Rumour and reputation
The reputation of rebel group The Lord’s Resistance Army has been shrouded in mystery and rumour. Since the late 1980s the group from northern Uganda has been known for its abductions, amputations, rape and killings. The LRA has sustained an armed rebellion for 24 years, operating not only in Uganda, but in areas of Sudan, DR Congo and Central African Republic, led by the elusive Joseph Kony. The group has become notorious for the large numbers of children it has abducted and forced to train as fighters. In 2005 the ICC issued warrants for Kony and his top commanders. The United States is supporting a military campaign against the LRA. Yet the group continues to commit atrocities, and confusion still pervades: who exactly are the LRA and what do they do? At last there is a comprehensive book which begins to give an answer.
A definitive work on the LRA.
The publication of The Lord’s Resistance Army offers an authoritative analysis of the notorious group, offering clarity where there was previously only limited and sketchy information. For several years I have tried to find clear information on the group, seeking more than vague rumours and impressions. This is the first source I have found that provides a comprehensive examination of the LRA. “This masterful, long-awaited and much-needed book”, explains Nana Poku, “transcends political agendas and uninformed stereotyping”.
The editors, Allen and Vlassenroot, start with an introduction providing “an uncontroversial narrative” of the group’s history. It is well worth reading this introductory history, which outlines the circumstances leading to the creation of the LRA, and the context from which Joseph Kony emerged as a leader. It presents the links between the LRA and Alice Auma’s The Holy Spirit Movement, explains military attacks against the group such as Operation Iron Fist and Operation Lightening Thunder, and describes the shift the LRA has made from northern Uganda into areas of Sudan, DR Congo and Central African Republic.
The publication is then divided into chapters by different contributors, to present a variety of perspectives. The collection accommodates contrasting viewpoints, ensuring that the complexities of the LRA are explored and the shallow stereotypes maintained by the media are undermined.
The book presents a discussion which airs the views not only of academics and journalists, but also of rebel leaders, local leaders and those involved with NGOs and the UN: the strength of the publication is its diverse breadth. However, this breadth does not compromise the depth of the detailed studies by both international and local experts. It is significant that the book offers an insider’s perspective, rather than merely presenting an interpretation imposed by Western spectators.
The content covers interpretations of Uganda’s war in the north, including the roots of the violence and the LRA’s spiritual order, whilst also looking at the theme of peace and justice, which includes the ICC’s investigation, for example. But the section of the book that I want to focus on is the “Experiencing the LRA” section: a series of five chapters which includes a firsthand account of meeting Joseph Kony as well as the resulting interview. It also incorporates research on abductees, the challenges faced by ex-rebels and the perspective of a local leader.
Chasing the Kony story
This is the most interesting part of the book, made up of two chapters. I have never before managed to track down an account which tries to accommodate an insider’s view on the LRA, I’ve only ever been shown an external viewpoint. The first chapter is the narrative of a woman called Mareike Schomerus, who explains her experience of meeting Kony and senior LRA commanders. The second chapter is constructed from extracts of the resulting interview with Kony, whose surname translates as ‘help’ – somewhat of a paradox. Schomerus’ account disbands speculative rumours about the rebels, and instead of vague impressions it presents specific details.
It is shocking just how human Joseph Kony and his rebel leaders come across. Schomerus challenges the arguably colonial discourse which has surrounded the LRA – the discourse which contrasts “the rational and bemused gaze of the Western commentator” with barbarism in the bush, where a “drugged out street gang”, as one source described them, is led by a primitive psychopath. Schomerus reveals some surprising findings. It turns out the LRA is the only African rebel force known to shun drugs and alcohol, for example. Rebels “warmly met [Schomerus and the group she was part of] with cheers and smiles”, kept them well fed and were seen studying from books they had in the bush. When the delegation expecting to meet Kony were in South Sudan awaiting further instructions, one LRA soldier moved out of his container to allow Schomerus some privacy as the only woman. The group is presented as a highly organised body, which rationally defended its actions. It is this rationality and humanity, rather than hype and rumour, which makes the actions of the LRA most terrifying.
