Innocent Murderers Abducted Children in the Lord’s Resistance Army

Cultic Studies Review, Volume 7, Number 2, 2008, pages 129-166

Innocent Murderers? Abducted Children in the Lord’s Resistance Army

Terra Manca

University of Alberta


For over twenty-one years, a guerrilla force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been terrorizing the people of northern Uganda. The LRA abducts children to help it fight against local civilians and the Ugandan government. LRA commanders use extreme violence to control these children. The LRA justifies the use of this violence with its secretive spiritual and political ambitions. Many of the children in the LRA commit horrendous acts, such as mutilations and murders, against civilians in a effort to survive while they await the opportunity to escape. Some of these children eventually internalize the violence that the LRA subjects them to and become willing participants in the movement. In this article, I discuss how the LRA’s organization, its use of religious doctrine, and its use of physical coercion manipulate children in an effort to create obedient members of the LRA.

Northern Uganda is experiencing one of the worst and most under-reported contemporary human-rights crises today because of the atrocities that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commits. For twenty-one years, the LRA has forced children of northern Uganda to terrorize their own communities. Estimates reveal that the LRA has abducted more than 25,000 children to help it internally displace more than 1.5 million people and cause the deaths of more than 100,000 people (Prendergast 2005, 3; Taylor 2005, 560).

In its efforts, the LRA combines terrorism with religious concepts from the Acholi (a group of people in northern Uganda), Christian, and Islamic traditions to control abducted children and the population of northern Uganda. The LRA’s uses of the Acholi religion are particularly potent because “many Africans make no formal distinction between the sacred and the secular, between the religious and the nonreligious, between the spiritual and material areas of life” (Vanderwood 1994, 131). Acholi people—the LRA’s primary targets—run their lives as if the unseen world is as real as, if not more real than, the physical world (Otiso 2006, 21). As a result, many Acholi believe that Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, has supernatural powers, and therefore they are afraid to resist his movement.

Even with his warlord status, however, Kony and his movement lack popular support and rely on forcing children to join the movement in an attempt to retain power. Abducted children who comprise most of the LRA’s forces generally do not know why the LRA fights or why it directs most of its attacks onto the Acholi population, whom the LRA claims to be saving. Furthermore, the death rate of these children is high due to malnourishment, the harsh climatic environment, and violence. Many recruits forced into the LRA want to escape but find that their best opportunity to do so will arise if they obey the LRA’s rules. Recruits who pretend to internalize, or do internalize, the LRA’s lifestyle (i.e., who see their role within the LRA as a positive or permanent part of their identities) become an integral part of the movement. Some people cannot make sense of the violent actions of children in the LRA and assume that the children are brainwashed and cannot tell the difference between right and wrong (Allen 2006, 42; O’Loughlin 1997, 7). Yet, many children who escape claim that they knew what they were doing was immoral. These children claim that they obeyed their commanders out of fear rather than conviction and did whatever they had to, no matter how violent and immoral, to survive and await escape opportunities.

In this article, I identify the resocialization process that the LRA forces onto abducted children, especially in reference to the group’s religious rituals, and I argue that some children participate in atrocities only as a survival technique. I focus on the LRA’s use of Acholi beliefs because most (but not all) LRA recruits and victims are Acholi. First, I give a brief background on Acholi traditional religion and the Ugandan history that led to the emergence of the LRA. Then I delve into issues of physical, psychological, and spiritual manipulation to explain how the LRA treats children. Next, I discuss the organization of the LRA and the advantages for children (regarding their own survival) who advance within the organization. This information provides a context for understanding why some children obey their commanders and later escape, and why other children never attempt to leave despite the fact that they were forcefully and violently recruited.

Acholi Spiritualism

The LRA uses references to Uganda’s belief systems, especially Acholi beliefs (traditional religion and Christianity) to aid in recruiting children and terrorizing the northern Ugandans (including other non-Acholi groups). The Acholi people are diverse descendents of fifteenth-century migrants who shared a common language (Lwo) and culture (Behrend 1999a, 15; Finnström 2003, 55). Acholi solidarity is a response to the centuries of trauma brought by invaders, colonialists, and various state regimes. Without a common ethnicity, the Acholi share common beliefs regarding jogi (spirits, forces, or power), which can possess people, animals, or objects. Jogi are responsible for the well-being of the people and can legitimate the ideas of their mediums (Behrend 1999a, 106, 15). The Acholi believe in secular reasons for the existence of misfortunes in the material world, but that the unseen world determines who suffers misfortunes (Allen 2006, 31).

Many Acholi believe in other world religions, most often Christianity, along with their traditional beliefs (such as beliefs in jogi). Christian missionary efforts during the colonial period resulted in the fusion of Christianity with traditional Ugandan religions, such as the Acholi traditional religion. This fusion created the Christian-Acholi belief that good spirits operate for the Holy Spirit (Tipu Maleng)[2], and evil spirits operate for Satan (Behrend 1999a, 107, 118). Eventually, the Acholi came to believe that most free jogi (jogi brought from outside Acholiland since the colonial period [Behrend 1999a, 15]) were evil and Tipu Maleng was the only spirit that they could be sure was pure (except for other Christian jogi such as Jok Jesus and Jok Mary [HRW 1997, 65]). With the belief that most jogi were evil, the Acholi considered many ajwaki (witches possessed by free jogi [Allen 2006, 32]) evil. Traditionally, ajwaki were women or men with feminine qualities (such as unmarried men and men living in their fathers’ homes) who claimed that jogi possessed them (Allen 2006, 32).

The influence of Christianity created concepts of redemption and apocalypse that some military religious organizations in northern Uganda, including the LRA, use (or used) to motivate followers (Behrend 1999a, 22). Furthermore, the LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, claims that the jok (singular for jogi) Tipu Maleng and other good jogi possess him. His use of violence to recruit and terrorize, however, convinces many Acholi and abducted children that evil jogi possess Kony and, therefore, he is an illegitimate ruler with supernatural powers.

Historical Background

In the 1850s, industrial nations began to exploit the upper Nile region (including Uganda) in their search for slaves and ivory (Allen 2006, 25). By 1900, Uganda was a protectorate of the British Commonwealth and reliant on the King’s African Rifles, which was a northern Ugandan army operating under British command, for stability (Allen, 2006:26; Jackson, 2002:36). Most soldiers in the King’s African Rifles were men from northern Uganda, especially from the Acholi people—the “military ethnocracy” (Jackson 2002, 36). Britain was content to use northern Uganda as a source of soldiers, labor, and foodstuffs and to invest in southern Ugandan development (Mawson 2004, 132). As a result of this policy, southern Uganda (especially the Bugandan region) became rich in commerce, civil service, and cash crops (Jackson 2002, 36), while northern Uganda stagnated economically, and many men in the region became dependent on war for employment (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 6).

When Uganda gained independence in 1962, Britain granted presidency to the leader of the Bugandan tribe (the Kabaka), whom Milton Obote soon ousted with the help of the King’s Army Rifles (Allen 2006, 28). As a president, however, Obote was dependent on his soldiers to maintain his power (Allen 2006, 28). One of President Obote’s commanders, Idi Amin, took advantage of Obote’s military dependency in 1971 when Amin held a coup with some of Obote’s non-Acholi soldiers (Jackson 2002, 36). The international community initially saw Amin’s rise to power as a positive alternative to President Obote, whom many considered communist, but President Amin soon proved to be a brutal dictator who idolized Hitler, exiled thousands of Ugandans, and killed many more—including many northern Ugandans (Legume 1997, 252, 255).

One of President Amin’s massacres involved the slaughter of many soldiers of northern descent in 1972 (Van Acker 2004, 340). Horrified, the remainder of those soldiers retreated into Sudan and became the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), which supported former President Obote (Allen 2006, 29). In 1979, the Tanzanian government aligned with the UNLA to oust President Amin and restore Obote to power (Allen 2006, 29). Obote ruled by violence and faced opposition from many people. In 1980, the future president, Yoweri Museveni, retreated into the forest with his guerilla forces, the National Resistance Army (NRA [Allen 2006, 29]).

