The reign of terror imposed on the people of northern Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) from 1987 to 2006 was one of the most brutal of the past century. Joseph Kony’s militia abducted more than sixty thousand children to serve as child soldiers and sexual partners. Villagers who tried to stop them were mutilated or killed. The Ugandan national army, using funds and weapons provided by Western allies (including the United States), launched campaign after campaign to destroy the movement. But they accomplished very little, except to drive LRA forces deeper into hiding and to compound the suffering of the people.
That story is widely known around the world, thanks in part to Western aid agencies’ reports and a widely viewed video, “Kony 2012,” made by an American NGO. Far less known—scarcely mentioned in news reports—was the formation of an alliance of religious leaders in the darkest period of the conflict. Overcoming centuries of mistrust and disagreement, the Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim communities of the Acholi region joined forces to help relieve suffering caused by the violence and to bring government and rebel leaders to the negotiating table. Their work bears witness to the transforming power of interfaith collaboration and to the ability of local communities in Africa to resolve a seemingly intractable conflict.
Joseph Kony created his rebel army in the late 1980s, after government forces had crushed another Acholi uprising led by a prophetess. He claimed to be in regular communication with a number of different spirits, who conveyed commands from God and directed his military campaigns. LRA soldiers were required to follow the Ten Commandments and to observe both Muslim and Christian holy days every Friday and Sunday. Smoking and drinking were prohibited, as was unauthorized sexual contact. Weekly prayer meetings were mandatory: sometimes Kony himself would lead them, standing all day, praying and speaking with his spirits. Young boys who had been captured in village raids were indoctrinated in LRA ideology and trained to do whatever their commanders asked, no matter how cruel.
The entire Acholi region lived in fear for two decades. Each time the Ugandan government launched another campaign, it assured international allies that success was imminent. But attacks and counterattacks continued, and the army committed the same acts of arbitrary killing and rape that it was supposedly suppressing.
When the LRA claimed at first to be an advocate for the Acholi people, some in Uganda and abroad were sympathetic. Support vanished as its raids became more and more brutal. Paul Rubangakene, director of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic diocese in Gulu, told me that in a rehabilitation camp for former LRA soldiers a commander responded to Paul’s request for information about an abducted boy: “Yes, I knew him—he was a very clever boy. So I beat him to death.” The boy was Paul’s nephew. His parents know that he died in an LRA camp, but Paul had not shared the horrific details.
“You see, I keep a bullet-proof vest here in my office,” said Paul. “But it has been many years since I felt any need to wear it while traveling to villages in the region.” In the late 1990s, when he began working with residents of rural villages frequently attacked by LRA forces, the situation was very different. “At that time the government had control of the towns and trading centers,” he said, “but the LRA did whatever it wanted in the countryside and in isolated villages.”
On one trip to a village north of Gulu, Paul encountered an LRA ambush along the main road. Abandoning his vehicle, he fled into the bush and remained in hiding for two weeks until he could return home safely. Today a roadside monument honors fifty-nine victims of another incident at the same site, and memorial services are held there each year. These victims were fortunate simply to be shot dead and left behind, said Paul. In another raid nearby, LRA soldiers cooked the bodies of their victims and forced new abductees to eat them.
LRA violence peaked, Paul told me, from 1996 to 1998, when LRA troops were in frequent battle with government forces, and then again from 2001 to 2003, when LRA forces returning from training camps in Sudan stepped up their campaigns of looting and abduction. For two years Paul and his family were “night commuters,” fleeing nighttime raids on their village by rebel soldiers: together with thousands of others they walked several miles to Gulu each night to sleep on the grounds of the Catholic cathedral. During this period, Catholic Relief Services provided bedding, food, and other aid to all who needed it, whether they were Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim.