Kony’s War: Part Three

1 Apr

                                                                                                                                                                                   http://save the children.org

If you listen carefully to the barely audible voices engaged in nervous conversations throughout Limayi, Haut-U`ele district in the northeast region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) these days, you are bound to hear the words, “les spiritueaux gris” whispered in the Congolese French spoken by the citizens of the DRC. “Ou sont les spiritueaux gris?” is a question bantered back and forth among villagers which roughly translated means, “Where are the grey spirits?” But there is far more to this question than the simplicity of the request implies. This is the special name given to the soldiers in Kony’s Lords Liberation Army. The villagers use this euphemism when referring to Kony and his troops rather than say his name or the name of his army out loud because they fear if they do, Kony will hear them even from afar and curse them causing their luck to “turn bad.” The people of the eastern Congo have been so traumatized by Kony’s relentless attacks and abductions that they have become obsessed with news of his whereabouts and rightly so. For several years once the heavy rains stopped and the land became somewhat passable Kony’s men have headed down from their larger camps in the Central African Republic ( CAR)  and Southern Sudan to the Haut-U`ele district to pillage and plunder the local villages for food, household goods, and clothing for their women and children. Then they abduct villagers as porters and young boys and girls as new recruits for their army. In December 2007 the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) officially reported that the LRA had killed around 2,000 people and abducted another 2,600 more just in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ( DRC) alone.

The villagers in this area have aptly chosen the name grey “spirit” or “ghost” to refer to these rebels based on their ability to rise up out of the morning mist without any observable movement or sound. The threat of never knowing when or if they will come torments the villagers most of all. Men and women who  have managed to escape from the LRA remark on how the soldiers suddenly appeared out of nowhere and describe how quickly they were moved along sometimes only feet away from armed Congolese or UN troops stationed in the immediate area. The choice of the term “spirit” is also a subtle reference to Kony’s skills as a juju man or witch doctor and confirms their belief in the power of East African voodoo. Most of the villagers will proudly relay stories about how Kony cast spells on his men so that they cannot be killed by bullets and about how each soldier can make himself invisible at will.. He is still regarded as a man/god by many especially by those he has harmed or abducted even though they are no longer with him. As evidence of his power people smugly attest to the fact that in over twenty –five years Kony has avoided being captured and that in the past decade he, himself  has not been sighted, not once, even though he has been hunted by larger and better equipped troops. In their minds, how else could one man and his small army evade the clutches of such superior forces including those from the great United States of America?

And they have a point.  In January 2006 eight Guatemalan soldiers serving with the United Nations Mission in the Congo were ambushed and killed by LRA troops. In December 2008 The LRA was attacked by the united efforts of the Ugandan, Congolese, and Sudanese forces along with American advisors near their headquarters in  Garamba National Park an area of savannahs and dense tropical forests located near the Sudan border. It was called “Project Lightning Thunder”. The military strike was not a success and no senior officers were captured. The LRA troops immediately retaliated.  They divided into smaller groups then fled into the bush but remained in the area until Christmas Eve when the people of the surrounding villages came together for their annual Christmas Eve celebrations. Reports have confirmed that the LRA believed that the villagers had told the Ugandan troops about the location of their headquarters and wanted to punish the villagers for their actions and terrorize them into keeping quiet about the LRA’s movements in the area. Several LRA groups launched similar surprise attacks on different villages only this time instead of guns they used clubs, machetes, and mallets. They literally hacked people to death and others they burned to death locking them within churches, community centers, and their own homes. It was reported that 800 men and women died as a result of this atrocity and that another 60 children were abducted. The LRA returned again in December of 2009 and committed more brutal murders. This time 300 villagers were killed in these attacks. By December of 2010 the government took measures to protect the residents of the villages in Haut-U`ele district as Christmas approached. This time the LRA moved its assault to the CAR and four days before Christmas near the village of Mboroko they killed 2 people, injured 4 adults, and abducted 50 children. These attacks have come to be known as the “Christmas Massacres.”