From 1980 until 1985, battles raged between rebel groups and the government in the Luwero triangle (located in part of southern Uganda), where more than 300,000 Ugandans lost their lives (Jackson 2002, 36). In 1985, Acholi general Tito Okello took power from Obote (HRW 1997, 63). Okello quickly went to work drafting a peace agreement with Museveni’s NRA—the other large opposition force in the Luwero triangle (Allen 2006, 30). Museveni, however, saw the peace agreement as an opportunity to take power from Acholi-supported President Okello, and within months he marched against the unsuspecting leader (Allen 2006, 30).

After taking power in 1986, President Museveni ordered Acholi soldiers to report to barracks, but many northern Ugandans refused to do so because they feared a repeat of President Amin’s massacre of Acholi soldiers in 1972 (Van Acker 2004, 340). Convinced that Museveni was no better than Amin, many ex-soldiers again retreated into northern Uganda and southern Sudan to regroup as the Ugandan Peoples Democratic Army (UPDA [Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 13; Van Acker 2004, 340]).

Since Museveni’s rise to power, the NRA (now named the Ugandan Peoples Democratic Forces [UPDF]) committed many crimes against northern Ugandans, especially opposition soldiers (Behrend 1998, 108; Dodge 1991, 71).[3] In 1988, the UPDA signed a peace agreement with Museveni’s NRA. But that same year, the NRA launched military operations to destroy the remaining UPDA bases in Uganda (Van Acker 2004, 41). Although since 1991 the NRA has eased up on its actions against the Acholi, it has never ceased punishing the Acholi, and—with the current state of violence in northern Uganda—every atrocity committed by government forces today reminds the Acholi people of their history of oppression (Mawson 2004, 139).

In the late 1980s, the UPDF responded to abuse from the NRA by rallying support from northern Ugandans—including Joseph Kony—in an effort to take power back from Museveni (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 13). As a guerrilla force, the UPDA was initially successful but terribly disorganized and under-trained (Pain 1997, 31). The group’s only unifying force was its goal to oust President Museveni (HRW 1997, 64). In 1986, the NRA massacred UPDA soldiers, damaging morale during a period when arms and ammunition were becoming scarce (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 14). At this time, uncertainty within the UPDA was high, but when Alice Auma (a charismatic healer and Catholic convert also known as Alice Lakwena) emerged, the morale of 10,000 of the UPDA soldiers rose (Allen 2006, 36). Alice promised to correct the source of the Acholi problems and claimed to cast cen (the polluting spirits of soldiers’ victims) out of UPDA soldiers (Allen 2006, 34). Alice claimed to be the medium of the holy spirit named Lakwena and of many lesser spirits. (The holy spirit Lakwena was allegedly the jogi of an Italian soldier who died in World War One [Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 16]). After disappearing in the Nile region for forty days in 1986, Alice returned as a self-proclaimed healer who was allegedly possessed by the Lakwena jok (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 17). Following her return, Alice gathered many followers who began to call her Alice Lakwena (Allen 2006, 33).[4]

The Lakwena jok legitimized Alice’s efforts to build the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF) from the battalion of UPDA soldiers that she commanded in 1986 (HRW 1997, 64). Her goal (which Joseph Kony later claimed to share) was to fight to fulfill her prophetic vision, which she claimed would prevent the genocide of the Acholi and initiate 200 years of peace (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 17-18). Under Alice’s guidance, the HSMF was violent (although less violent than the LRA) toward the NRA and the local population, especially toward those whom it regarded as witches, sorcerers, or otherwise involved with jogi (HRW 1997, 68).

Alice’s vision included Christian values such as the abandonment of sin, loving one another and oneself, and strict obedience in all behavior (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 18). Informants allege that regulation within the HSMF included a ban on smoking, stealing, drinking, quarreling, and taking cover during battle. Alice’s followers believed that the result of breaking these rules, called the Holy Spirit Safety Precautions, was death in battle (HRW 1997, 68). The Holy Spirit Safety Precautions are consistent with the rules that Kony forces onto his followers, but Kony violently imposes them upon children who did not willingly join his movement, unlike Alice’s followers.

Many of Alice’s practices in preparation for and during battle resemble battle tactics that child soldiers in the LRA undergo (Allen 2006, 35, Behrend 1999a, 25).[5] The HSMF initially confused and frightened their enemies, many of whom simply ran away (Allen 2006, 35): “Soldiers in the NRA were confronted by scores of partly naked, glistening men and women marching towards them, some holding bibles, others throwing magical objects, and a few wielding guns” (Allen 2006, 35). By October 1987, the HSMF numbered 10,000 (Allen 2006, 36).

In November 1987, however, the defeat of the HSMF near Jinja (on the outskirts of Kampala) forced Alice to retreat on bicycle to Kenya (Allen, 2006:36; Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 16). Alice justified her retreat by arguing that she fled to the Kenyan refugee camp because her followers displayed impure tendencies, which destroyed the movement (Allen 2006, 36). By this time, however, many Acholi believed that Alice was a “lunatic, [and] prostitute turned witch” who brought increased suffering, poverty, and structural violence to their communities (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 20). Acholi beliefs regarding Alice are similar to those that would develop regarding Kony.

Following their defeat in 1988, many key factions of the UPDA and the HSMF surrendered because the Ugandan government offered amnesty to any rebels who did so (Mawson 2004, 132). Nevertheless, some former UPDA and HSMF, who wanted the worldly and outer-worldly redemption that the HSMF promised, turned to Alice’s father, Severino Lukoya (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 16), or to Joseph Kony, who took over the UPDA in April 1987 (Mawson 2004, 132).

Severino Lukoya is a catechist who attempted to claim his daughter’s following by insisting that some of Alice’s jogi along with other well-known Acholi jogi possessed him (Behrend 1999b, 27-28). But Lukoya’s attempts to convert Alice’s followers failed, perhaps in part because Alice refused his aid while she commanded the HSMF (Allen 2006, 36). Responding to his feelings of failure, Lukoya also used violence to coerce followers, earning the nickname otong-tong, which means “one who chops victims to pieces” (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 19). Lukoya succeeded in gathering 2,000 followers for his movement, the Lord’s Army (Behrend 1999b, 28). The Lord’s Army fought some battles before the group disintegrated.[6]

Joseph Kony recruited soldiers from all three of these guerrilla movements—the UPDA, the HSMF, and the Lord’s Army—but his movement primarily is a schism off the HSMF and the UPDA. Kony adopted many aspects of the LRA’s organization from Alice and Lukoya. For example, he implements the Holy Spirit Safety Precautions from the HSMF, he initiates similar rituals to Lukoya’s and Alice’s, he claims jogi possess him, and he violently recruits like Lukoya. Part of the explanation, however, for the LRA’s brutality is the adoption of the battle tactics used by some UPDA commanders who would not surrender when the UPDA disbanded (Behrend 1999b, 20). Most UPDA commanders who turned to Kony previously committed atrocities that prevented their reintegration (Vinci 2005, 365). The LRA’s use of child soldiers, however, is unique among these groups (and the early NRA during its march on Kampala), although not unique among internationally located guerrilla movements (Dodge 1991, 52).

Dealing with child soldiers is a complex endeavor for various governments around the world. In many countries, guerrilla forces or government forces make use of children (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers 2004; Singer 2005, 16; Wessells 2006, 10-11). Indeed, if the definition of a child soldier is any military fighter under the age of eighteen, then many European countries, as well as Canada and the United States, enlist children into the armed forces with parental consent (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers 2004, 122, 152, 217).[7] The experience of child soldiers varies extensively depending on what country they are situated within and who recruits them. While children in the LRA have particularly horrific experiences, many other groups that recruit child soldiers also create comparably terrible environments.[8]

To combat the LRA’s use of child soldiers, Museveni held several peace talks with the LRA in the 1990s (Allen 2006, 70; Amnesty International 1997, 5). Previous peace talks, however, ended with the government’s accusation that the rebels are ‘anti-peace’—a position reinforced by the LRA’s resurgence of violence. Nonetheless, recent peace negotiations leave the Final Peace Agreement between the LRA and the Ugandan government awaiting signatures from both Kony and Museveni (Sudan Tribune, 2008). Moreover, the negotiations were threatened by the LRA’s hesitancy to travel to the talks unless the International Criminal Court dropped its charges for Kony and three of his commanders—the warrants may only be for Kony and two of his commanders now because Kony allegedly had his second in command, Vincent Otti, executed (Independent Online, 2007).

