Putting the stories in context
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), operated in northern Uganda between 1987 and 2006, before fleeing to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) – where they remain at large today.
Spreading terror throughout the local population, particularly in the remote rural areas around Gulu and Kitgum, they claimed that they were fighting to overthrow the government of Uganda.
Unable to recruit soldiers voluntarily after a time, they used force and brutality instead, abducting children between the ages of 10 and 14 because they were considered easier to control.
They were also used as frontline soldiers: to confuse the enemy and because they were easily expendable. Many were forced to kill their own parents to ensure that they had no home to return to. The fear of death meant most were too scared to escape, with individual child soldiers regularly murdered in front of their peers to act as gruesome warnings to any who dared to try.
At the height of their power, the LRA abducted at least 20,000 children in northern Uganda and displaced more than 1.9 million, forcing them to flee their homes, to resettle in remote internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, or ‘protected villages’, where many subsequently died of cholera and other treatable diseases.
Ironically, LRA leader Joseph Kony claimed to be a messenger from God and pursued his vision of an entirely new state based upon his twisted interpretation of the Ten Commandments combined with local Acholi traditions.
The LRA enforced their own rules to control the population and prevent civilians from collaborating with government forces. Villagers were not allowed to keep animals such as poultry or dogs, as they made too much noise when the rebels approached. Bicycles were forbidden as it was thought these would be used to alert the enemy. The colour red was also not permitted as it was clearly visible to government helicopters.
Those who broke these ‘commandments’ were punished by the hacking away of lips, ears, noses, hands and feet, using pangas (machetes), knives and scissors.
This grisly calling card strengthened the LRA’s control and deterred the population from informing government forces about the LRA's location or strategy.
Norman Okello was abducted when he was just 12. Still only a child, he was brainwashed by the LRA and forced to kill and maim his own Acholi people in northern Uganda.
‘When you are abducted you have no choice. You either choose to die or to live. You have either to obey or to disobey and you die. You definitely have to kill if they tell you to kill. I have learnt how to survive in a difficult situation. I have learned how human beings are weak and I have also learned you can do anything when somebody is forcing you.’
Dorina Adjero’s husband, Luzy, 41, and youngest son, Ben, 20, were bludgeoned to death with wooden posts in an LRA attack on their village in December 1991.
‘I don’t remember the rebels’ faces but I know that there were many of them, and there were some very young, very thin boys with them. Their faces seemed blank; they were like spirits living in another world,’ Dorina says.
‘The rebels sang while they killed my family; one even smiled at me. They seemed to enjoy what they were doing. I am still scared, even though Kony isn’t here anymore. I believe he is possessed by evil spirits. He is a monster.’
Geoffrey Okello’s younger sister was brutally killed by Ugandan Army soldiers who attacked the family’s village while looking for members of the LRA. Then aged just five, Geoffrey awoke one morning to the sound of gunshots, screaming and shouting. He had no idea what was happening until it was too late.
‘We found dead bodies everywhere. The first body I identified was that of my sister. She was lying on the road and her head had been smashed in at the back. We have never had any condolences from the Ugandan government.’
In December 1991, when returning home after spending the night in the bush to avoid LRA attacks, Neckolina’s family encountered a group of rebels lying in wait on the road to their village.
‘The rebels wore combats and welding aprons. They carried big sticks in their hands, which they used to beat us. Among them were some very young children – between 6 and 15 years old. They looked crazy in their eyes,’ Nekolina says.
‘One man beat my father-in-law and three sons to death while I was forced to watch. Then they started on me. They were jubilant and laughing. I was beaten unconscious and when I woke up, maybe two or three hours later, my three children and in-laws were lying dead next to me.’
‘I am getting old and I might not live much longer to tell my story to others and I feel that it’s important to tell it publicly so that there is a permanent document of what happened here.’
Martin Olanya, 72, was at hospital with his youngest daughter when a 30-strong rebel group struck his village.
‘The LRA slaughtered 17 members of my family in one afternoon. I want the terrible acts that were committed here never to be forgotten.
‘We found many bodies piled up – including four newborn babies among the corpses. They had all been hit on the back of the head. More than 40 children were taken by the LRA that day.
‘Even now I still feel a lot of anger. Maybe it is just too much to see the faces of returned child soldiers when your heart and mind are not yet mended.
‘It helps for someone to listen – that way our family members are not forgotten.’
Magdalena and Dorina
Sheltering two young children, Magdelena watched helplessly as rebels abducted her teenage son. He has still not returned from the bush.
‘After we heard about mass killings to the east, I was already in our normal hiding place when the LRA attacked. But when my son heard them coming, and the screams and shouts, he panicked and ran across the road to join us,’ Dorina says.
‘I actually saw them catch him by his arms and beat him very hard at the foot of the hill where I was hiding. Then they tied him up with rope and took him away with them. I couldn’t make any noise, or even cry out to warn him.
‘I am sharing my story to help me to forget it – it relieves me of the pain I’ve been going through. In our community we have always consoled and talked to each other but then we try to move on with life.’
Deo Komakech is a ‘massacre scoper’ with the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre (NMPDC) in northern Uganda. His team’s extensive research and precise mapping of atrocities committed by the LRA and the government of Uganda is helping to capture the lost voices of those caught up in the terror, and contributing to the long healing process for the survivors that the LRA left in its wake.
For more in-depth information please visit Christian Aid’s In Kony’s Shadow website which examines the legacies of the conflict from the perspective of both child soldiers and civilians, as well as the work of the NMPDC.