Brig. Gen. Chefe Ali, army commander of the north, held his gleaming cavalry sword high as he mounted his steed--in this case, the back of a bicycle pedaled by an aide--and charged off into the bush here last week to inspect the depredations of Africa’s latest nightmare.
For two hours, terrified villagers told Ali of atrocities and attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a fanatic Christian fundamentalist cult led by a self-proclaimed prophet with a murderous manner.
Okeya Santo recounted how the rebels shouted, “Teachers come out!” when they came to his hamlet late last year.
When the 32-year-old schoolteacher emerged from his hut, they shot him in the chest and both arms. “I said, ‘You are killing me for no reason,’ ” Santo recalled, his right arm now amputated at the elbow. “They said: ‘You are a teacher. We don’t want teachers.’ ”
On March 22, the guerrillas returned. This time they burned 17 thatch-roofed huts and the local school. Four villagers stepped on land mines left by the retreating rebels: One was killed, and three lost limbs.
In Topiny Marinus’ charred hut, someone left a message scratched on the mud bricks: “This war will not end.”
That much is clear. Since stepping up their attacks in early February, members of the Lord’s Resistance Army have killed at least 250 people, mostly civilians, and abducted hundreds more in this Central African nation. They say their goal is to topple the government of President Yoweri Museveni and to install a regime dedicated to enforcing the Bible’s Ten Commandments.
Brutal and bizarre insurgencies are hardly new in Africa, where rebels without a coherent ideology have laid waste to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Somalia and other nations in recent years. Civil wars and military demobilizations have left others flush with guns and unemployment, while soldiers have turned to banditry from Zaire to Nigeria.
Some governments, of course, have been even worse. Here in Uganda, hundreds of thousands of people were tortured, imprisoned and killed during nearly two decades of rule by dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote.
Museveni has led his long-suffering country into the modern world since he seized power in 1986. The economy is now the fastest-growing in Africa, the press is free and presidential elections are scheduled for May. Foreign donors and investors have poured in more than $1 billion in hopes that Uganda’s long years of tyranny and terror are finally over.
But Uganda’s progress, at least in the north, is now held hostage by a former Roman Catholic altar boy named Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.
“They kidnap, they kill, they rape and they maim,” said a senior Western diplomat in Kampala, the capital. “They’re like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse when they come in.”
Government officials compare Kony’s brutality to that of Pol Pot’s savage Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and his zealotry to a now-dead American. “We call him Africa’s David Koresh,” said Maj. Kale Kayihura, the army’s political commissar, referring to the leader of the ill-fated Branch Davidian cult.
Kony’s LRA is an outgrowth of the Holy Spirit Movement, a Christian cult that ravaged northern Uganda in the late 1980s. It was led by Alice Lakwena--a nom de guerre that means “messiah"--who claimed she was possessed by the angry spirit of a long-dead 95-year-old Italian soldier.
Kony, reportedly Lakwena’s cousin, emerged as her successor after she went into exile in 1988. He too claimed he was controlled by spirits. But backed by officers once loyal to Obote, Kony soon eclipsed his mentor, at least in terms of cruelty and sheer bizarreness.
At first, his troops routinely sliced the lips, ears or arms off their victims. Later, anyone seen riding a bicycle or owning white chickens was slain. These days, the owners of white pigs are killed.
Kony said he cut off lips to stop people from reporting his whereabouts. Similarly, in an area without phones or cars, he targeted bicycles to stop riders from warning authorities. And chickens?
“White chickens are allegations,” scoffed Walter Lutkang, a former LRA guerrilla captured by the military. “What he doesn’t like is pigs. Pigs are ghosts.”
In a world where superstition is a large part of reality, such tactics barely raise an eyebrow. But others do.