In addition, many northern Ugandans criticize some of Museveni’s policies, such as Operation North in 1991, which blocked migration between northern and southern Uganda, trapping northerners within the LRA’s grasp (Allen 2006, 69-70). Operation Iron Fist I and Operation Iron Fist II also received wide criticism because both involved sending an inadequate number of UPDF into Sudan to attempt to suppress the LRA. In both instances, the operations drove the LRA out of Sudan and back into Uganda, where they increased attacks on civilians (although it is difficult to estimate how much they increased attacks because the LRA also ceased attacking Sudanese civilians [Vinci 2005, 367]). In essence, Museveni’s efforts to end the conflict through peace negotiations and military operations have evoked wide criticism. Nevertheless, his 2000 Amnesty Accord, which encourages soldiers to leave the LRA without fear of legal reparations,[9] does motivate some soldiers to surrender (Vinci, 2005:366-367). Despite the government’s efforts to broadcast the Amnesty Accord over the radio, the LRA prevents many children and soldiers from learning about it.

Because of Museveni’s policies, many northern Ugandans question his commitment to removing children from war, and documentary makers even have recorded Museveni saying that it is tradition for children to know how to fight by the age of four (In a Soldier’s Footsteps, 2005). When Museveni took power in 1986, his forces consisted of many ‘adopted’ children to whom the NRA offered food and clothing in exchange for their services. The NRA used children from 1981 until 1986 when Museveni took power and no longer felt the need to supplement his forces with underage fighters (Dodge 1991, 52). As a result of either international pressure or a sincere change in beliefs, however, President Museveni now argues that Uganda is officially against the use of child soldiers.

Kony began his movement—with little support—as a private gang, which eventually grew to become the current guerrilla movement (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 21). Until 1991, the Acholi were relatively tolerant of the LRA because it was fighting the NRA, who terrorized Acholi locals (Behrend 1999a, 189). In 1991, however, the focus of the LRA shifted from fighting the NRA on behalf of the Acholi to slaughtering the Acholi people themselves (Ward 2003, 200). In 1994, Kony announced that he had had a revelation of how to create a ‘pure’ society, which required killing impure civilians and recruiting children to form a new society. That year, the LRA also gained support from Sudan’s Islamic government—primarily because of the LRA’s ability to fight a rebel movement in Southern Sudan, where many LRA bases were located. With the Sudanese government’s support, the LRA incorporated Sudanese weapons, set up bases in southern Sudan, and added Kony’s interpretation of Islamic doctrine into the movement (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 25). With Sudanese support, Kony achieved a warlord status (which continues to this day) over a submissive Ugandan population because of damage caused by child soldiers.[10]

Aside from Sudan’s funding, which allegedly has ceased (Prendergast, 2005:3), it is unclear where the LRA finds its resources and how much it receives. The LRA does have international representatives who provide some of the revenue that it needs to fund its war. To encourage people abroad (especially in Britain) to donate money for the group through publicity campaigns and the Internet, these representatives frame the LRA’s political goals as a legitimate battle against a corrupt government (de Temmerman 2001, 152). Despite these efforts, the LRA seems to operate with inadequate resources—few recruits have weapons, food is scarce in the group, and the group seems to travel primarily by foot.

Even the composition and quantity of the LRA’s human resources are difficult to determine. Former rebels claim that Kony has thousands of children who follow his every demand without question (Hovil and Lomo 2004, 31). The LRA allegedly grew to a total of 3,000 to 4,000 combatants (Allen 2006, 65). This estimate, however, is from 1997, and it is impossible to know whether it is accurate because of the high death rate among the unwilling children involved. Furthermore, as Tim Allen (2006:63) argues, only a small portion of the LRA is operating in northern Uganda at any given moment, while the remainder of the LRA remains in bordering nations, such as Sudan and the Congo. Therefore, the numbers are difficult to count. Between 1995 and 1997, however, 3,000 to 5,000 children escaped the LRA (estimated by UNICEF), leaving another 3,000 to 5,000 abductees unaccounted for (HRW 1997, 4). One important note with these estimates is that the UPDF and the LRA kill many of the children who attempt to escape during or shortly after battle. Other children die of starvation, disease, dehydration, or occasionally violence by civilians who fear for their own safety. Furthermore, outsiders may consider children who wish to escape but never do to be loyal members of the LRA.

Background on Children in the LRA

The LRA relies upon unwilling recruits, whom it forcibly integrates into the movement with the hope that they will not attempt to escape (Vinci 2005, 367).[11] While the LRA will abduct a few adults for short periods (only hours or days), the group focuses recruiting efforts on children (Allen 2006, 64). Most adults abducted into the LRA are either released or killed before they undergo all the initiation rituals that children experience. Therefore, the experiences of most kidnapped children in the LRA differ tremendously from those of adults. One reason that the LRA targets children is Kony’s desire to form a future Acholi race from the children born and abducted into his movement. “They are supposed to be a blank sheet of paper that may be filled by Kony’s commandments” (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 25). Children are ideal for building a pure society because they have not yet been socialized fully into the Acholi way of life, and Kony believes that the Acholi need moral rejuvenation to prevent the apocalypse. Another benefit from recruiting children is that they are effective scouts and soldiers because their size makes them difficult for the enemy to see (Shaw 2003, 241).

The United Nations (2003, 15) estimates that the LRA has abducted more than 20,000 children since 1990. Many factors, however, make it nearly impossible to confirm this estimate. For example, Kristen Cheney (2005, 38) found that many people report fabricated abduction stories to the UPDF, hoping to receive the increased rations offered to escapees in the camps for internally displaced people. Moreover, Tim Allen (2006, 62) argues that more adults than children claim that the LRA abducted them—even though there are more children in the LRA than there are adults—and that self-reported abduction rates are higher than the probable number of abductions. Conversely, some returnees try to avoid reporting because they fear community reprisals—children who escape the LRA often face some form of ostracism when they return home. In addition, no clear criterion exists to assess what ‘abduction’ means, and the LRA abducts people for durations ranging from hours to years.

On a related issue, researchers also dispute the age of children the LRA targets. According to the United Nations (2003, 15), the majority of children the LRA abducts are between the ages of eight and fifteen. Amnesty International (1997, 1), however, reports that the majority of children abducted are between the ages of thirteen and sixteen because older children are stronger. Human Rights Watch (1997, 2) nearly confirms Amnesty International’s estimates by stating that the LRA prefers children between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. Other reports suggest both that the LRA now targets younger children and that commanders are younger than before because older children have a better understanding of the government’s Amnesty Accord and therefore are more likely to attempt to escape (Vinci 2005, 366-367). If the LRA’s target age for children changed between 1997 and 2003, then the differences between Amnesty International (1997) and Human Rights Watch (1997) estimates versus the United Nations (2003) estimates might reflect changes within the LRA itself.

Regardless of their age, children who fill any LRA role for any amount of time experience atrocities. Even the children and adults whom the LRA forces to carry loot for a distance and then sets free or abandons in unfamiliar territory often tell terrifying stories (Cheney 2005, 28). This shared experience of atrocities is in part because the LRA raids villages at night (with previously recruited child soldiers), takes children from their homes, and massacres anyone whom the group claims is impure. Consequently, even children who avoid abduction often witness murders.

After abduction into the LRA, most children spontaneously fill several roles, the most common of which is hauling. The LRA considers some children to be too young to fight, and it forces those children to haul, loot, or watch in high trees for UPDF soldiers until they become soldiers, die, or escape (Allen, 2006:69). All children conduct household duties, although the majority of tasks fall on the shoulders of wives (young girls who Kony assigns to commanders as rewards, with no formal marriage ceremonies), small children, and wife assistants (girls whom the LRA considers too young to be wives [Amnesty International 1997, 16; UN 2003, 47]). Small children run errands, fetch water, and cultivate land on the somewhat permanent bases, while wives conduct the majority of meal-preparation duties (HRW, 2003:3). Some human-rights groups and newspapers argue that the LRA also trades children as slaves for weapons in Sudan (Oxfam 2001, 18; Zarembo 1996). Amnesty International (1997, 9), however, found no evidence of the LRA’s involvement in the slave trade.

