The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)

Renewed fighting, killings and abductions by rebels in northern Uganda has forced 10,000 more children to spend their nights on the streets of major towns in the region, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said in a report.

The agency said the new ‘night commuters’ – the name for children who trek nightly to the relative safety of urban centers because of the threat of attacks and abductions by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) joined another 30,000 who already had been sleeping on the streets, under shop verandas and in bus parks.

The Group

Uganda Map
Uganda Map

In 1987, Joseph Kony started a movement to overthrow the government of Uganda. The movement came to be known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Children are abducted and forced to serve as child soldiers. Civilians are terrorized in attacks by the LRA.

If individuals are suspected of sympathizing with the government, the LRA uses brutal tactics such as cutting off of hands, ears or lips, to intimidate them.

Kony creates his army primarily through the violent abduction and forced enlistment of children. Children are used as soldiers, laborers and, in the case of girls, sexual slaves. More than 20,000 children have been kidnapped by the LRA.

The United Nations estimates that more than 1.6 million people have been forced from their homes, into displacement camps.

These people are unable to farm due to war and international food assistance is inadequate. Illness is rampant because the country is too insecure for humanitarian aid agencies or the Ugandan government to provide regular health services.

To make matters worse, the LRA attacks displacement camps to abduct children. Because the camps are not secure, parents often feel that they have no other choice but to send their children to walk (‘commute’) for several miles to the nearest town, where it may be safer.

It is estimated that every night, more than 50,000 children travel to seek safety. On their journey, the children sleep out in the open, unprotected from the LRA or others who want to kidnap them.


Background of the Conflict in Northern Uganda

The current conflict in northern Uganda has its immediate roots in the troubled times after Ugandan independence in 1962, when military groups of different ethnic and ideological composition aspired to and often succeeded in overthrowing a succession of Ugandan governments. Colonial preference to development of the southern regions and neglect of the north led to an economic imbalance and hence to higher rates of military service by northern populations in the volunteer army. No ethnic group is in the majority in Uganda’s 24.6 million population; they inhabit an area of 242,554 square kilometers, a dense population for an African country with an agricultural economy. The first prime minister, Milton Obote, was ousted by his army commander, Colonel Idi Amin, in 1971. Within Amin’s army, his kinsmen from the West Nile (northwest) region began killing Langi and Acholi soldiers. Amin was overthrown by rebel Ugandan soldiers and the invading army of Tanzania in 1979. Contested national elections were held and Milton Obote returned to power in 1980. As was the case under the first rule of Obote, the national army, then known as the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), drew heavily from the impoverished northern Ugandan Acholi population.

In part because of the election fraud that brought Obote back to power, Yoweri Museveni created the National Resistance Army (NRA) and Movement in 1980 that took up arms to overthrow the government. The NRA took up positions and bases in the area known as the Luwero triangle to the north of the capital, Kampala. In an effort to crush local support of the NRA, the UNLA (including its Acholi soldiers) committed gross human rights violations, in this area, including the mass killing of thousands of civilians, the looting of property and goods, and the destruction of government buildings and homes; the UNLA sustained heavy casualties itself. Many Acholi believe that, dating from these events, the incumbent (1986-present) government of Yoweri Museveni has written the Acholi and their northern region off, which the government denies.

Child Soldiers of LRA in Northern Uganda.
Child Soldiers of LRA in Northern Uganda.

Obote was overthrown by the army again, this time by Acholi officers in the UNLA led by Tito Okello Lutwa and Basilio Okello. They took control of the government in July 1985. Shortly thereafter, the NRA captured Kampala in January 1986 and overthrew the UNLA.

When the NRA came to power, remnants of the UNLA Okello forces fled into their Acholi homeland in northern Uganda and formed the Ugandan People’s Democratic Army (UPDA). Despite the NRA’s taking power, Uganda continued to generate more armed rebel movements. In 1985, Alice Lakwena (Auma), an Acholi of northern Uganda, formed the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM). She declared that she had been given spiritual powers by the spirit Lakwena (meaning messenger in Acholi) to cleanse the Acholi of their ‘sins,’ including human rights abuses committed by Acholi government soldiers in the war against the rebel NRA. In 1986 the spirit Lakwena allegedly directed her to engage in combat to protect the Acholi from the NRA government. Her Acholi armed movement was defeated in late 1986 and she and a few followers fled to Kenya.

