bush. The talks had been sanctioned by both the military and civilian authorities. We had been speaking for about half an hour, when a group of some 100 soldiers attacked. They bombed us for 30 minutes. I was wounded, and then the military held us in jail for two days and they treated us like animals. Despite that, we organised another meeting with the rebels two weeks later. A few hours before the meeting the army again sent troops to the area and the rebels left. These types of incidents have created a climate of suspicion and it’s difficult to change that.

It’s said that senior Ugandan military commanders have little interest in ending the war. Some charities I spoke to in northern Uganda told me that the army confiscates a certain percentage of all aid distributed in the north and then sells it locally. Top-level military officials are reported to have inflated the numbers of soldiers serving in the north, thereby getting additional funding from the government. The problem with these allegations, says Barney Afaku, is that they’ve been very difficult to prove.

The military is not an establishment that is audited and its books made public. So there never was evidence, so the government and the military could deny it. But now, of course, the military itself is saying that a lot of its senior commanders have been corrupt, seriously corrupt and the estimates are quite staggering of the number of ghost soldiers. So it may be that in the north, the force strength is much lower than it looked on paper. That may have had a bearing on the war effort. I think that even if you sorted out the corruption issue, we mustn’t confuse the causes with effects. I think that this war is very difficult to win, and I think that this is a realisation that the military and everyone needs to reach, and I’m worried about a situation where we say, OK, if only we clean up corruption in the army, then we will win the war, then we will buy more arms, and we will throw it at the LRA, and it will be the final push. I think that would lead us in the wrong direction. So yes, get rid of the corruption, and ensure that you protect civilians against the LRA, but at the same time, be no doubt that the military effort alone will not end this conflict.

The LRA’s distrust of the army is so great that the government has even floated the idea of holding talks in another country. Under the plan, the United Nations would fly a rebel delegation outside the country to meet the president’s peace team, says Walter Ochura, who speaks on a daily basis on the phone with the LRA’s second in command.

Those are the suggestions I’ve given to them. If you fear, trust at least the international community. You can be picked from a place which is secured completely. You will know that this is a white helicopter. This is from the UN and then you are flown out of the borders of this country, and that’s where you can freely meet the presidential peace team or any other person that you trust. Why haven’t they accepted this proposal? These guys are so guilty-conscience that they think that if they get out of this country, they will be whisked to face the International Court, to The Hague. So this is what they do tell me.

It’s impossible to confirm Walter Ochura’s statements. The LRA is a reclusive movement, rarely making public statements. But for Father Rodríguez, what is clear is that the two parties are not making any progress and the war is simply continuing. He believes foreign involvement is now imperative.

We believe that we’ve reached a point where only international mediation can solve the conflict. The international community needs to get involved, as it did in many other parts of the world, such as in Central America or many countries in Africa, where conflicts were brought to an end through peaceful negotiations. No one wants to get involved here, we believe, because this country doesn’t have any oil, minerals or commercial interests. The United Nations and the donor community only get involved when there’s money to be made. Here there’s no money. Last November, a senior United Nations official paid a visit here, and he said the situation was worse than in Iraq. He said he was embarrassed that such a tragedy was getting so little international attention.

Barney Afaku doesn’t dispute the level of suffering in northern Uganda. He travels there frequently and has seen the situation deteriorate, particularly since Sudan kicked the LRA off its territory. But he’s not convinced that the rebels are prepared yet to accept international mediation.

You see, a lot of what we say about solving the situation in the north is said without the LRA’s input, and I think that it’s what the LRA thinks that is critical. I don’t see them yet accepting international mediation. They are previous engagements with international actors have not been very fruitful because international actors have met the LRA and have found them quite distrustful of their motives. As far as I’m concerned, I think their best possible opportunity is to engage locally, with the local community and with the government of Uganda about their own fate because it’s a very, very genuine sentiment on the part of the people of northern Uganda that they’re willing to put the past behind them, despite everything that the LRA has done. And I think that message needs to be repeated, and I fear that it would be lost if we begin to shift the initiative to external actors.

The people of northern Uganda are so forgiving because the vast majority of the LRA’s crimes are perpetrated by children. The children know that if they don’t follow the rebels’ orders, they themselves will be killed. Beatrice was abducted by the rebels when she was 10. She spent a total of 12 years with the LRA. She’s now in a centre for former child soldiers in Gulu.

Beatrice with one of her children
Beatrice with one of her children  (© Eric Beauchemin)

She was recruited, trained and then she became a soldier. She fought many battles in Sudan. EB: Were you afraid the first time? She was scared. She was so scared, but later she did not have any fear any more. EB: Did you also become the wife of one of the rebels? Yeah, she was given to a commander. EB: How old were you? 15 years. I was not happy because I was thinking at 15 years at home, I wouldn’t be going to a man yet. EB: Did you also have children? 4 children. The first child remained in the bush. The two followers died in the bush, and she came when she was pregnant and gave birth in the centre here. The child is sleeping. EB: Why did the first one stay in the bush? Why didn’t you take him with you? She was walking and the child was with another soldier and they were a bit in front. So by the time she branched off, they did not know. So she could not now come out with him. She’s always worried about the child.