Few children ever receive a gun, but at some point, the LRA forces most children (whether or not they are trained or the LRA considers them to be old enough) onto the front lines of battle. Small, unarmed children (most of whom are haulers) fight on the front line during the LRA’s battles because their deaths hurt the LRA less than the deaths of trained soldiers and commanders (HRW 1997, 37). Moreover, commanders instruct children not to take cover, and to fight ruthlessly to avoid physical punishment following battle, and most children follow suit: “Child warriors are often the most feared of all soldiers as they have been acculturated to violence and have few scruples about killing” (Shaw 2003, 241). Child soldiers kill very effectively, especially in an ambush, because they are small and difficult to spot (Hundeide 2003, 118).

When it encounters child soldiers, the UPDF is subject to fright like many other armies—becoming temporarily paralyzed, ineffective in skill and communication, and suffering physiological effects, all of which affect the army’s fighting ability (Vinci 2005, 374). Despite members’ fear, the UPDF often fires to disperse children and to encourage them to escape; the army, however, still hits many of them (Mazurana and McKay 2004, 79). The LRA uses the deaths of these children to discourage local support of the UPDF by arguing that the UPDF, which is supposed to be protecting Acholiland, is murdering children (Hovil and Lomo 2004, 33).

Physical Coercion

The LRA subjects children to constant physical coercion in an effort to force them to become effective laborers and soldiers. LRA commanders enter homes and schools at night, often burning them down and beating or killing families while they abduct children. After the LRA removes children from their homes, it subjects them to constant violence, the threat of death, food deprivation, and the deprivation of adequate clothing and equipment. Many children respond to this abuse with anxiety for survival and total surrender to their commanders’ orders (Hundeide 2003, 116). These children do not know what the commander will do to them—kill them, beat them, abandon them, rape them, force them to kill, or release them (Allen 2006, 61). Human Rights Watch (1997, 18) argues that some children are instantly frightened to the point that their experiences seem imaginary: “the pain, fear, and shock combine to create a numbness, a dizziness—a sense, at times, that madness is not far off.”

During marches, children—without rest, water, or food—carry heavy loads of looted food and goods (Cheney, 2005:27). LRA commanders bind new abductees together for the long march to a base camp and expect the abductees to behave throughout the trek (Cheney 2005, 27). Disobedience in the LRA ranges from getting tired and lagging behind, to refusal to kill upon request, to escape attempts. If a commander considers an abductee to be disobedient, then the commander forces the other children to kill that child as an example of what happens to those who are disobedient. Furthermore, the LRA frequently alters rules, and commanders occasionally trick children into punishment (Legget 2001, 32). For instance, periodically commanders will ask tired-looking children if they would like a ‘rest’ and some children will say ‘yes.’ A ‘rest,’ however, actually means that they will be killed and the LRA forces abductees to beat to death children who answered affirmatively (HRW 1997, 16; Oxfam 2001, 22).

In addition, the LRA conducts violent rituals on the way to base camp. First, each child experiences ‘registration,’ which is about fifty lashes that commanders administer to desensitize children to pain (Vinci 2005, 37). After registration, and after any other beating, commanders instruct children not to touch their wounds at the risk of another assault (de Temmerman 2001, 45).[12] Even before these initiation tactics, many children want to escape, but the LRA murders children who attempt to leave and often threatens to attack the families of successful escapees. The LRA keeps records of abductees’ families and communities, so that in the event of escapes it can punish the escapees by harming their loved ones (Hovil and Lomo 2004, 32).[13] Moreover, children who do escape may not know where they are or how to find help, and they lack the supplies needed to attempt the trek home. Usually children fear the LRA more than these other factors, but both make any escape attempt extremely risky.

Psychological and Spiritual Manipulation

In addition to these physical abuses, the LRA uses psychological and religious tactics to control children. It is possible that the LRA uses drugs in addition to these methods; however, I have found only one newspaper article to support that possibility (Sunday Vision, 2007). Many of the LRA’s religious rituals work to garner group loyalty and obedience. Moreover, the LRA forces all recruits to commit atrocities, which carry communal, psychological, and spiritual consequences. The LRA also relies on its own structure to create a social environment that socializes children into the group’s violent norms. These tactics, along with the constant physical threat of violence, create ‘exit costs’ (i.e., all the reasons not to leave a group [Zablocki 1998, 219]), which make some children more fearful of leaving the group than remaining within it.

LRA guerrilla tactics resonate throughout all LRA behavior, and many of them seem to be more spiritually driven than rationally practical. These tactics help the LRA control recruits through religious connotations and confusion by creating a mystical environment that enforces the alleged reality of the unseen world. For instance, one escapee claims that before crossing the road, commanders sprinkle water and say a prayer that ensures safe passage (Hovil and Lomo 2004, 30). To preserve the sanctity of streams, Kony instructs rebels to remove their shoes before crossing and forbids rebels to urinate in running water (de Temmerman 2001, 73). Committed LRA members believe that if they use certain stones around their fires, then those stones will explode like bombs (Lily in HRW 1997, 41). These rituals and rules ensure obedience and purity throughout the LRA ranks. Some tactics, conversely, seem to relate purely to militia needs. For example, in an attempt to prevent attacks, commanders kill children who allow government, SPLA, and civilians to see smoke from their fires (Amnesty International 1997, 17). Some LRA members use terror tactics that Kony’s alleged jogi disapprove of, such as the rape of civilians (Amnesty International 1997, 11).

The LRA’s use of religion complicates children’s understanding of their situation in the group. For instance, the LRA conducts rituals in an effort to teach children that supernatural powers will prevent their escape. Using shea butter, the LRA smears markings on its new recruits, which the LRA insists brings children who attempt to escape back to the group (Hovil and Lomo, 2004:30; escapee in Allen 2006, 68). Escapees informed Zarembo (1996) that LRA rebels also believe that the mountains return escapees to the LRA for physical punishment. Many children, who believe that the sacred items and markings return them to the group if they attempt to escape, fear the consequences of an escape attempt even more than they fear remaining within the group.

Additionally, many children express fear of Joseph Kony’s alleged supernatural powers and his ability to sense deviant thoughts. Charles, fifteen, believes that Kony ‘reads minds’: “‘If a rebel who was a captive had ill feeling against Kony, Kony would be told by the spirits and would kill him. Spirits would also tell Kony who tried to escape’” (quoted in HRW 1997, 34). Many abductees fear that Kony will read their minds and punish them if they think of running away (Allen 2006, 19). As a result of the combination of supernatural claims, psychological abuse, and physical threat, the costs associated with exiting the LRA are extremely high.

The LRA also creates exit costs by forcing new recruits to conduct ‘committed actions’—tasks that both hinder children’s psychological return to their communities and promote group loyalty (Hundeide 2003, 119). In the LRA, children conduct committed actions before they reach base camp. The LRA often makes children kill abducted adults and family members to prove that there is no possibility of returning home. Killings during the trek to camp exemplify the necessity of obedience (there have been very few exceptions of children escaping death after they disobey or refuse to kill [Legget 2001, 30-32]).[14] Furthermore, many costs associated with committed actions are closely related to Acholi traditional religion and local taboos.

One example of a spiritual consequence that relates to Acholi traditional religion involves contamination with cen (dangerous polluting spirits of those killed by soldiers [Allen 2006, 34]). Some commanders tell abductees that if they refuse to kill, then the commanders will remove the head of the victim and force the children to carry it (escapee in Allen 2006, 69). Many Acholi believe that carrying the head of a victim transfers the cen of that victim onto the carrier (Allen, 2006:69). Therefore, many Acholi children kill in part to avoid cen (Allen 2006, 70).