In April 1987, Joseph Kony, a school dropout, claimed to have inherited the spiritual powers of Lakwena from Alice, and started his own movement. He was armed, as Alice had been, by the mostly Acholi rebel group the UPDA. His military force, first called the Lord’s [Salvation] Army and later the United [Salvation] Christian Army, became the Lord’s Resistance Army in 1994. In June 1988 a peace accord was signed between the UPDA and the NRA government, and some UPDA troops laid down their arms and were integrated into the NRA. Thus even today there are Acholi officers and soldiers in the Ugandan government army fighting the Acholi in the LRA.

The LRA has been assisted by the Sudanese government since about 1994, in retaliation for the support that President Museveni gives to the Sudanese rebels, the SPLM/A. President Museveni claims that the Sudanese rebels receive political support only, but this is not accurate. In 1997, for example, the SPLM/A received the assistance of the UPDF, including troops, in its sweep from the Ugandan border north through Equatoria and Bahr El Ghazal. With the help of the UPDF and others, the SPLM/A captured many Sudanese army garrisons from Yei to Tonj towns, and took thousands of prisoners of war. Among the prisoners of war were at least one thousand members of the West Bank Nile Front, a Ugandan rebel group also supported by the Sudanese government. The West Bank Nile Front was effectively disbanded.

Whereas Lakwena mobilized volunteers into her army through charisma and initial military success, Kony drew his forces largely from abducted villagers, focusing on easily manipulated children. These abductees have been used as soldiers, porters, laborers, and in the case of girls, as sexual slaves. To terrorize Ugandans or because individuals were suspected of government sympathies, the LRA cut off the hands, ears or lips of many villagers in the early years of the rebellion-a practice returned to in 2003. When the deadly Ebola disease broke out in Gulu in 2000, the LRA pulled back into southern Sudan, and LRA raids within Uganda dropped off sharply.

The LRA has long had sanctuary at bases in the Eastern Equatoria region of Sudan, comprising several states. There were more than four armed forces with bases in that same area of Eastern Equatoria (south of Juba and Torit towns and east of the Nile): the Sudan government, its Equatorian Defence Forces militia (including Sudanese Acholi), the SPLM/A, and the LRA. For the most part from 2000 until 2002, these forces did not engage in a high level of armed conflict.

According to LRA captives, the LRA military camp in Lubanga-tek, Sudan, had more than three battalions, about 4,500 LRA troops in all, most of them abductees. Lubanga-tek was the main camp where LRA leader Joseph Kony was based. It was supplied directly by the Sudan government army. Former LRA captives say that, during their time in Sudan, their main activity was fighting against the SPLM/A inside southern Sudan.

In December 1999, the governments of Uganda and Sudan signed an agreement in Nairobi pledging that each would stop supporting the rebel forces of the other. The agreement was neither immediately nor completely honored. But rapprochement between the two countries was growing.

In late 2001, the U.S. State Department listed the LRA as a ‘terrorist organization.’ The Sudanese government, engaged in a diplomatic effort to end its estrangement from the U.S., reacted by distancing itself from the LRA. (It claimed that it had cut off all support for the LRA.)

Thereafter the LRA, fearing that its Sudanese protector would take action against it, began to relocate its bases, soldiers, and child soldiers into the remote Imatong Mountains to the east, on the border with Uganda and Kenya. The LRA was evidently experiencing food shortages, because it stepped up its raids against the villages of southern Sudan, including not only those ‘belonging’ to the SPLM/A, but also those villages belonging to the Sudanese government militia, the Equatorian Defense Force (EDF), which included Sudanese Acholi. Many Sudanese civilians were uprooted from their homes by LRA attacks, and their possessions were looted and in many cases burned.

The governments of Sudan, Uganda, and their allies discussed in 2001-02 how best to end the problem once and for all. ‘Surgical’ strikes focused on capturing the LRA leader Joseph Kony were discussed and discarded. The military plan finally approved was that the Sudanese government would permit the UPDF to enter Sudan for the purpose of wiping out the LRA. But the Sudanese government would not engage in any military action for that purpose, nor would it tolerate a UPDF-SPLM/A collaboration. It was wary that the UPDF would use the occasion of being in southern Sudan to re-supply and otherwise assist the SPLM/A in its fight against the Sudanese government. Uganda’s defence minister announced in early 2003 that it would not train SPLM/A soldiers to fight the Sudanese army-a statement that remains unclarified.

The UPDF launched Operation Iron Fist in March 2002 into southern Sudan, deploying as many as 10,000 troops. It overran several LRA camps southeast of Juba inside Sudan, in the triangle between the Nile and the Kit Rivers. Those camps included Lubanga-Tek (or Rubangatek), Odek, Benrot (Bin Rwot), Lalar, and Kampacho. Most of these camps had already been deserted.

