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Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army

The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is one of a number of armed groups currently operating in war torn parts of Central Africa. Read on to find out more about the LRA's bloody roots, history and its current activity in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. 

 

The LRA first emerged in Uganda in the late 1980s. It was created by a self-styled mystic and medium Alice Auma – who claimed to be possessed by the spirit of a dead Italian army officer called Lakwena.

With the professed aim of restoring political and economic rights to the historically marginalised Acholi people of northern Uganda, it initially called itself the Holy Spirit Movement.

In a year-long insurgency, some 15,000 fighters got to within 80 miles of the Ugandan capital Kampala before encountering forces loyal to President Yoweri Museveni, who had seized power a year earlier.

The fall of a prophet

In the ensuing clashes, Alice’s followers quickly discovered that her claims that her unique spiritual powers, along with a liberal smearing of ‘holy’ oil, would protect them from bombs and bullets, were delusional.

Alice fled on a bicycle to neighbouring Kenya, where she later died in a refugee camp. Many of her surviving followers then joined the ranks of another Acholi insurgent - Joseph Kony - under whom they took a new name, the LRA.

Joseph Kony (image rephotographed by Tom Pietrasik from archive material at the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre)

Joseph Kony

Kony – a messianic leader, who claimed kinship with Alice – inflicted a reign of terror on northern and eastern Uganda for almost 20 years.

He pursued his vision of an entirely new state based upon his twisted interpretation of the Ten Commandments combined with Acholi traditions.

Incorporating many of Alice’s beliefs into his own doctrine, Kony’s growing taste for brutality quickly lost him the support of the Acholi people, who then found themselves caught up in a brutal civil war between the LRA and the government.

In revenge for their perceived disloyalty, Kony and his followers began to slaughter whole communities.

Image rephotographed by Tom Pietrasik at the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre.

An example of maiming by the LRA

Mutilation was a favourite tactic of the LRA 'to teach them a lesson'

Along with massacre, a favourite tactic to spread terror among civilians was to maim many of those who were spared death.

The hacking off of noses, lips, ears, hands and feet with machetes and knives was a particular hallmark of the movement.

Raids were also used to abduct young men, women and children who had often seen their entire family butchered in front of them.

As new recruits they were forced to participate in further atrocities and, in the case of girls, coerced into sexual slavery.

They lost any hope of returning home.

Child soldiers: Norman Okello

Former LRA child soldier Norman Okello

Former LRA child soldier Norman Okello

One such abductee was Norman Okello, a former child soldier still coming to terms with his past, whose story we tell on this website.

His remarkable candour is living testimony to the horror a small but fanatical armed force could inflict, not just on one country, but on an entire region.

His story is also testimony to the strength of the human spirit. Norman, and others like him, have survived to re-engage with the world from which they were once so brutally removed.

Whether forced to join the LRA’s ranks, or live in terror of them emerging from the bush, no-one in Acholiland survived those days unscarred.

At the height of Kony’s power in Uganda, between 1987 and 2006, at least 20,000 children were abducted and more than 1.9 million people were forced to flee their homes.

They resettled in remote internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, or ‘protected villages’, where many subsequently died of cholera and other diseases.

In late 2006, the LRA, which had increasingly operated with military and logistical support from the National Congress Party (NCP) regime in neighbouring Sudan, was finally driven out of Uganda.

Violence pushed into neighbouring countries

However, one consequence of the military push against them was that the violence was simply exported to neighbouring states – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan.

Its strength unknown – estimates ranged from a few hundred to several thousand – and its political goals increasingly unclear, the LRA’s lust for violence remained unabated.

Operation Lightening Thunder

In December 2008 Operation Lightening Thunder - a failed joint Ugandan-USA military offensive intended to dislodge the LRA from north eastern DRC - saw the group disperse into smaller units.

These groups then embarked on a series of retaliatory mass rapes and executions that on Christmas Eve that year saw the killing of 865 people in the DRC and what is now the country of South Sudan.

A year later, an estimated 30 LRA fighters, wearing Congolese soldiers' uniforms, killed at least 320 civilians, including around 80 children, and abducted 250. This was during a four-day massacre in the northern DRC’s Haut Uele district.

Source: HRW report (PDF).

In 2011, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said that, in the space of just four years, an estimated 2,000 people had been killed and 3,000 abducted in the Haut-Uele and Bas-Uele districts of eastern DRC alone.

This included around 1,500 children for use as sex slaves, porters, messengers, spies, and human shields.

Find out more about Christian Aid's work in DRC.

A UN statement in May 2013 estimated that over the course of the conflict, the LRA has been responsible for a total of more than 100,000 deaths .

The exact number remains unclear since many killings, particularly those in northern Uganda, were never officially recorded by the government.

Fleeing their homes

Over the same period, the LRA has driven a total of more than 2.5 million people from their homes across the region.

As of 30 September 2013, 325,931 civilians remain internally displaced people (IDPs) in DRC, South Sudan, the CAR, according to the OCHA LRA regional update (PDF).

More information: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) September 2013 report, A life of fear and flight (PDF).

Crops and farming devastated

As well as the obvious trauma related to the LRA’s exceptional levels of cruelty, the movement has also had a devastating impact on food security in the region.

In remote villages, the very mention of its name is enough to make people abandon their homes and crops. The areas to which they flee, however, are unable to support so many new arrivals.

‘There was already pressure on fertile areas before the arrival of the IDPs, and LRA violence and displacement have increased the population density and the number of people wanting to farm. The violence has also reduced the amount of safely accessible land,’ says the UNCHR.

 

The LRA today

Although intelligence on the LRA is slowly improving, the absence of collaboration between military forces in the region allows Kony and his cronies - estimated by the UN to now number between 300 and 500 active fighters - to continue their activities.

The NCP in Khartoum refuses to allow African Union (AU) troops to cross the border into Sudan to arrest LRA commanders sheltering in South Darfur, while Ugandan soldiers in the AU task force in the CAR are also not permitted to cross into DRC territory to seize LRA fighters there.

Areas affected by the LRA in 2013

Map showing the regions affected by the LRA in 2013 and the number of people displaced in 2013.

Map source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), September 2013 - LRA regional update (PDF)

 

LRA are still at large

One recent key success was the capture of a top LRA commander, Caesar Achellam, in the CAR. Said by Ugandan officials to be the LRA’s top military strategist, Achellam told the BBC:

‘My coming out will have a big impact for the people still in the bush to come out and end this war soon.’

However, Kony, now in his early 50’s, has previously said that his depleted group will not disarm until the International Criminal Court drops war crimes charges against him and other high-ranking LRA commanders.

For now, the LRA remain at large - with the fear their presence spreads among communities across vast swathes of central and east Africa as potent as it ever was.

  


 

Find out more

Former LRA child soldier Norman OkelloIn Kony's Shadow

Videos, photos and stories from a rebel, the wounded and the survivors of the LRA.

 

LRA Watch: newspaper about the exhibition (PDF, 0.7mb)

Our work on conflict around the world

In Kony's Shadow photo exhibition at gallery@oxo London  

Christian Aid in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Christian Aid in South Sudan

 

Organisations in Uganda who supported In Kony's Shadow project:

The Refugee Law Project in Uganda

The National Peace and Memory Centre 

(Includes Norman Okello's autobiography on right-hand side of page.)

 

 

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Norman's book

Read the autobiography of former LRA child soldier, Norman Okello, on the Refugee Law Project website.
(Downloadable in PDF format from the right-hand column.)

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