Other examples include accounts that the LRA forces children to commit cannibalism, blood drinking, and blood smearing. These atrocities traumatize the youthful perpetrators and shock their former communities, making the potential return to normal life nearly impossible. When commanders force children to drink their victims’ blood, they assure the children that if they try to escape the spirit of that victim will kill them (Judah 2004, 63). Nassan Opiyo tells of his initiation:

‘After killing the boy I was ordered to let the blood come out and to drink it and I did it. I was told that if I did not do it I would be killed myself. The rebels caught the blood in a large leaf and other captives were also forced to drink it. They said, “If you try to escape, the spirit of the boy will follow you wherever you go and kill you”’ (quoted in Judah 2004, 62).

Opiyo’s testimony exemplifies how the LRA forces children to break cultural ties while it provokes a fear of the supernatural.

Furthermore, an escapee named Susan alleges that the LRA forced her to kill a boy who tried to escape, and then forced all the children in her faction to smear his blood on their bodies so that they would not fear death (HRW 1997, 1). Some children, such as J.O., even testify to eating human flesh. J.O. explains that, after killing two UPDF soldiers, his commander stated, “The new recruits can now feed themselves on these two soldiers” (quoted in Amnesty International 1997, 22). UPDF soldiers confirm allegations of cannibalism with a report from 2002 that they found rebels who had killed people, “chopped them up and stuffed them into a twenty liter cooking pot” (Wendo 2003, 1818).[15] As a result of having committed these atrocities, the death of their families, and their fear of supernatural reparations, many children in the LRA feel that any return to their old lives is impossible (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 25).[16]

Girls in the LRA

Girls face unique problems in the LRA. Unlike boys, girls in the LRA are assigned to commanders as ‘wives’ (i.e., sex slaves), despite the fact that Kony initially prohibited all sex in his movement (Behrend 1999a, 194). Kony gives out wives as chattel without marriage ceremonies (Amnesty International 1997, 18). Young girls often become wife assistants or train as LRA nurses until the LRA believes that they are old enough for marriage (HRW 1997, 26). After they become wives, girls remain at the LRA’s permanent bases for longer durations than do boys, which hinder their escape opportunities.

The sexual abuse that girls face at the hands of their commanders has dire consequences for their lives. Most dramatically, girls’ sexual victimization heightens their fears that their families and communities might never reaccept them if they escape, especially if they have had children in the group or have contracted STDs (90 percent of escapee girls contracted one or more STDS, usually HIV/AIDS [Cheney 2003, 43 n. 2; Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 25-26; HRW 1997, 29). Lowering girls’ self-esteem and sense of communal belonging is a way the LRA creates exit costs that apply only to females. As a result, girls are less likely to attempt escape than boys, and they have fewer opportunities to do so.

The LRA abducts girls based on alleged spiritual guidance from Kony’s jogi, along with assessments of each girl’s beauty, intelligence, and age. (Wives are usually in their teens or early twenties, although some are younger [Allen 2006, 63; Amnesty International 1997, 12].) LRA commanders beat rebels who bring shame to the others by capturing wives whom the leaders do not consider beautiful or intelligent enough (Amnesty International 1997, 12). Moreover, when Sister Rachel, who is a nun teaching at the Aboke School in northern Uganda, came to the rebels to plead for the return of the girls who the LRA abducted from that school, the rebels allowed her to take 109 of the 139 girls whom they had kidnapped. A commander explained to Sister Rachel that Kony’s jogi requested that they retain 30 beautiful girls (Amnesty International 1997, 12). Despite the return of the girls in the Aboke incident, the LRA often kills abducted girls whom it does not consider pretty.

Girls whom the LRA considers worthy of abduction and who survive their trek to camp undergo a second ritual initiation to prepare them to serve as wives. During this ritual, the LRA forces girls to remove their shirts, bathe, and then stand in one of 32 squares on a heart-shaped grid drawn on the ground (de Temmerman 2001, 52; HRW 1997, 32). Then a commander dips an egg in powder and water and smears it on the girls’ chests and backs in the shape of a heart as well as on their forehead and lips in the shape of a cross (HRW 1997, 32). If the egg breaks during this ritual, then the commander believes that evil jogi possess the girl and he kills her (de Temmerman 2001, 52). Commanders tell girls that this initiation ritual is from the Bible and will protect them. Afterward, the LRA forces the girls to remain bare-chested for three days (HRW 1997, 32).

Following their initiation into the LRA, Kony issues abducted girls to his commanders as wives. Commanders only take the girls whom Kony and senior commanders assigned to them because of their beliefs: “They [the LRA commanders] are superstitious that Kony knows everything they do. Kony doesn’t want them to ‘contaminate’ women because Kony picks the women and then shares the rest among others” (HRW 2005, 22). The LRA punishes the rape of girls before they become commanders’ wives, but after marriage the girls have no right to refuse sex. Occasionally, senior commanders limit the rights a commander has over his wives, forcing him to take some responsibility for his wives’ well-being (Amnesty International 1997, 18). When, however, senior commanders apply these limits, they are very liberal. A Commander has the freedom to beat, rape, or kill their wives, especially any wife who fails to provide the sexual services that he demands (HRW 1997, 28). Most girls initially refuse their commanders and the commanders beat them until they submit. It is extremely rare for a girl to survive after she successfully refuses her commander.[17]

The higher a member of the LRA ascends, the more wives he receives. Kony has the most wives, totaling somewhere between thirty and eighty-eight (Behrend 1999a, 194). Kony’s senior commanders each have eight wives, and other high ranks (some still children) receive four wives (Amnesty International 1997, 20). Upon death or leave of a commander, Kony may redistribute his wives amongst other commanders, or (rarely) release a widowed abductee (Amnesty International 1997, 19).[18] Because most LRA soldiers do not receive wives and the LRA considers boys to be stronger, about 70 percent of all abductees are male (Allen 2006, 64). Nevertheless, girls who are abducted face greater barriers to escape because they often are kept in the LRA’s permanent bases or base camps during battles (most escapees leave the LRA during or shortly after battles). Also, they often have born children into the group and the physical presence of these children greatly complicates escape possibilities.

Spiritualism in Guerrilla Warfare

At some point, all children in the LRA experience the LRA’s spiritually justified guerrilla tactics. Some children, however, experience more battles than others, depending on the tasks to which they were assigned. For instance, a child who is a wife, wife assistant, or hauler may experience fewer battles than a soldier because the LRA uses all children only in unplanned battles. In planned battles, the LRA prefers to use trained (albeit inadequately trained) soldiers, although it may also use some untrained soldiers on the front lines. Because many children do not know how to fight and do not wield weapons, the LRA uses its spiritual teachings to discipline soldiers and, to some extent, all children.

Before recruits become soldiers, the LRA conducts a spiritual initiation designed to give them more confidence in their ability to fight. Initiation for soldiers is similar to that of new recruits and girls. Prior to the ritual, Kony creates an environment that recruits often attribute to the powers of his jogi. To prepare new soldiers, Kony and his controllers (LRA members who assist with spiritual affairs) draw crosses on children’s foreheads and chests with a mixture of shea butter and ochre, and then they arrange the children into the shape of a cross (Behrend 1999a, 183). Only after preparation can Kony’s soldiers enter the yard (an area designated for divining and cleansing), where Kony begins the service (Behrend 1999a, 183). Next, Kony’s controllers sprinkle the soldiers with holy water that Kony gathers from a rock near Awere (a town located in northern Uganda); this water allegedly cleanses them of witchcraft and sorcery, and loads them with malaika (spirit or angel [Behrend 1999b, 29; Doom, and Vlassenroot 1998, 23]). During this process, Kony wears a Kansu (the Muslim garment that he also wears during channeling sessions) and instructs his soldiers to give themselves to God in exchange for protection from the malaika (Behrend 1999a, 183). After the initiation, controllers draw white ashes into a cross on each soldier’s body for protection from injury and disease (Behrend 1999a, 183). Finally, Kony prohibits his initiated soldiers from touching any uninitiated soldiers for three days at risk of losing the malaika’s protection, thereby isolating purified and protected soldiers from other abductees (Behrend 1999a, 183). [19]

Before a planned battle, LRA commanders and soldiers respond to the jogi’s commands, which change slightly from battle to battle, as voiced through Kony (Hovil and Lomo 2004, 30; HRW 1997, 34). Jogi’s orders for commanders often differ from those imposed on soldiers. For example, an escapee named Lily says that Kony’s jogi require that commanders do not sleep with their wives the night before fighting (HRW 1997, 34). Other pre-battle rules apply to all soldiers, commanders, and children, such as rules about which stones they are not to step on or to throw (HRW 1997, 34).