Since 2008 there had been a unified effort among United Nations, Congolese, Ugandan, and American forces but this has not been an easy assignment to coordinate.  It is a not a simple “seek and destroy” mission. There are also political complexities that prevent the armies from pursuing Kony as persistently as they are prepared to do. These forces are dealing with a range of problems from their ability to instantaneously cross borders to the protocol required for notification of government officials.. These troops must move between three countries in order to catch the LRA but even though the three countries have been cooperative in the past they still require the troops to formally apply for permission to cross through different borders.

The tentative conditions imposed by the three countries are based on past relationships with one another and the country of Uganda. There is a history of distrust among each of these countries especially between the DRC and Uganda. Uganda and Rwanda invaded the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1996 and then again in 1998 in order to help themselves to the rich mineral resources there. Nearly six million people in the eastern region of the DRC were killed as a result of this conflict. In 2005 the International Court in The Hague, Netherlands ordered Uganda to compensate the DRC for human rights abuse and for plundering their natural resources. Although a sum of 10 million dollars was quoted by the international press Uganda has yet to hand over any money to the DRC. Many citizens of the Congo are wary of allowing Ugandan troops to settle in their country. They remember a time when Ugandan troops were not thought of as” good” guys but as marauders who killed anyone who opposed them. But most admit that in order to stop Kony the Ugandan troops are their best bet. And the Ugandan troops that have entered the Congo beginning in 2006 have performed their duties with honor and dignity this time around. This is a new, more professional army better equipped and far more organized than the Congolese army. But old memories die hard and in November 2011, the Ugandan troops were asked to leave the DRC by President Joseph Kabila although he subsequently allowed them to return.  

According to US Deputy Secretary for African Affairs Karl Wycoff, the United States has given more than 25 million dollars in logistical supplies and intelligence support to the Uganda army since 2008. The latest tactical supplies will come in the form of spy planes, US C-12 reconnaissance aircraft codenamed Tusker –Sand and high frequency radios. In February 2011 the Ugandan troops assigned to the DRC left their base of operations and returned to the capital city of Uganda, Kampala in order to assist with security during the general elections that were being held there.  They have since returned. Some of the United Nations troops left the DRC as well and were redeployed to the country of Somalia to deal with the excessive violence there caused by the massive drought and the killing of civilians by African Union troops.  But the effort to catch Kony and his army although weakened for a time has been renewed. In March 23, 2012 the African Union announced that it would send 5,000 soldiers to continue the hunt for Kony and his senior officers. This operation will be launched from South Sudan.

By all accounts Kony has a small core group of 100 committed soldiers left out of an army of about 300 but it is that small core group that he relies on the most because they are intensely loyal to him. We may object to his methods, abducting young boys into his army but many of these same boys chose to remain with him and have grown into remarkable guerilla strategists. His army has more than proven that it is superior in employing a diverse range of guerilla tactics so much so that as an entire group, it has avoided capture for many years. Although many of his major officers are dead he has managed to replace them and also leads a fairly large secondary force composed of wives, young children, and camp followers. There have been no mass surrenders among his troops after major battles. Kony has managed to build a highly organized army capable of dispersing and reorganizing while on the move. His bush soldiers have learned to migrate between three different borders, strike fast, and move through a region about the size of California. They have come to know every inch of this terrain intimately and can move purposefully under dire circumstances such as intense heat, the highest humidity, or torrential rain.

Kony’s methods may be vicious and atrocious but they are not exceptional. East African tribal systems are still very much intact although now they have access to twenty-first century technology and tools. Making war, abducting children, taking prisoners as slaves, the dismemberment of body parts, and mutilations are not new occurrences in the history of East or Central African tribes. What is new in the development of tribal warfare though, is the use of automatic weapons and a myriad of electronic devices that have allowed these tribes to war against each other much more effectively and to inflict a greater level of damage than ever before. Kony has added  his own version of emotional cruelty by waging a mental war of terror and submission on the common people living around him in order to steal their food and abduct their children.