The army says, for example, that Kony’s men cut up a teacher in Kococh village in 1991 and cooked his remains in a saucepan. “They said the children should eat him,” Ali said. “But [the children] said, ‘No, kill us first.’ ”
A grainy video shot in January 1994, when Kony met a Ugandan official for unsuccessful peace talks, shows a tall, thin man in his early 30s with huge aviator sunglasses and gaily beaded braids that dangle to his shoulders. His voice, bellowing through a bullhorn held by armed bodyguards, is mesmerizing.
Betty Bigombe, a state minister who met Kony six times in those talks, says he can barely write his name. But she doesn’t underestimate his power. “He controls the minds of his followers,” she said.
By all accounts, Kony was an altar boy and catechist as a youth. Later, he became a traditional healer. It’s a potent mix: Today he claims he talks to God and has his troops smear a local nut oil on their chests in the shape of a cross to protect them from bullets.
Kony delivers bitter prophecies in daylong sermons, sometimes shaking and speaking in tongues. His chief lieutenant is called Hitler. And Kony sometimes wears women’s dresses, perhaps as a disguise. He has 32 wives.
Deserters and escapees from Kony’s press-ganged army say Kony abducts young women and forces them to marry LRA soldiers. “He wants a new generation of his followers,” said one. “That’s why he marries [off] all the girls.”
Agnes Oroma, 20 and shy, said she was ordered to marry an LRA captain after she was kidnapped from Pabo village in June. With 450 other captives, she was forced to march for days across the desolate wilderness to an LRA base camp in Sudan--whose Islamic fundamentalist regime reportedly provides arms and support to Kony and his troops.
“They said I was to be trained as a soldier,” she said softly. “They said we should fight to spread the word of God.”
Anyone who tried to escape was killed, Oroma said. Religion pervaded military life. “To salute, we say, ‘Praise the Lord,’ ” she said.
Oroma hiked back to Uganda on Feb. 28 as part of the LRA’s new offensive. She decided to run away when her husband beat her for refusing to carry his assault rifle as well as her own.
“Men don’t carry anything,” she complained. As for Kony, she said, “he doesn’t fight himself.”
Oroma and about 85 other former abductees are now interned at a Ugandan army base in Gulu, the provincial capital. Also at the base are hundreds of sets of Sudanese fatigues, assault rifles, machine guns, grenades, bazookas, land mines and other ordnance that the army says it captured from the LRA.
For now, the estimated 400 to 800 guerrillas in the LRA are unlikely to rout the government in Kampala. About 20,000 soldiers, or half the army, have been sent to stop them. New helicopters and night-vision equipment are expected and should aid their task.
But the battle is not going well. On March 8, the LRA machine-gunned and burned a 17-vehicle convoy of civilian cars and buses. The military says 22 people were killed; survivors insist that more than 100 died.
“The soldiers escorting us in front, they just ran off on foot without firing,” bus driver Yaya Bilali, 58, said bitterly from his hospital bed. He was shot in the buttocks and leg as he tried to follow, and then was relieved of his watch by an LRA guerrilla who found him bleeding in the bush.
In a similar attack last week, the LRA ambushed a truck in northern Uganda, killing all 15 people inside, newspapers reported Sunday.
On March 13, the rebels fired a mortar at St. Mary’s hospital, the nation’s second largest, outside Gulu, and set land mines by the entrance that killed one woman and wounded two others.
“This is basically a child army that is terrorizing the people,” said Dr. Matthew Lukwiya, deputy medical superintendent. He complains that the army has “no sense of urgency” because only civilians are attacked.
That might change. Tuesday night, a large LRA force attacked an army outpost for the first time, wounding three soldiers. In an apparent escalation Friday, the rebels attacked a key northern military barracks and destroyed at least 90 civilian homes, the army said. No military or civilian casualties were reported.
Ali, the bicycle-riding army commander, insists he is making progress. But he is frustrated. The rebels run rather than fight, he complains. They attack at night, when helicopters are useless. And they strike where least expected.
“We have been working a long time without achieving very much,” he added sadly.