Some rules apply only to soldiers. For instance, Kony’s jogi allegedly order child soldiers to fast for up to three days and brush their teeth on the day of battle to ensure that they are clean enough to receive the malaika’s protection (Hovil and Lomo 2004, 31). James, a fourteen-year-old escapee, told HRW (1997, 35) about how the Holy Spirit instructed the child soldiers not to eat on the day of battle:

There were contradictions in what he [Kony when channeling a spirit] said, so I didn’t believe it all ... [but] when Kony would order no eating —if you eat during the day you’ll die in battle. I believe that, because I saw a boy who ate that day, and he later died in battle.

James believes Kony’s rule about eating before battle, but also explains that he rejects many of Kony’s other rules. Moreover, because food is scarce in the LRA, fasting likely distorts children’s critical thinking and ability to plan escapes.

The LRA also practices rituals immediately before battle. Commanders again mark Christian crosses on children’s foreheads, chests, each of their shoulders, and their guns, claiming that the markings prevent injury from bullets during battle (HRW 1997, 35). LRA doctrine suggests that the oil that commanders use to mark children carries the power of the Holy Spirit, the malaikas’ protection, and the power of invisibility (Hovil and Lomo 2004, 31; HRW 1997, 35). Furthermore, commanders allegedly protect their soldiers with the peripheral jogi, as well as with living animals such as bees and snakes (Behrend 1999b, 31). The LRA assures soldiers that if they follow Kony’s rules, called the Ten Safety Precautions (like Alice Auma’s rules), and avoid sin, then malaika and jogi will protect them from bullets (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 26). Stephen, an escapee, argues, “Some young children believe it—and those who have been there so long, five, seven, ten years, they believe in it very much” (quoted in HRW 1997, 35). That is, many child soldiers believe that only if they offend the Holy Spirit, which guides Joseph Kony, will they lose the protection of that spirit and die in battle.

In addition, the LRA teaches child soldiers that if they are disobedient the jogi and malaika will actually harm them. Thomas explains how Kony’s jogi allegedly harm disobedient children after commanders have ordered children to march, sing, and clap their hands in battle: “‘If you fail to clap your hands while you sing, a bullet would hit your hand. If you fail to sing, a bullet would hit your mouth. If you fail to walk always forward, a bullet would hit your leg’” (quoted in HRW 1997, 38). Commanders teach unarmed child soldiers that they will die if they deviate from these instructions, which often prevent children from taking cover in battle and requires them to fearlessly walk into open gunfire (Van Acker 2004, 349). Samuel testifies that the malaika instructed children not to show any worry in battle:

‘He [Kony] said the Holy Spirit knows the source of worry—the Holy Spirit says that if you worry or show signs of unhappiness, all your family members will be killed, or you will never be able to return to Uganda.’ (quoted in HRW 1997, 35)

Children who do not believe that following the Holy Spirit’s orders (voiced through Kony) will protect them often still believe that if they deviate from those rules then they will suffer.

Furthermore, Charles explains that, whether or not soldiers have guns, if the commanders tell them to go to the front line, then they must move forward (HRW 1997, 37). He explains that the commanders stay behind and use sticks to beat those who do not run to the front:

‘If you had a gun, you had to be firing all the time or you would be killed. And you were not allowed to take cover. The order from the Holy Spirit was not to take cover. You must have no fear, and stand up and fire. This was because they [the rebels] said you would be protected by the Holy Spirit if you stood tall and had no fear. But if you took cover, the Holy Spirit would be angry and you would be shot dead with bullets.

So many, so many were killed.’ (quoted in HRW 1997, 37)

Many children on the front lines die within their first few battles, while the commanders remain in the back where their enemies’ bullets do not reach. Consequently, many children believe that their commanders have supernatural powers that prevent bullets from hitting them (Allen 2006, 69).

In addition, the LRA requires children who do not carry weapons to conduct spiritual tactics during battle. Samuel, an escapee, testifies about some of the tactics in which he partook:

‘ take a small stone, you sew it on a cloth and wear it around your wrist like a watch. That is to prevent the bullet that might come, because in battle it is acting as a mountain. So those people on the other side will look at you, but they will see only a mountain, and the bullets will hit the mountain and not hurt you.

You also have water: they [LRA commanders] call it “clean water,” and they pour it into a small bottle. If you go to the front, you also have a small stick, and you dip it in the bottle and fling the water out. This is a river and it drowns the bullet that might come to you.

Finally you wear a cross on a chain. But in the fighting you wrap it around your wrist and hold it in your hand. Should you make a mistake and not wear it on your hand, you will be killed.’ (quoted in HRW 1997, 35-36)

Samuel believes in the spiritual protection that the LRA claims to receive in battle. But he believes, like many Acholi, that this protection is not from Tipu Maleng but from an evil jok who instructs Kony to kill (HRW 1997, 36).

LRA battalions combat government forces with this combination of witchcraft and Western military strategies (Allen 2006, 39; Behrend 1999b, 29). LRA members also conduct certain rituals in an effort to use supernatural forces against their opponents. Kony’s controllers claim to disable their enemies’ weapons by placing wire models of them into a fire and then quickly cooling them; they also claim to harm their enemies by flooding rivers on maps and throwing rocks (Behrend 1999a, 184). Some children believe their commanders’ assertions that all injury, illness, and death—civilian, government, and rebel—are punishment for sins and for breaking the commands that Tipu Maleng (roughly, the Holy Spirit) voices through Kony (Amnesty International 1997, 6; HRW 1997, 39).[20]

Kony’s use of religion to justify violence is clear from his speech at the peace talks in Uganda in 1994:

‘If you picked up an arrow against us and we ended up cutting off the hand you used, who is to blame? You report us with your mouth, and we cut off your lips. Who is to blame? It is you! The Bible says that if your hand, eye or mouth is at fault, it should be cut off.’ (Joseph Kony quoted in Allen 2006, 42)

When LRA leaders accuse a civilian of breaking a rule, they use Kony’s interpretation of religion to justify the amputation of the body part needed to perform the accused action (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 27). For example, the LRA amputates the legs of people caught using bicycles and removes or padlocks the lips of people who speak out or are thought to potentially speak out against the group (O’Loughlin 1997, 7). Kony also uses the ban on pork consumption from Orthodox Islam to justify slaughtering people who raise pigs (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 25). The LRA amputates an arm from civilians caught working on Fridays because of Kony’s belief that Islam bans working on those days (Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 25). (Ironically, enforcing this ban must require that members of the LRA work on Fridays to locate and mutilate offenders). Other mutilations include sewing eyes shut, raping, inflicting burns, and removing ears, hands, or heads (Vinci 2005, 370). Kony’s soldiers—abducted children who appear to “have had little compunction in punishing what they see as [the civilians’] failure to obey the spirits”—inflict these punishments under the guidance of their commanders (Ward 2003, 216).

Life Inside the LRA

Many abductees realize that they need to ascend the hierarchy within the LRA to increase their survival chances (Behrend 1999a, 194; Doom and Vlassenroot 1998, 25). New recruits fight on the front lines where death rates are high and commanders are more generous to children who adhere to the LRA’s ideals. Survival chances within the LRA depend on respect for religious beliefs, obedience to familial rules, and success in military actions (Hundeide 2003, 118). These three areas—religion, family, and militia—also represent the three hierarchies that exist within the LRA. Each hierarchy legitimates the privileges of certain members and the need to respect senior members. Kony—who is the spiritual leader, the Father, and the Major General—heads each of these dimensions with the help of his commanders and the alleged guidance of his jogi (Amnesty International 1997, 15).