Operation Iron Fist had a boomerang effect in that the LRA, instead of being wiped out, evaded the UPDF in Sudan and returned to northern Uganda in June 2002, with new equipment, uniforms, and training. It had eluded the UPDF in southern Sudan, possibly because it knew the terrain better than the UPDF and the UPDF was said to be suffering from both low morale and corruption due to its involvement in the war inside the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some southern Sudanese allege that the Sudanese government provided intelligence on the UPDF whereabouts to the LRA during this period, and that Sudanese civilians in the area, weary of LRA attacks and looting, alerted the UPDF to LRA whereabouts. On at least one occasion, according to these informants, the UPDF did not act on the information because it was outnumbered and outgunned.

Inside northern Uganda the LRA attacks, abductions, killings, burning and looting of villages and homes, and ambushes on vehicles escalated sharply in 2002. The LRA killed and injured hundreds of civilians who were in isolated villages, internally displaced persons camps, and Sudanese refugee camps-perhaps acting for the benefit of the Sudanese government in the attacks on the Sudanese camps, which the Sudanese government believed were harboring SPLA members and future rebel recruits. In addition the LRA attacked humanitarian relief convoys carrying food to northern Ugandans as well as other relief convoys transiting northern Uganda to internally displaced civilians inside southern Sudan. Inside Sudan the LRA continued to attack Sudanese villages, even those allied with the Sudanese government.

In October 2002, the Ugandan government gave its forty-eight hour ultimatum to northern Ugandans to move back to camps. The international NGOs who operated programs in northern Uganda warned that the continuation of the conflict was destroying the gains from prior years of rehabilitation during the relative quiet of 2001-02, and was forcing self-sufficient communities into dependency on aid.

In response to the increased military campaigns in northern Uganda, the ARLPI, traditional leaders from northern Uganda, northern political representatives, and others continued to be active in preparing the ground for peace negotiations.

Following ARPLI’s work as intermediaries carrying notes back and forth from the LRA to the government, the government appointed a peace team in late 2002. But one of the peace negotiators from the ARLPI noted that there was an enormous change in the LRA attitude towards negotiations between July and September 2002. Whereas in July 2002 there was a military stalemate and the LRA seemed to be interested in peace talks, by September the LRA had acquired new military equipment and was unwilling to negotiate seriously. In all, the three peak moments when the LRA expressed the wish for `peace talks’ through religious leaders were identified as July 10-21, 2002, August 21-30, 2002 and February-mid April 2003.

This change in LRA attitude in late August coincided with the SPLM/A capture of Torit (on the northern border of LRA activities in Sudan) on August 31, and LRA participation with the Sudanese army and government militias (including the EDF) in the recapture of Torit from the SPLM/A, in September and October 2002. Many sources, including representatives of the government militias that fought alongside the LRA and Sudanese government in the retaking of Torit, confirmed that the LRA was active in that Sudanese government offensive.

The Sudanese government put a high premium on the recapture of Torit from the SPLM/A. If the LRA had been cut off by the Sudanese government before, this relationship took on new and improved life after Torit was recaptured. Fr. Carlos Rodriguez, a Luo-speaking Comboni Catholic priest based in Uganda, in early June 2003 also noted reports of the LRA participation in retaking Torit, and other evidence of continued Sudanese government assistance to the LRAI have heard young men recently coming from rebel captivity in the Sudan telling stories of Sudanese Army officers delivering trucks of military aid to Kony. . . . Although at the beginning of the Iron Fist operation [March 2002] the LRA fought fiercely against the Sudanese Armed Forces, it seems that they tried to reconcile in July 2002. Eyewitnesses have told me of a meeting in Nisitu [southern Sudan] at that time in which Kony was delivered a good amount of military supplies.

In mid-June 2003, Defence State Minister Ruth Nankabirwa told the Ugandan Parliament that some members of the Sudanese army had reestablished links with the LRA and made arms deliveries, stopping short of attributing this to the Sudanese government. President Museveni himself earlier accused Ugandan opposition figures of fighting alongside the LRA in the north. He pointed to the Reform Agenda, an opposition group lead by former 2001 presidential candidate Kiiza Besigye, and specifically to James Opoka, a one-time top Besigye aide. The chief of Military Intelligence Col. Noble Mayombo and the Chief of the External Security Organization (ESO) David Pulkol accused Kiiza Besigye of directly supplying the LRA. Kiiza Besigye denied all allegations and said that he had no evidence of any LRA involvement of his former aide. (The Ugandan government has also accused Kiiza Besigye of being involved in another rebel movement, the Patriotic Redemption Army (PRA), said to be located in the southwest and associated with the Rwandan government, charges Besigye also denies.)

