Kony’s Child Soldiers

The fourth issue has hit… and so, as per our contract with you the reader, the fourth installment of the six part web-series is up. First we’ll update you on what’s happened with the hunt for Kony and his reactivated militia since last month and then we’ll talk a little about the psychological state of the child soldier in Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

THE AFTERMATH OF OPERATION “LIGHTNING THUNDER”

On December 13, 2008, the Ugandan Peoples Defence Force (UPDF, government army) Special Forces, air force and artillery, in tangent with the Congolese and Sudan Peoples Liberation forces, began operation “LIGHTNING THUNDER”. A full fledged air campaign followed by artillery and infantry that attacked Kony’s base in Democratic Republic of Congo and began to drive him and his LRA west, deeper into the Garamba jungle. See last month’s entry for more details.

At the time it looked to me, from my cozy chair here in California, like the military offensive was successfully dismantling the LRA and weakening Kony’s strength. That might still be true. But there have been terrible, terrible side-affects of this conflict, side-affects that were the primary concern of those opposed to the military strike in the first place.

It seems that “splinter gangs” of LRA soldiers, largely inactive for over two-years now, are being fingered for the deaths in DRC and South Sudan of more than 900 people and the displacement of over 130,000 refugees, as well as the kidnapping of hundreds of children, this has all happened over the last month, according to an estimate by the United Nations. If these allegations are true, then these are the worst LRA attacks in four years.

Kony

However, Alex Oloya, an LRA spokesman, has called for an independent investigation apart from the UN, ? “We categorically deny those allegations. Kony himself has indicated his position and whereabouts. The LRA is not in the area. We have been in Congo for two years and not killed civilians. Why now? They are not our enemy.”

The United Nations responds, “In an apparent desperate attempt to escape and on the search for food to survive, the rebels have intensified their slaughter of Congolese civilians, with attacks recorded in the villages of Tomati, Sambia and Durba. These attacks have, in general, worsened the security and humanitarian situation MONUC underlines.” (MONUC: the UN’s mission in Congo).

The LRA is claiming that this is a power play by Ugandan President Museveni. That he hopes to push his troops deeper into east Congo and begin to steal resources from DRC, and that it is Museveni’s troops who are responsible for the atrocities. They’re using the International Court Of Justice (ICJ) ruling from 2005, which found Uganda liable for war crimes and destruction in Congo during the Congo War as evidence that Museveni is capable of this.

It is undeniable that Museveni has attempted to marginalize this conflict, undeniable that over its 23-year history he has stalled its peace processes, compromised his own ability to protect the Acholi people and acted in an ethically questionable manor in regards to his neighboring nations. It is also undeniable that it is in Uganda’s best interest to push into Eastern Congo to hold back another, separate, rebel army (Laurent Nkunda’s army – a story for another day) from spilling into West Uganda. But as any reader of this page knows, the LRA simply cannot be trusted. They have made a modus operandi out of the kidnapping of children, the slaughter of innocents and the terrorizing of populations. For now, the United Nations independent investigations committee is, by far, the most trusted group involved, and the closest thing to reliable information we can get coming out of this conflict.

Here’s a news article on why the initial bombing of the LRA camps in mid-December went wrong. Garamba air raid: Maruru speaks out

The LRA has torched a church in DRC, indicating a shift in policy (not that any LRA policies are ever firmly set) regarding Christian institutions.

THE CHILD SOLDIER IN THE LRA

“Early on when my brothers and I were captured, the LRA explained to us that all five brothers couldn´t serve in the LRA because we would not perform well. So they tied up my two younger brothers and invited us to watch. Then they beat them with sticks until two of them died. They told us it would give us strength to fight. My youngest brother was nine years old.” Former child soldier, aged 13.

The role of children over the course of this two-decades long conflict is a debated topic. The International Criminal Court stated in 2004 that the “LRA base of combatants… [are] mostly aged between 11 and 15… according to reports over 85% of the LRA’s forces are made up of children, used as soldiers, porters, labourers and sexual slaves…”

Yet UNICEF contradicted these figures. Saying that two-thirds of those abducted between 1990 and 2001 were over 18. And that most of the abducted were released within a year. Even noted specialist on the topic, Tim Allen, whose work I use, copy, and downright plagiarize, says, “The emphasis on the LRA’s child soldiers can therefore at times seem disproportionate.”

He goes on to claim that the emphasis on child soldiers allows us to allocate juvenile status to the LRA and deflect attention from the fact that President Museveni’s government recruits child soldiers as well. Something we briefly hint at in this month’s issue of the comic.

But while we can debate all day the extent to which child combatants were used in Uganda and are now being used in DRC, it cannot be denied that they have, IN FACT, been used. Again and again I have come across documents, interviews and even, during my time in Uganda, heard eyewitness accounts, of child combatants. While the greatly respected (certainly by me) Allen makes legitimate arguments in regards to the dangers of over-infantilizing the LRA, the phenomena and psychology of the child soldier persists.

Whether a dominant amount of these children were and are being trained for combat, forced to kill relatives in order to have their moral compass and personal sense of self compromised or just made to hump Maize flour or coffee across the Sudan border, they are still children caught in conflict, often finding themselves at the center of firefights, under the blazing bullets of Ugandan Gunships and sent out as decoys in the heat of battle. These are child soldiers. There is no other term for it. And the question is how do you re-integrate the children once they’ve escaped the LRA? How do you help them overcome the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the nightmares? How do you rebuild a society on the back of a generation orphaned and traumatized by war?

Several organizations are working on this problem. And we’ll explore it more in the comic during the next story arc, “Easy Kill”. Many of these organizations are using art therapy, the power of storytelling, and other therapeutic techniques to resocialize war-affected youth.

But the problem persists, even with a two-year peace in the Northern Uganda area. In this culture of healing, the physics of good intentions can backfire. It has, for instance, been reported that some, during the height of the conflict, expressed a desire to be abducted due to the financial assistance and opportunities afforded to the escaped abductees. There were opportunities for education, psychological rehabilitation and financial assistance that Northern children who labored in the terrible disease ridden camps simply did not receive.

It is a terrifying concept. A world where abduction is a potential key to a brighter world and safety is a lock on suffering. It is the kind of topsy-turvy world that Kony and Museveni built, brick by brick, child by child, year after year in the North of Uganda.

–    Joshua Dysart

Time Article from 2006 recalling the experience of one LRA child soldier.

Humanitarian news and analysis, from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. A report on Traumatized Child Soldiers from 2004.

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