Many escapee children use familial terms to describe their LRA units (Amnesty International 1997, 15). Joseph Kony is the head of all the extended families of the LRA: “‘The rebels call Joseph Kony their father...’” (Christine, quoted in HRW 1997, 32), and senior commanders under Kony operate as heads of smaller families and teachers (Amnesty International 1997, 15-16). Kristen Cheney (2005, 33) argues that by filling the roles of fathers and teachers, commanders replace normative structures (such as schools and families) for the abducted children. Normative structures within the LRA serve to teach children how to behave in the ‘pure’ society that the LRA hopes to create (Cheney 2005, 33). For instance, the LRA regulates who has sex, determines with whom recruits eat, and requires respect for elders and commanders (Cheney 2005, 33). The rules within the LRA contradict many Acholi traditional values—such as the sanctity of life and the taboo against rape. In addition, the LRA punishes disobedience with severe beatings or death.

Senior commanders and their wives are the parents of all children within their units. Wives are subordinate parents ruled by their commanders and are responsible for bearing children and maintaining their families. Each commander and his wives are responsible for the children under the age of thirteen (called siblings) and new children (called recruits [Amnesty International 1997, 15; Behrend 1999a, 195]). A commander has the authority to teach, punish, and kill siblings and wives (Cheney 2005, 34).

Kony’s commanders (some of whom were child soldiers) control military factions and subunits under the direction of brigadiers who head large divisions and advise Kony. Each unit has a midlevel religious officer who administers prayers, fasting, and other spiritual duties (Vinci 2005, 368). Field commanders, who usually are abductees who have proven their loyalty, head each subunit (Vinci 2005, 368). Subunits might further split down to groups of two or three during attacks, in which case the abductees usually supervise each other but occasionally escape together (Vinci 2005, 368). Each unit is self-sufficient, even when broken down to two members, although the units often are disorganized despite communication efforts using cell phones and radios (Vinci 2005, 368). This organization style makes escape attempts risky because children constantly supervise each other in both their families and military units. Some abductees who are trying to obey and advance in the LRA report those who try to escape to commanders and the commanders subsequently force the other children to murder those whose escape attempts have failed.

Some children ascend the LRA’s hierarchy by internalizing or pretending to internalize the LRA’s doctrine and behaviors. If soldiers ascend high in the LRA, then they may transfer to a specialty unit, such as the Kafun, which specializes in killing. A story from a child soldier who became a commander of the Kafun unit, Thomas Kopkulu, displays the torture that higher ranks inflict on civilians under Kony’s direction:

He [Kopkulu] and his troops captured dozens of villagers, and Kony told them how the villagers should be treated. After nine of them were killed, other villagers were forced, at gunpoint, to chop them up into small pieces. These were then put in a big pot, salted, and boiled. After they [the villagers] finished eating, Kopkulu said “all those people were killed.” (Judah 2004, 63)

The Kafun, according to Kopkulu, operate under the direction of Kony’s jogi (Judah 2004, 63). Divisions such as the Kafun might create large numbers of (child) soldiers who are unwilling to surrender because of the extent and number of their atrocities.

Most children who ascend the hierarchy do not go to a specialty unit, but instead gain control over a small subunit of the LRA. Kony rewards these children for helping him manage his forces with special privileges over other members (Allen 2006, 65). Privileges that the LRA awards to new commanders include control over others (including underage wives), extra food and water, and fighting further back during battles, where mortality rates are lower than on the front line. These privileges create a sense of power and security for obedient soldiers, some of whom eventually internalize the group’s behavior.

While in the LRA, however, even children who do not internalize the LRA’s ideals must act against morals to survive. Guerrilla forces such as the LRA demand that children adhere to “new explanations of reality and a worldview that undermines their traditional values and conceptions of reality” (Hundeide 2003, 117). For instance, LRA commanders teach that expressing emotion (especially sensitivity to atrocities) is bad, whereas fearlessly fighting, mutilating, and murdering people is good. Children learn that their opinions do not matter and that their lives are worth less than the LRA’s cause (or at least they behave as if they believe in the diminished value of their lives’ worth).

To adhere to LRA ideals and morals, children imitate their commanders because the LRA is very secretive about its guiding doctrines. Children who imitate their commanders are mimicking men who have killed countless people, do not care for their captives, and dictate the death, abduction, and release of abducted children (Allen, 2006:64). Some abductees see their commanders as symbols of power, manhood, protection, and survival (Hundeide 2003, 116). Their commanders become a “guide to adulthood” for some of the younger children, who surround themselves with their aggressors and copy their behaviors (Cheney 2005, 34). Many children, however, perform the tasks assigned by commanders and imitate them without regarding them as positive role models (Cheney 2005, 34). Charles, a fifteen-year-old escapee, never wished to be like his commander, but he was aware that mimicking the man would increase his chances of survival and eventual escape. Consequently, he ingratiated himself to his commander and copied his behavior. Charles explains, “‘You had to adapt yourself so quickly to that kind of life’” (quoted in HRW 1997, 20).

The LRA isolates children from all media sources, information, and outside people in an effort to ensure that they behave as told. The LRA’s isolation tactics are evident from escapees’ ignorance of the Amnesty Accord (Vinci 2005, 366-367) despite the fact that the government issued many amnesty appeals over the radio (Hovil and Lomo 2004, 64). In isolation, guerrilla movements usually teach children their groups’ values through “direct indoctrination” (teaching new followers the group’s core beliefs and motives [Hundeide 2003, 118]). In the LRA, however, direct indoctrination plays a small role in creating insiders when compared to the various forms of coercion and manipulation, participation in atrocities, and imitation of commanders’ behaviors.

The LRA rarely teaches new recruits its main political and religious goals. It is impossible to know how many committed child soldiers in the LRA know the group’s goals. Most escapee children know little more than the LRA’s goal to capture the Ugandan capital, Kampala (HRW 1997, 30). Many escapees testify to their confusion regarding the LRA’s complicated beliefs and its secrecy, despite the group’s expectations for children to respect its rituals:

‘They prayed a lot, but they didn’t pray like normal Christians. Sometimes they would use rosaries, but sometimes they would bow down like Muslims. They said they had malaika [spirit, angel]. They said the malaika said there would be a terrible fight, and the government would be overthrown. After that, they said we would be released. Sometimes they would gather us and try to convince us to believe them.

They believed in their local gods, and they didn’t want us to learn about their malaika. They discouraged us from asking questions about their beliefs. If you asked too many questions they would become cruel.’ (Molly, seventeen-years old, in HRW 1997, 31)

Molly’s testimony displays the LRA’s secrecy regarding its beliefs, as well as her lack of understanding of the rituals that she witnessed.

Even without understanding the LRA’s motives, some returnees internalize aspects of the LRA’s violent lifestyle. Information about children who internalize the LRA’s morals and choose to remain within the LRA is difficult to obtain, probably because these children are isolated from outsiders and often remain soldiers until they are killed. It is impossible to assume that all children within the LRA wish to escape as badly as those who try or succeed in leaving. It is possible, however, that many children who remain within the LRA are simply playing a role until they are confident they can escape. Nevertheless, some children who remain with the LRA appear to have a desire to kill and to remain in the group, which may result from their experience within the group and their wish to impress their commanders. A World Vision counselor (at the World Vision camp for escapees) related a story in which a man who was carjacked on the road to Kitgum overheard a child begging his commander to let him kill the man because he had not killed anybody yet (Cheney 2005, 44). Children, like the child in this example, have new goals and values that they approach in a unique emotional, cognitive, and motivational manner (Hundeide 2003, 119).

Some children, however, are aware of Kony’s goal of annihilating and rebuilding the Acholi population:

‘...we Acholi are very bad people, and we must all become better before we can rule in our land. This is what the Holy Spirit has ordered. This is why some people must be killed: we must become pure, and many Acholi do not follow the orders of the Holy Spirit anymore. Many of them are working with jok [spirits]. So they must be killed. This is what the rebels told me.’ (George, fourteen, quoted in HRW 1997, 34)

With this doctrine, any atrocity against the Acholi is legitimized. Some children who know about the LRA’s goals to prevent the apocalypse can justify their role in murdering civilians. Nevertheless, other children who learn of the LRA’s goals often do not understand the contradictions between the group’s plan to oust the government and its actions against northern Ugandan civilians, because most northern Ugandans do not support the government (Hovil and Lomo 2004, 25).


