Brainwashed children of God blaze trail of murder and mayhem in Uganda

Ed O'Loughlin reports from Gulu on a crusade orchestrated by a former Catholic altar boy

For the past five years, the people of northern Uganda have lived in terror of a strange and bloody children's crusade.

Led by a 34-year-old former Catholic altar boy called Joseph Kony, the army of abducted and brainwashed children that calls itself the Lord's Resistance Army has murdered thousands of civilians and devastated much of the north.

Their aim is to overthrow President Yoweri Museveni's government and rule Uganda in accordance with the Ten Commandments.

Since the insurgency flared four years ago, the authorities in Gulu district say the LRA has murdered 5,000 people and perhaps as many again in neighbouring Kitgum.

They believe 230,000 people have been displaced into protected camps, while the UN World Food Programme reports that war and drought are forcing it to feed 140,000 people in the region.

In addition to those killed, aid workers say hundreds - perhaps thousands - more have been attacked and mutilated for disobeying Kony's decrees.

Anybody caught riding a bicycle - the main transport in this remote region - is likely to be killed or have their feet hacked off. Those who speak ill of the rebels have had lips or noses cut off.

More recently, Kony declared pigs will not be tolerated and that Friday should be a second Sabbath. His enemies say this is a concession to his main backer, the fundamentalist Islamic government of neighbouring Sudan.

The deepest religious influence on Kony, many suspect, is neither Christianity nor Islam, but witchcraft.

Before they acquired large quantities of modern infantry weaponry in the past four years, (Uganda's government accuses Sudan of supplying them), many LRA soldiers went into action armed only with stones and machetes, smearing themselves with ointments that Kony said would render them bullet- proof.

He also ordered that all white livestock and chickens in rebel areas be slaughtered, along with anyone harbouring them.

Survivors of his base camps in southern Sudan say he often explains his orders by saying that "the Holy Spirit told me to do it".

Last week Oyet Lakweka, who claims to be 18 and a lieutenant in the rebel army, admitted having killed "many many people" since being abducted from his village, including about 200 massacred at Atiok, in Gulu district, in April 1995.

His field commander had told him an angel ordered the massacre.

Lakweka was one of 18 children and rebel fighters captured or freed by the Ugandan army in the Gulu-Kitgum region last week.

The youngest, Simon Ocan, said he was 13 and had killed two people. The first was a soldier of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, which, with Uganda's aid, is fighting a war against the Khartoum government in southern Sudan.

The second was another child who tried to escape the LRA after they were both abducted. As a new "recruit", Simon had been ordered to help beat him to death.

For an instant his impassive face contorted: "I was sorry for that."

A recent report from the UN Children's Fund (Unicef) estimates up to 8,000 Ugandan children have been abducted by the LRA and taken to southern Sudan.

Those abducted are routinely ordered, on pain of death, to kill others guilty of breaching discipline.

Sometimes they are ordered to carry out atrocities against their own families. Young girls are forced to act as "wives" for older commanders.

The World Vision charity says that since March 1995 its trauma counselling centre in Gulu has cared for 3,000 children who escaped or were captured by the Ugandan army.

The Ugandan government has promised an amnesty for all but the most senior LRA leaders, with whom it now refuses to negotiate.

The irony is that Kony draws both his killers and his victims from his own tribe, the Acholis. These were among the northern tribes which controlled Uganda from independence in 1962 until 1986, when Mr Museveni's National Resistance Army, composed mainly of southerners and westerners, took power.

The NRA's victory ended years of slaughter that cost hundreds of thousands of lives under Idi Amin, Milton Obote and Tito Okello, but many Acholi feared they would lose influence under the new order. In 1987 thousands joined the "Holy Spirit Movement" of Alice Lekwana, an Acholi faith- healer whose supporters marched on Kampala armed principally with prayers and magic charms.

They were half-way there before Mr Museveni's men established that holy oil did not repel small-arms fire.

After Lekwana fled to Kenya, Kony, a young peasant with a reputation for delinquency and oratory, emerged as leader of a fresh Acholi resistance movement. Linking up with remnants of the old Acholi-dominated army, he gained new contacts among Acholi exile communities in Britain and North America and with the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Khartoum, keen to avenge itself for Mr Museveni's support of the SPLA rebels in southern Sudan.

The commander of Ugandan forces in the north, James Kazini, blames the LRA's continuing existence on weapons from Sudan and support among disaffected Acholi elders.

These, he complains, refuse to co-operate with the army and falsely tell guerrillas that they will be shot if they surrender.

He is confident that the LRA's days are now numbered - Acholi hostility to Mr Museveni is counterbalanced, he says, by awareness that the LRA's crusade is directed against its own people.

Foreign aid workers in the region say that the guerrillas depend more on fear than support. The army says only around 400 LRA guerrillas now remain in Uganda, and even these are running short of ammunition.

Colonel Kazini claims to have killed 57 of these in July alone, while another 45 deserted or were captured.

"If the SPLA captures Juba (capital of southern Sudan) then the LRA will vanish entirely," he says.

But this is not the first time the authorities have proclaimed the LRA's demise. "From what we hear they still seem to be well-organised," said the representative of an aid agency operating in Gulu and Kitgum. "I don't think they've finished yet."

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