In southern Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic, children are disappearing.
They’re being abducted by a man determined to overthrow Uganda’s current leadership, and they are being forced into rebel army ranks or sexual slavery. Joseph Kony, a former altar boy who says he’s led by spirits, commands a group called the Lord’s Resistance Army, which is blamed for the crimes.
Ugandan army spokesman Paddy Ankunda told the Associated Press that in April alone, the LRA kidnapped 100 children in the Central African Republic and 30 others along the Sudan-Congo border. The United Nations estimates that the LRA has enslaved more than 20,000 children in the 20-year fight against the Ugandan regime.
“When I and my brother were abducted,” an escaped LRA slave told BBC News, “I knew exactly what was going to happen to us: We used to hear about the LRA in the village, about how they abduct and torture children and force them to abduct rebels.”
“They trained us as soldiers. I was in so many battles I don’t even remember the number.”
Though he escaped after the death of his brother, he was told by the LRA that if abductees ran away, the Ugandan army would kill them, or they would be poisoned. And if the LRA ever caught them again …
“We were ordered to stamp on him, and we stamped on him until we killed him,” said Patrick, a boy who was rescued after only three months with the rebels. “You had to stamp on him as many times as you could; if it seemed you were not doing it hard enough you were beaten. He was a 12-year-old boy who had tried to escape.”
The children being swiped are dragged into the jungles, where the LRA has several bases run with military precision and cult-like spirituality by their leader, Kony.
Kony’s war against the Ugandan government began in the late 80’s when Uganda President Yoweri Museveni came to power. Kony’s rumored cousin led a rebellion against Museveni, and when that was put down in 1988, Kony took over the resistance.
He has since built a mythos around himself, claiming divine direction on a quest to restore Uganda to a nation ruled by the 10 Commandments.
Like many cult leaders, Kony is almost worshipped by some followers. “Kony is a God-fearing man,” one of five former wives to an LRA leader told BBC News. “He teaches that you have to live well and love your neighbor. He said even in the Bible people died, and if it is time for you to die, you must die. It’s not Kony who has killed you but God, because your time has come.”
Others tell stories of fear. An abducted child who escaped told BBC News, “I’ve seen him. He’s tall, thin, his hair is long. He weaves his hair in braids or dreadlocks. He’s frightening. Kony looks like a killer. Actually he is a killer. He killed my mother and father before my very eyes.”
LRA leader, Joseph Kony
Kony himself claims spirits are guiding him. “I don’t know the number but they speak to me,” he told BBC News in a rare interview. “They load through me. They will tell us what is going to happen. They say, ‘You, Mr. Joseph, tell your people that the enemy is planning to come and attack.'”
Kony’s actions, however, seem to speak louder than his spirits – 20 years of war, 33 counts of international war crimes and crimes against humanity and 20,000 children missing from their homes, with each number growing daily.
Earlier this year, a ceasefire was negotiated between the LRA and Uganda. A permanent peace was to be enacted in April, but Kony didn’t show up for the signing. Since then, child abductions have been on the rise again.
Richard Dicker, the international justice director of Human Rights Watch, suggested that Kony is using the ceasefire to bolster his army of child soldiers. “Kony and the LRA took advantage of the breathing room given to them and appear to be terrorizing civilians again.”
“Concerned governments and U.N. officials cannot sit by while the LRA goes on a criminal rampage, committing heinous abuses against children,” he said.