The Night Wanderers: Uganda's Children and the Lord's Resistance Army, By Wojciech Jagielski (trs by Anonia Lloyd-Jones)

After the viral video comes the brutal book

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The Independent Culture

If the viral video Kony 2012 was a black and white account of Uganda's recent history, Wojciech Jagielski's book is an opportunity to see the greyscale. The internet campaign film, seen by millions around the world, painted a grossly oversimplified account of the activities of the Lord's Resistance Army. It left the impression that the guerrilla group was still in Uganda – when in fact it had long since left for other countries in the region – and it painted the LRA's leader Joseph Kony as a cartoon villain.

Jagielski's reporting is refreshing after all that American hype. It is not until page 64 that the name Joseph Kony even comes up – long after the reader is familiar with those who were forced to be his fighters. There are no "good guys" or "bad guys" and harm is just as likely to be meted out by the Ugandan army as any guerrilla force.

Here, moral ambiguity is savoured rather than avoided. The state soldiers of Jagielski's account are not saviours of children: they sell uniforms and even guns to envoys of the very guerrillas they are supposed to be fighting, and thanks to their "repeated looting and rape", they are seen by northern Ugandans "as oppressors rather than defenders".

Jagielski's subtle portrayal of three decades of bloody history in Uganda – and the country's attempts to move on from them – captures a nation whose understanding of humanity has been turned on its head. Here, children are feared more than adults, and can be both victim and killer simultaneously.

The book weaves the story of 10-year-old Samuel, an escaped child soldier from Kony's fighters, into this backdrop. Through Samuel – and the other children playing frightening war games at a rehabilitation centre – the reader is given an insight into the scarring they are left with by violent lives. Over a bottle of Coke in a hotel, Samuel describes killing a girl with a machete in between the waitress's delivery of desert and cutlery.

The book was shortlisted for the Ryszard Kapuscinski Award, set up in honour of the late Polish journalist whose beautiful prose became a yardstick for literary reportage from Africa. Jagielski has also been described as an heir to Kapuscinski, and his evocative portrait of the country echoes the earlier writer's skill for description.

But The Night Wanderers has one major flaw for journalism purists. It is distributed and publicised as non-fiction reportage, but the three main characters that the story is built around – child soldier Sam, care worker Nora and local radio journalist Jackson – are only amalgams of real people. The only mention of this fact is in a brief cover note saying that for the sake of the narrative they have been created "out of several real people".

It is hard not to feel that this undermines the book's authenticity, but The Night Wanderers is still one of the better places to find a fair account of Uganda's recent past; and certainly preferable to any viral video.