As dusk fell in Gulu, one of the towns of the Acholi of northern Uganda, small figures emerged from the shadows and bedded down on the ground. These were children sent by their refugee parents to town for the night from packed government camps.
Their villages had been vandalised by The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), scores of villagers killed in public, and children kidnapped. Those villagers who escaped ended up in densely crammed camps, supposedly protected by a handful of government troops, but still vulnerable to the LRA guerrillas, who would creep into the camps demanding food and snatching any child big enough to be forcibly recruited.
The only way to protect the children was to make them trek for hours after school to sleep on the grimy town pavements. But even this didn't guarantee their safety, as the guerrillas could strike at any time. The new recruits would be ordered to kill and initiated into gang rituals: taught to maim by hacking off lips, gouging out eyes, chopping off limbs. Once you have murdered your own family and neighbours, there is no turning back, for fear of reprisals.
Wojciech Jagielski is an acclaimed Polish war correspondent who won two awards for his previous book about Chechnya. He spent weeks in Uganda trying to understand both the history of this war-ravaged country and the psychology of the youngsters who become such casual murderers. The LRA started in 1986 when Alice "Lakwena" (Holy Spirit) announced that she had been told by spirits to save the Acholis from destruction by forming an army and using it to win power from the southern rulers. Uganda had lost almost a million people under the bloody rule of its last two leaders, Obote and Amin, with each coup leading to widespread massacres. Joseph Kony took leadership of the LRA in 1987, and since then, more than 100,000 have been killed and two million-plus displaced into 200 camps, with the loss of homes and farming livelihoods precipitating widespread alcoholism and rape in the camps.
Jagielski writes lyrically, his images shimmering across the pages, alternately haunting and majestic. He eschews discrete chapters, opting for a continuous narrative encompassing Uganda's history, politics and people. This structure suits the tone which is personal as well as factual: Jagielski meets an ex LRA child, now at a centre aiming to adapt guerrillas back to normality. Jagielski exemplifies integrity and tact, his approach so sensitive that he reports the locals' suppositions about the spirit world without Western contradiction. This is war reporting at its acme – lucid, compelling, devastating.Reuse content