It is unclear from where the new supplies for the LRA might have come-if not from Sudan, its long-term supplier. The LRA claimed that it was supplied through capture of goods from the UPDF (or corruption), which was probably only partly true, as the LRA seemed to eyewitnesses to have better arms, communications equipment, and newer uniforms than did the UPDF.

Undoubtedly the LRA was in and out of Sudan even after it returned in force to northern Uganda in June 2002; former child abductees reported to UNICEF that in late 2002 the LRA took at least 500 children to Sudan. In early March 2003, LRA second-in-command Vincent Otti reportedly crossed from northern Uganda into southern Sudan with some 300 LRA fighters andcivilian abductees. A social worker who counsels LRA abducted and escaped child soldiers said that many children reported that the stronger boys were forced to march into Sudan in 2003 and porter back a large cache of arms. Other children reportedly said that the LRA boasted that it had stockpiled enough arms to last for five years.

Agencies based in northern Uganda and others reported airdrops by low-flying planes, possibly by the Sudanese armed forces, in northern Uganda in 2003. The planes were Antonovs, a make frequently used by the Sudanese government, and the planes came from the direction of Juba, Sudan and returned back after dropping, without landing. Further evidence of continuing Sudanese army involvement with the LRA came in the form of detailed interviews conducted in Luo, the Acholi language, with LRA senior returnee officers, according to the ARLPI. The Sudanese government denied all accusations.

LRA leader Joseph Kony announced a unilateral ceasefire on March 2, 2003. Ugandan President Museveni initially rejected the offer after some LRA forces continued to commit abuses and abducted civilians in breach of the ceasefire. However, a few days later, President Museveni called for a limited ceasefire with the LRA for the areas in which the LRA should assemble to hold peace talks with the government-appointed peace team, headed by his younger brother Lt. Gen. Salim Saleh.

Northern Uganda (Reuters/Hudson Apunyo)
An Ugandan child prepares to sleep in an improvised shelter on a street in Lira town, northern Uganda, May 25, 2005.

On March 9, 2003, James Opoka, the former aide to Kiiza Besigye, was reportedly executed with nine other ex-Reform Agenda members on the orders of Joseph Kony. According to news reports, Kony suspected them of establishing a political wing inside the LRA without Kony’s consent.

After giving several deadlines for the end of Operation Iron Fist, President Museveni announced in February 2003 that the war might have to last longer, noting that even the U.S. cannot always find the individual it is pursuing. In late February 2003, the Sudanese government agreed to extend the existing protocol for UPDF operations in southern Sudan until May 31, 2003, and continues to extend it.

In late March, President Museveni announced that Uganda needed to spend more on defence. He stressed that the war in the north had been going on for a long time because ‘we do not have good military equipment.’ Indeed, the defence budget was increased some 20 percent for the year July 2002-June 2003 above what was planned, diverting money from planned social expenditures. Following discussions with the government in which the donor group expressed its dissatisfaction at the defence overrun and reduction in social spending, the group reduced its funding of Uganda’s budget by 20 percent.

On April 18, 2003, the Presidential Peace Team revoked the limited ceasefire and resumed open warfare with the LRA. This marked the end of the ARLPI contacts with the leadership of the LRA, and peace talks in general, as the violence continued to intensify in northern Uganda. In June 2003, the LRA opened up the war on new fronts: it threatened the Catholic Church clergy, ordering that ‘`Catholic missions must be destroyed, priests and missionaries killed in cold blood and nuns beaten black and blue.” It attacked a Catholic mission in eastern Uganda-also signaling its willingness to expand the war beyond northern Uganda.

Source: Human Rights Watch

Fear of the Dark in Northern Uganda

Help by the UN
I’m not Afraid of the Dark

The long-running conflict in northern Uganda is one of extreme brutality and callousness. Characterised as one of the world’s ‘forgotten crises’ by the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, it has recently escalated to engulf huge swathes of the countryside, trapping tens of thousands of innocent people in a seemingly endless cycle of violence and suffering.

Using personal testimonies and powerful black-and-white photographs, ‘When the Sun Sets, We Start to Worry…’ aims to draw attention to the plight of more than a million Ugandan children, women and men whose present existence encompasses a degree of misery and horror seldom seen elsewhere.

‘When the Sun Sets, We Start to Worry…’ portrays the extraordinary resilience demonstrated by the people of northern Uganda as they piece together lives disrupted by violence, and cherish hopes and dreams whose fulfilment depends on the return of peace to their region.

Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

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