Schomerus was acutely aware that this was Kony’s first attempt to communicate his point of view through the international media. Kony himself argues that, “you cannot say that Mr Joseph is guilty without hearing anything from [me...]”, maintaining the ICC can only pass judgement after hearing his version of events: “they only hear from Museveni side, from my side they did not hear any things”. Schomerus was left seething after a journalist who joined her chose to report the story in The Times from a first person narrative that upheld simplistic media stereotypes of the LRA, rather than rationally contextualising the complexities and airing the views of the LRA leadership.
Kony told Schomerus “the reason why we are fighting [is] because Museveni is a dictator”. “I am a military position who [...] is fighting for freedom in Uganda [...] We want people to be a total democracy”. He went on to assert a belief that Museveni had killed and destroyed homes in northern Uganda, and that the LRA was fighting for the right cause. He also denied that the LRA killed or mutilated civilians.
Schomerus reports that Kony gave a long speech “saying that he was ready for peace – but if that was not going to work he was also ready to go to total war and arm every child in Uganda”. At one point the LRA delegation tried to get hold of Kofi Annan’s phone number to try and engage direct UN support, as they negotiated peace talks with Riek Machar, the vice-president of the Government of Southern Sudan, who was acting as a peace mediator.
It is well known that many abductees were victim to horrific atrocities, such as being used as combat or sex slaves, yet “we have little sense of what experiences are exceptional and which are the rule”. Blattman and Annan’s chapter seeks “to provide a sense of proportion to abduction experiences”. The contributors suggests that the scale of abduction has been underestimated, (they put forward a figure of at least 66,000 in Uganda alone),but that the abduction of young children is “less common than often feared”. The chapter also states that psychological trauma and social dislocation have been overestimated, whilst the economic and educational consequences have been underestimated.
This chapter offers an array of statistics and graphs on violence experienced and committed, identification with the LRA and privileges granted to soldiers in the rebel group. It contains some unexpected statistics. For example, according to the authors’ survey work, four out of five abducted youths return. They also verify some figures that have been widely circulated as popular wisdom. For example, the authors found the often cited claim that 80% of the LRA is made up of abducted children, is only a mild overstatement.
Blattman and Annan give insight to part of the rebel mindset, outlining, for example, that the group use “disorientation, the threat of violence and political propaganda”. It also highlights specific tactics used during abduction, such as the following: “the first day’s march would often deliberately backtrack, move in circles and disorientate the abductees”.
Between two worlds
Ben Mergelsberg devotes a chapter to former LRA soldiers in northern Uganda, following six months of fieldwork he did in the area. The writer acknowledges the vulnerability of new LRA abductees, asserting that new recruits “were killed if they tried to escape, were not able to walk any longer or refused an order”. However, he also challenges a discourse that is “dominated by ideas of an innocent and victimised ‘child soldier’”, part of the set of ideas most often presented by Western NGOs and media. Mergelsberg highlights how some of his informants began to identify with the LRA during their time in the bush. For example, former soldiers told him that “the rules strengthened me a lot”, and that “this abduction was not something bad, because that is a way of recruiting”. One even admitted “I thought of the war and was proud because I thought for a long time that I was fighting for the people to overthrow the government”.
Due to immersion and a strong sense of group identity, Mergelsberg suggests that after abduction, a new moral space gradually emerged for each recruit, which worked to justify the LRA’s actions to abductees. As in previous chapters, the writer confronts the stereotype of the LRA as savage, instinctive monsters, instead presenting the chilling idea that the rebels’ actions are calculated and structured: “life with the LRA in my informants’ accounts was a time of order and discipline, strict rules and harsh sanctions”. Mergelsberg draws attention to the difficulty of the transition between the two worlds of soldier and civilian.
An exported war
Allen and Vlassenroot’s book contains a wealth of further information. It touches on peace talks, amnesty, the children forced to become “night commuters”, and questions such as where exactly does the group’s funding come from?
The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality is a collection of authoritative and contrasting viewpoints on the complex issues surrounding the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army. Whilst the publication begins to expel myth and outline reality, the complexities of the group are so intricate that the book can only be seen as the beginning of a new discourse for a war that has now been exported beyond Uganda’s borders.