Beatrice says she was a good fighter. She was proud of that then, but now that she has left the bush, she regrets what she had to do. All the children who’ve been abducted by the LRA express similar sentiments. Fortunately, Acholi culture has traditions to enable combatants to be readmitted into society. David Onen Acana the 2nd is the Acholi paramount chief.

This ritual is very significant in the tradition and culture of Acholi. So it involves stepping on the egg which symbolises purity and innocence. And then there is a reed which also symbolises – it’s a multi-purpose kind of reed – so it’s also welcoming the child back and sort of cleansing them of whatever they have gone through. And also a pole which signifies the continuity of life as it is used in opening the food store.

David Onen Acana the 2nd, Acholi paramount chief
David Onen Acana the 2nd, Acholi paramount chief  (© Eric Beauchemin)

Traditional leaders have been encouraging both children and adults who’ve escaped or left the rebels to acknowledge publicly the crimes they committed. This is the only way, under traditional law, for the spirits to be appeased and harmony to be restored.

One very good value of the Acholi culture is that we don’t have death as a punishment for any capital offence. So for such people when the truth will be established – of course, through investigations and matters will be laid down in a traditional court which is conducted by the elders – when everything is unearthed and the truth is found, then we will go through the reconciliation. So that will bring back the broken relationship. People might think that through our system, they may not pay, but going through the reconciliation and death compensation, if there is a known case, definitely, somebody would have paid for that. We are saying that so many people have lost their lives and we should have a stop to this. And that is why we are saying we are forgiving everybody, however much crime you have committed. That one is already done. So even if we punish them, even if we say you are dying by hanging, but does it equal the number of people they have already killed? It doesn’t. So we are saying, please come back and stop that.

The government has offered an amnesty to the rebels, but it’s specifically excluded the movement’s senior leadership, including Joseph Kony. Over the years, say observers, it’s become increasingly clear that Kony and the Ugandan president are engaged in a battle to the death, with neither one willing to give an inch. But for ordinary people in northern Uganda, this personal vendetta is of little importance. Angelina Atyam, whose daughter has been in the hands of the LRA for 8 years, expresses the sentiments of many parents whose children have been abducted.

I myself wouldn’t like to see Kony killed. Just killing him now. Let him come out, and me myself, I have nothing to take him to court for because the killing has been going on for too long, the abductions, gross child rights abuse, very big and one man, will he pay for all our children? One life cannot pay. Let him go free. We would like to see him move amongst the people and see how he moves. Oh, this is the man who actually did those terrible things. Me, I wouldn’t like to see him locked up because really, if all these years and all these crimes, he can have the strength and the gut to move, I would love to see that. But don’t you think he would be lynched? It’s possible because really others are very angry, but we as parents are saying, do we gain by killing one man who has killed thousands? We would rather say we don’t want to pollute our hands with that because if we pollute our hands with his own blood, we are no different from him. We parents are saying, set him free. Set him free. Let him walk around and see.

Under international law, Joseph Kony and his comrades in arms should be tried and punished for the massive abuses they’ve committed over the past two decades. But Barney Afaku believes that international human rights standards are not necessarily universal, at least not when it comes to Uganda.

What happens in northern Uganda is a very, very difficult and painful calculation, and the calculation is this: what will it take to stop the killing, the suffering and the displacement of the people of northern Uganda, so that they can go back and begin to mend their society and fix their lives again. Are you going to posture and say, well international human rights say that you mustn’t shake hands with people who have killed at the cost of prolonging and aggravating the suffering? So for me as a value: which decision saves more lives? And I have no doubt that the decision to pursue peace, including through the instrument of an amnesty, is going to save more lives than a decision to go after a handful of individuals at any cost. EB: That seems quite surprising coming from a human rights lawyer. Yes because human rights are about values. They are not simply about rules, but I fear that the human rights movement has become rules based. When I go to the north and see year, after year, after year, people being displaced, dying in camps. I see the mutilations. I think what is the value here? What is the priority? Whom do I save first? Is it the many or is the retribution against the few? And I’ll tell you something for a fact: the standards of international human rights will never satisfy the people of Uganda. The president will say, shoot them. And international human rights will say, no, no, don’t’ shoot them. Give them a life sentence and people will be baffled, and say a life sentence in humane conditions for somebody who did this? Is that justice? So notions of justice are very different. So in a situation like this, it speaks with different voices. It says you must punish Kony but then people realise that it doesn’t mean punishment at all. It means life sentence and he might be released after that if he is too ill. And that simply doesn’t come close to – if you like – the instinctive sense of retribution.

“Talking with the devil” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.