By Barry Lando
Almost 10 years ago, with the invasion of Afghanistan, President Bush announced the global war on terror. Since then hundreds of thousands of soldiers and mercenaries have been dispatched to far corners of the globe, and hundreds of billions, probably trillions, of dollars have been poured into the effort.
But over that same period, the lot has only worsened for some of the most terrorized people on the planet, millions of people across a huge swath of Central Africa, living in constant fear of a horde of bloody Ugandan marauders known as the Lord’s Resistance Army.
At Christmas time, the threat is only worse.
One survivor of the LRA’s bloodlust is Josephine [not her real name], an 18-year-old girl who was having lunch with her family when a group of men stormed into her village.
“They tied us up and then shot and then killed my grandfather right in front of me,” she says. Two of her brothers were led off. She never saw them again. She was forced to pack heavy loads for her captives, repeatedly raped, then assigned as a “wife” to one of her captors, a young boy. “They sometimes would take one boy,” said Josephine, “tie him up, then force another boy to kill him by hitting him on the back of the head with a heavy stick or a machete.”
Another young man who was kidnapped was tied to other boys from his village, then forced to carry the loot the marauders had stolen as they continued their attacks.
“We walked three kilometers to the next village, where the LRA men did the same thing, kidnapping more than 100 people. This time though, they counted out 20 people, tied them up, and killed them by hitting them on the back of the head,” the youth said.
“Every few kilometers we would stop and they would count out another 20 people and walk them into the bush. After a while, I was among the group that the LRA separated from the rest. They tied our arms together behind our backs and forced us to kneel down. They took hammers, machetes and heavy sticks and began killing people one by one. One of the LRA men took a big stick and hit me hard on the back of my head. I blacked out.
“When I woke up, I was still tied up and had several dead bodies piled on top of me. I spent four days drifting in and out of consciousness, tied up and bleeding in that stack of bodies. When people arrived to bury us, they discovered that I was still alive. They untied me and carried me to the nearest hospital, where I took six months to recover.”
Over the past few years across a huge expanse of Central Africa, such tales have become commonplace: thousands of civilians hacked, stabbed and bludgeoned to death; thousands of girls raped; boys kidnapped and murdered or forced to commit heinous atrocities themselves, turned into criminal outcasts, so they will never be able to return to their tribes. Instead, they have come to fill the ranks of the LRA.
What’s remarkable is that, despite the widespread savagery and terror across the region, the LRA probably has only a few hundred ragged men and boys under arms.
Their leader is a demented despot by the name of Joseph Kony, a character right out of Conrad—a faith-healer, self-styled revolutionary and Christian fundamentalist, who launched the LRA more than 20 years ago in northern Uganda with support from the Sudan. Over the years, the group has morphed into an increasingly bloody band of killers, intent on rape, plunder and murder.
Two years ago, U.S. troops aiding the Ugandan army helped organize an attack on the LRA but failed to capture its major leaders. The result was catastrophic. Bent on bloody vengeance, the LRA metastasized, carrying out hundreds of raids against isolated villages, not just in Uganda, but across the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and the Sudan as well.
No one seemed to give much of a damn except the usual NGO representatives, trying desperately to cope with the situation in the field, often at the risk of their own lives, and trying to get the attention of world leaders who claim to be in an all-out war against terrorism. Problem is, the LRA are not the right brand of terrorists.
If their leader was a radical Muslim instead of a wacky Christian fundamentalist, things would be different. Predator drones or gung-ho mercenaries and Special Forces killer teams would have taken him and his cronies out long ago.
Instead, U.N. peacekeeping forces have more than 80,000 troops stationed in the area trying to end the chaos that has tormented Central Africa for decades. It’s the largest U.N. contingent anywhere, but only 850 of them are in the area where the LRA is active.
As Marcel Stoessel, the Swiss head of Oxfam for the Congo, told me by phone, “Those figures show that the priority is not here, and it should be here, because the LRA is the most active and deadly of all the groups active in this region.”
But it’s hard to blame the U.N. commanders. Their troops are poorly armed, mostly poorly trained (and themselves often feared by the local population) and woefully underequipped. For instance, they lack a modicum of helicopters to patrol a huge region where decent roads are virtually nonexistent. Their annual budget is more than $1.3 billion, which sounds impressive until you consider that the U.S. spends about that much every four days in Afghanistan.
The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Joseph Kony’s arrest more than five years ago, and world leaders have at various times pledged to take action. Yet Kony and his ragtag forces are more feared and deadly now than at any time in the LRA’s 20-year history.
Perversely, Christmas is the season when the LRA has carried out some of its most barbarous acts.
According to a news release just put out by Oxfam and other NGOs operating in the region: “On Christmas Eve 2008 and over the following three weeks, 865 women, men and children were savagely beaten to death and hundreds more abducted by the LRA in northeastern DRC and southern Sudan. ... Between 14 and 17 December 2009, LRA commanders oversaw the killing of more than 300 people. These attacks have largely gone unnoticed by the outside world.”
Says Stoessel, “It is unbelievable that world leaders continue to tolerate brutal violence against some of the most isolated villages in central Africa and that this has been allowed to continue for more than 20 years.”
Fortunately, over the past few years, the depredations of the LRA and the plight of young people in Central Africa have stoked the outrage of thousands of high school and university students in the U.S. who, through two organizations—Invisible Children and Resolve—launched a massive lobbying campaign. In response, the U.S. Congress last spring called for the Obama administration to develop a plan to deal with the LRA scourge. Just this past November, a special task force announced a plan of action.
But so far, it is just a plan, long on promises, short on funding and action.
And now it’s Christmas again.
Members of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army are seen in this photo from 2006.