Rebels slaughter in the name of the Lord

David Orr in Gulu meets victims of religious guerrillas wreaking havoc in Uganda

The other day, Concy Aber, a shy 16-year-old from a village in northern Uganda, was reunited with her family. How she will readjust to living a normal, teenage life is unclear. Concy spent most of the past year in the bush, a captive of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a bizarre Christian fundamentalist guerrilla group seeking to overthrow the government.

Witchcraft and terror, once the movement's main weapons, are now being supplemented by arms from the Islamic regime of Sudan where the LRA is based. During her time at the rebel camp in southern Sudan, Concy was repeatedly raped by an LRA commander with whom she was forced to live. She also underwent military training and took part in guerrilla attacks on villages in northern Uganda.

The LRA, which seeks to rule Uganda according to the Ten Commandments, might be dismissed as a eccentric aberration were it not for the havoc it is wreaking in the north. Bicycles are outlawed by the LRA and those caught cycling have their feet hacked off.

In one attack on Atiak last April - in which Concy was forced to participate - 200 villagers were butchered. The LRA burned down the village of Padibe in northern Uganda this week and killed 10 people.

"I was captured near my village on my way back from the well last September," Concy said softly. "There were other young people and we were tied together with rope. They made us walk all day and sometimes at night. If any were too weak or sick to go on they were battered with an axe and killed.

"We walked for a week until we came to a camp where there were lots of children. I was forced to be a commander's wife. They taught me to shoot a gun and take part in attacks. They told me if I ran away I would be killed."

A few weeks ago Concy did escape. Her unit was making its way back to Sudan after a raid on a village inside Uganda when it was ambushed by the National Resistance Army (NRA) of Uganda. During the confusion she and other child soldiers ran into the bush where they were found by the NRA. Back in the northern Ugandan town of Gulu, they were taken into a trauma counselling programme run by the aid agency, World Vision.

"A few thousand children, mostly teenagers have been kidnapped in the last few years," Brigadier Chefe Ali, commander of NRA forces in northern Uganda, said. "We've rescued nearly 2,000 in the last year, but we just don't have the resources to deal with the LRA."

The testimonies of the rescued children paint a chilling picture of LRA brutality, religious fanaticism and weird voodoo practices. About 200 young "conscripts" are being held at the Palutaka camp over the Sudanese border. Some are as young as eight or nine. Beatings and torture are regular, as are executions of those failing to endure harsh bush regime.

There are estimated to be between 1,000 and 2,000 guerrillas at the Palutaka camp though other bases are also thought to exist. Before going into battle, rebel leader Joseph Kony (pronounced "Coin") recites prayers and sprinkles Holy Water on his troops. Some fighters smear their bodies with nut oil which they believe protects them against bullets.

There are horrific reports of peasants having their ears or lips cut off. Some mysterious, cultish belief dictates that all white animals must be slaughtered, as must pigs. Peasants found working on Friday, like Sunday, deemed a day of rest, are executed. The LRA also demands closure of all schools.

"I believed I was fighting to liberate Uganda," Mohamed Maliyamungu, a Muslim who surrendered after peace talks collapsed last year, said. "Kony would receive divine words from an angel who would direct us where to fight. He told us that not all of us had to carry guns because the Holy Spirit would protect us. Some carried stones which we were told would explode when we threw them."

The LRA has its origins in the fragmentation of government forces which occurred after the overthrow of Milton Obote's dictatorial regime by now- President Yoweri Museveni in 1986. A small number of diehards in the Acholi tribal area of the north took to the bush where they joined the Holy Spirit Movement of religious fanatic, Alice Lakwena, whose hymn-singing columns advanced to within 80 miles of Kampala, before being defeated the NRA in 1987.

After a period under the leadership of Lakwena's father, the movement was taken over by her cousin, Joseph Kony, a catechist and herbalist, who renamed it the Lord's Resistance Army in 1993.

Backing was secured from Sudan, which is hostile to Uganda. Khartoum charges that President Museveni is supporting Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) rebels against whom it has been fighting a war in southern Sudan for the last 12 years. Mr Museveni denies this.

People around Gulu believe the Museveni government is not doing enough to quell the LRA insurgency. Some even say it is being allowed to continue as punishment for the region's tribal links with the former regime and its preference for multi-partyism which is opposed by President Museveni.

To appease Gulu residents, local officials parade recently rescued child soldiers every few weeks. Oto Odoch turns up at these occasions in the hope of finding his nine-year-old son, Christopa, abducted two years ago. "I don't know why the rebels are fighting this war," he said. "If they were attacking the army we might understand but they're attacking innocent civilians."

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