During the course of his war Kony has lost many of his initial senior officers and chief advisors. It has been reported that Kony had Vincent Otti assassinated because he feared that Otti, a very popular LRA leader, who was helping to negotiate the Juba Peace Talks, would convince Kony’s soldiers to surrender. Rasha Lukwiya was killed by Ugandan troops in 2006. By 2009 it was reported by  Ugandan troops that one to two mid to senior level LRA commanders were being captured or killed each month. In January 2010 Bok Abudema, a senior commander was killed in a skirmish with local CAR troops.

Then in March of 2011 things dramatically changed- the LRA were on the offensive again. They intensified their attacks in the northeastern region of the Congo. It became evident that Kony had found a way to access large amounts of money once more and had purchased more technologically advanced weapons and supplies from international arms dealers.-the same ones who equipped the Congolese warlords and other rebel groups in the Congo. Abductees who had successfully escaped attested to the fact that his soldiers now carried recoilless rifles, mortars, rocket propelled grenades, VHF radios, and satellite phones. Kony had even purchased new uniforms for his troops which was a sign that Kony had more than an ample supply of funds. Had he found a way to tap into the minerals found in the eastern region and had he found buyers for these materials on the world market? The DRC has a wealth of minerals especially deposits of gold, diamonds, coltan, copper, cobalt, uranium, and tin. The fight for these valuable resources is now known as the “Congo Conflict”.   

During January and February of 2011 the LRA began robbing and killing merchants traveling from DRC to the CAR to sell their wares. Several skirmishes ensued with the Congolese army but only after many merchants had been robbed and killed by the lRA. In March 2011 the LRA attacked Congolese soldiers in Banda near the border of DRC and the CAR. Three Congolese soldiers and five LRA were killed during this battle.

Kony’s troops operate in some of the most difficult mountainous regions imaginable as they climb steep mountain passes and encounter few passable roads during their missions. They sleep and eat in the bush much the same way their Acholi ancestors did. They eat what they can find around them or on what they are able to steal from local villages and fields.. Despite their motivation and brutality Kony’s troops fight well and they fight with conviction.  They are a nimble, ruthless, an elusive bunch. No matter what his power over them he could not make them fight as intensely as they did unless they were personally committed to his cause. The reason these soldiers continue to fight is not known but it must be something intensely meaningful for them to risk life and limb and that of their families as they have done for so long. The Ugandan boys he took into the bush with him are now grown men who could have deserted long ago but enough of them stayed behind that it should make us wonder. Why do they continue on without any modern comforts or medical care? Is there nothing for them back in northern Uganda? Is there no longer any way to live the life of an Acholi warrior in Gulu and the surrounding districts? Understanding the reasons why these young men fight and proposing resolutions that they will accept is the real key to ending Kony’s Acholi war because if we don’t, it will only be a matter of time before another civil war in the north takes its place.

But wait! The ideology behind Kony’s war has changed dramatically in the past six years. He is no longer fighting for freedom for the Acholi people or for the birth of a new Uganda. His die-hard Ugandan soldiers do not seem to be as committed to this new and improved version of “Konyism” and have been defecting at a higher rate than ever before. He currently fills his army with young boys and girls from the DRC, the CAR, and Southern Sudan. What is it he preaches to them now or has he resorted to using the same psychological terror tactics on them that he continues to use on the villagers? What is it that he fights for now? This stopped being a Ugandan Civil War when he left in 2006- he has not attacked a Ugandan village since nor been sighted in the area. Somewhere in his move from Uganda into the DRC he stopped acting like a patriot and morphed into the terrorist many believed he had been all along.  

It is now March, 2012 and the dry season has commenced.  The LRA has consistently carried out strikes on the residents of Lamayi this time of year. The villagers are terrified that the LRA are on their way to the village. Many of the residents refuse to tend the fields located the furthest distance from the village because of this threat. This means that the villagers will have less food to eat during the rest of the year but no one cares about that problem at the moment. Five women and an elderly gentleman come together at the end of a narrow, dirt lane. The tallest of the sisters looks over her shoulder briefly then turns back to face her neighbors once again. Her movements cause the group to huddle closer together prompting the old man to ask in a hushed whisper, “Ou sont les spiritueaux gris?” 

Kat Nickerson,         Kingston,      RI         USA

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