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Anne was not yet eleven years old when she was married to one of the most famous men in the world. Her wedding day was a dystopian nightmare. She was dragged into a militia camp in the forests of the Central African Republic, where she was raped by the man she was told was now her ‘husband’. That man was Joseph Kony, the notorious leader and prophet of the quasi-religious Lords Resistance Army...
Anne was given to Kony because, aged just 10, she was the youngest of a group of children abducted from a village near Obo, a cluster of mud huts and tin-roofed shacks which is the nearest thing that the eastern tip of the Central African Republic has to a town. Because of her age, the LRA fighters who kidnapped her at gunpoint could be sure that she was a virgin. While all the girls who are taken end up as “army wives” – a euphemism for a life of sexual slavery, forced marches and drudgery – the virgins are given to Kony.
In her new life, Anne joined his 13 other wives, fetching, cooking, carrying and submitting to sexual abuse by a man whose litany of crimes against humanity has made him the most famous war criminal in the world. Her daily routine consisted of near-constant movement through remote jungles where rag-tag units of fighters, on the run from troops of several nations, trailed gangs of child porters on forced marches of up to 60 miles a day.
It was an ordeal that would last for two years. Realising that they had once again pitched camp close to her home area, Anne persuaded one of the other girls to cover for her absence while she fled for her life. Arriving back in Obo, she was taken into the care of an Italian aid agency, COPI, whose work is funded by Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, which is The Independent’s partner in our Christmas Appeal this year.
The agency gave her urgently needed medical care and looked after her. Having reached some kind of safety she fell silent and remained utterly mute for six months.
It is 25 years since the Lord’s Resistance Army emerged from the ashes of the Holy Spirit Movement, an uprising by the Acholi people in northern Uganda. Based on a mix of local Acholi traditions and an interpretation of the Ten Commandments, they launched a war on the Ugandan central government. What began as, essentially, a separatist movement has become a byword for sadism. Years of abductions, where children were forced to kill their own parents or friends in brutal initiations, has left the group both feared and hated. Their leader and self-styled messiah has been indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity.
The LRA has long since been pushed beyond the borders of Uganda, into a densely forested arc that reaches across northern Congo, along its border with South Sudan and into the Central African Republic as far as what geographers call Africa’s “point of inaccessibility” – the part of the interior furthest from the sea.
The LRA, according to current estimates, may number less than 500 fighters. Few of them are Ugandan, let alone Acholi. Moving in small, highly mobile units, they violently graze this remote arc of central Africa, burning, killing, looting and recruiting as they go. The bewildered victims of this senseless campaign know nothing of the cause espoused by those who attack them.
In the four years since peace talks foundered and LRA forces went on the rampage again, as many as 450,000 civilians have been driven from their homes in the region.
The story of Joseph Kony and his theocratic cult was brought to the world’s attention by the phenomenal popularity of a short film made by the US-based charity Invisible Children. Their Kony2012 video has been watched more than one billion times online. It has made the farmer’s son and former altar boy the world’s most notorious guerrilla leader and mobilised a vast, well-intentioned effort to capture him. But it has proven far harder to translate this global outrage into effective action.
Three years before Invisible Children unleashed its viral campaign, the African Union, with the help of the United Nations, put forward its plan for dealing with the LRA crisis. The AU’s Regional Co-operation Initiative was meant to set up a cross-border intelligence sharing and military outposts, as well as a task force to track down and capture the LRA leadership.
The strategy works on paper, but in the reality of central Africa, where relations between the Central African Republic, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan face extraordinary strains, it has not worked on the ground. This year alone the DRC-Uganda border has been closed in a row over the latter’s support for armed rebels inside Congo. The Central African Republic government is facing a rebellion by another dissident group, unrelated to the LRA, and South Sudan came perilously close to war with Sudan.
A recent report by a panel of independent agencies said the Regional Co-operation Initiative and taskforce lacked command and control, capable troops or resources. “The strategy thus far has failed to achieve any of its objectives,” the report concluded. “ Without urgent action, it will fail permanently.”
During the same period there have been nearly 600 recorded child abductions by the LRA across the same arc of territory. As well as being used as sex slaves, cooks and porters, these children have been deployed as human shields and frontline fighters.
Some have been fed with “magic potions” that they are told will allow their captors to trace them if they attempt to escape. Others have been forced to murder their own friends or maim them with knives or machetes.
With no end in sight to the crisis, Unicef has concentrated on what to do with the victims – an average of 63 children have appeared each month, either escapees like Anne or unaccompanied minors identified by aid workers. Working with local partners in each of the affected countries, Unicef has been providing medical care, psychological support and, most importantly, the chance to be reunited with families and returned to home communities.
Children who are located by the armies chasing the LRA must now be put in contact with Unicef partners within 48 hours and handed over to their care within one week. Pernille Ironside, Unicef’s child protection specialist, describes the job as “inordinately difficult”. Many children have appeared hundreds of miles from home on the wrong side of national borders.
A huge effort has also been made to change the way that the national armies see the children they encounter in the theatre of war. Ugandan forces have signed an agreement that children recovered during anti-LRA operations cannot be used as scouts or mined for information on the location of rebel camps.
To bridge the language gap in the border lands, Unicef has even produced a cartoon-style book to teach troops some of the basics of child protection and children’s rights.
Some children have had to remain in care for more than six months as the search goes on for their homes and families. Others, like Anne, have trekked home by themselves out of the jungle. All of them carry the burden of their horrendous experiences.
Even if the opprobrium of a billion people online cannot immediately halt the Lord’s Resistance Army, it can ensure that its survivors have some chance of a new beginning. “Our work recognises the personal scarring that is left on a person and does what’s needed to help them overcome,” Ms Ironside says.
Anne is not the real name of the child so brutally and repeatedly raped by Joseph Kony at just 10 years old. It has been changed to protect her identity as she tries to come to terms with a return to normality and the welcome humdrum of life.
After six months of silence, Anne, who is now 14, is in school. She has found her voice. Her life, which was so brutally interrupted, has – thanks to Unicef – begun again.
Unicef relies entirely on voluntary donations for all of its work with child soldiers. Please support The Independent’s Christmas appeal to help this vital work by going to www.unicef.org.uk/independent or calling 0800 037 9797
Small price, big impact
£150 could pay for psychological support for one child who has been rescued from the militias – this includes individual and group therapy and using play and drawing.
£25 could provide a child with all the essentials they need when they are first handed over by the armed forces – when they are rescued they often have nothing but the clothes on their backs. This “welcome kit” includes clothes, underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, blanket, mattress, and mosquito net.