Under the same regime, many children carry different attitudes regarding their involvement, even when they share similar behaviors. Karsten Hundeide (2003, 115-116) identifies that children under the same regime may fit into different psychological categories, and therefore, mass diagnosis—i.e., labeling children ‘brainwashed,’ sociopathic, symptomatic of ‘post-traumatic stress,’ or victims—is impossible. Moreover, mass diagnosis has major effects for current and escaped LRA abductees.[21] For example, the UPDF’s controversial policy of shooting escaped children before they perform a violent act results from the UPDF’s fear that all children in the LRA are brainwashed, vicious killers.

Many people believe that children in the LRA are ruthless and are easily brainwashed: “‘The rebels ... target the children, because they are brainwashed very fast ... and when they do something they don’t really reason: “What I am doing is bad”...’” (an escapee quoted in Allen 2006, 42). Most abducted children, however, do not become as violent or obedient as the LRA hopes. Escapees from the LRA often express that they always knew violence was wrong, but they were frightened of what would happen if they disobeyed. The consequences of disobedience are severe—physical abuse, death, or escape into an ambivalent (often hostile) society. The majority of escapees, however, are children who committed atrocities but did not internalize their experience in the LRA as a desirable or permanent part of their identities. These children, therefore, cannot speak for all children who remain in the movement.

Nevertheless, many escapees find that their history with the LRA makes it difficult to suppress their violent tendencies after they enter a rehabilitation center or return home. Anthony Vinci (2005, 37) mentions that there are some instances of “sociopathic returnees killing siblings because they ‘would not be quiet’” (Vinci 2005, 37). Moreover, a girl who spoke to the Sunday Vision (2007) informed journalists that she attempted to murder her sister despite her guilt regarding her former involvement with the LRA. These returnees’ violent compulsions reflect the strict obedience and severe punishment that they experienced within the LRA.

Even with the terror that the LRA inflicts, northern Ugandans and their children suffer the most from fear and instability as people abandon their way of life to seek refuge from violent terrorism to find only unsafe living conditions within internally displaced persons’ camps. This article has focused specifically on the role of children within the LRA because without children—most of whom are unwilling participants—the LRA could not maintain its power. The LRA forces children to attack and mutilate their own communities, while it isolates them in extremely harsh conditions. The LRA’s use of religious jargon, psychological manipulation, and physical abuse makes both escape and disobedience to its rules seem impossible for many children. Most children abducted by the LRA die from the environment and the violence that direct the lives of LRA soldiers. Children who survive the environment, however, must either fulfill the roles that the LRA forces upon them while they are awaiting escape, or internalize the LRA’s violent lifestyle. As a result, many LRA members appear to be ruthless soldiers, and many escapees appear to be helpless victims. In reality, however, it is impossible to tell which children are pretending to internalize their roles in the LRA and which cannot successfully leave the group.


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About the Author

Terra Manca’s research interests include both religious movements and alternative medicines that relate to various health issues. Currently she is writing her Master’s thesis at the University of Alberta under the supervision of Professor Stephen Kent.

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2008, Page

[1] I extend thanks to Sara Dorow for her insights into the plight of children, and Guy Thompson for his insights about Ugandan social and historical life. I also thank Paul Joosse and anonymous reviewers for their editorial comments. Special thanks go to Stephen Kent for his editing and his granting me access to the Kent collection on Alternative Religions, which is housed at the University of Alberta Library.

[2] Tipu Maleng also may refer to ‘clean spirits’ or dead relatives (HRW 1997, 65; Allen 2006, 35).

[3] Today, the UPDF is supposed to protect the Acholi people in northern Uganda from the LRA, but the UPDF is from the south where many people believe that the Acholi always have killed, and always will kill, one another (Hovil and Lomo 2004, 20). Sverker Finnström (2003, 11) argues that Acholi culture is not a ‘culture of violence’; nevertheless, some UPDF victimize the Acholi culture as a whole by accusing all Acholi of collaborating with the LRA. As a result, some Ugandans are less sympathetic to children abducted by the LRA and Museveni has less internal pressure to stop the war in the north (Mawson 2004, 135).

[4] Because of the confusion regarding Alice Auma’s name change to Alice Lakwena, for the purposes of this article, I will refer to her by her first name.

[5] I cannot go into detail about Alice’s practices here, but please refer to Heike Behrend’s (1999a) book, Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirits: War in Northern Uganda, 1985-1997, for further information.

[6] One of two scenarios contributed to the failure of Lukoya’s Lord’s Army. The first scenario suggests that the deteriorating health conditions in Acholiland persuaded the Lord’s Army to focus on medicine and relief (Behrend 1999b, 28). The second suggests that the Lord’s Army was defeated in battle in 1989 and that government forces imprisoned Lukoya for years until he ceased claiming to be a savior and was released to build a church (Allen 2006, 37).

[7] Most of these countries enlist soldiers who are sixteen or seventeen, unlike some rebel groups who will recruit children of any age and throw them into battle with minimal training (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers 2004).

[8] For more information about child soldiers in general or child soldiers in other countries, please refer to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers’ book Child Soldiers: Global Report 2004, or to Michael Wessells’s (2006) book Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection.

[9] This accord prevents any legal action against children who had committed atrocities while in the LRA. Museveni passed the accord in an effort to encourage child soldiers and commanders to leave the guerilla movement, thereby weakening the rebel group by diminishing its members (Vinci 2005, 366-367).

[10] On January 7, 2005, the Sudanese government signed a peace agreement with the rebels in southern Sudan (Prendergast 2005, 2). Because the LRA was attacking rebels in southern Sudan, maintaining the 2005 peace agreement required that the government cease providing the LRA with supplies.

[11] I have found only one testimonial that refers to a volunteer child soldier. J.O. told Amnesty International (1997, 31) that he met a boy in a Child Protection Unit who claimed to have joined the LRA to take revenge on the UPDF for murdering his aunt. The LRA forced the boy to kill J.O.’s mother and brother, and he quickly regretted his choice to join (Amnesty International 1997, 31).

[12] The Aboke girls that Els de Temmerman (2001, 45) interviewed said that if they touched their wounds, then the LRA beat them again with greater brutality.

[13] Because the LRA tracks children’s families following escape, most of the children’s testimonies that I refer to are disguised with pseudonyms, which are identical to the names in the secondary sources that I cite.

[14] G.O. reported to UN interviewers that LRA commanders beat a girl only for the first two times that she attempted to escape and then forced the other children to beat her to death on her third attempt. After her murder, the commander threatened that if anyone else tried to escape, then he would have all the children killed (UN 2003, 14). Moreover, another woman who was in her twenties when she was interviewed by Tim Allen’s (2006, 66) research team testified that when she first attempted to escape the LRA commander beat her with a cane.

[15] Even though many stories of cannibalism and blood drinking surround the LRA, it is possible that these stories are exaggerations of terrible atrocities. Luise White (2000, 243) notes that many Africans used stories of cannibalism among Europeans as resistance against the colonial regime. It is possible that survivors of the LRA use stories of cannibalism to express the intensity of their experiences and to denounce any moral standing that the LRA might otherwise have. It is also possible, however, that cannibalism exists within the LRA.

[16] The feeling of no return that the LRA creates is similar to feelings created by other totalitarian groups. For an analysis of how these feelings affect individuals’ dedication to their group—with specific reference to child soldiers in Sierra Leon—see Hundeide’s (2003) “Becoming a Committed Insider” (2003).

[17] Catherine testified that she refused her husband, and the LRA beat her on the back eight times with a panga but did not force her to partake in sexual activities. As the result of community reprisals for rape, however, many girls try to downplay that part of their abduction.

[18] I found one example of the LRA releasing a girl (named Cecilia) following the death of her husband (John Okech [UN 2003, 32]).

[19] Some minor differences exist between the description of these rituals by Rudy Doom and Koen Vlassenroot (1998) and Heike Behrend (1999a). Doom and Vlassenroot (1998, 23) believe that Kony’s soldiers transform into malaika when sprinkled with holy water and that controllers sprinkle all newcomers (rather than only soldiers) with this water.

[20] This assertion even justifies the denial of medical treatment because only impure people get injured, become ill, or die (Van Acker 2004, 349).

[21] For instance, Susan McKay and Michael Wessells (2004, 1646) argue that the post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis labels children within a limited diagnosis and, therefore, results in a limited range of treatments.