Copyright Vanity Fair
In William Faulkner’s story “Raid,” set in Alabama and Mississippi in the closing years of the Civil War, a white family becomes aware of a sudden, vast, nighttime migration through the scorched countryside. They can hear it and even smell it before they can see it; it’s the black population voting with its feet and heading, so it fervently believes, for the river Jordan: “We couldn’t see them and they did not see us; maybe they didn’t even look, just walking fast in the dark with that panting, hurrying murmuring, going on Ã– ”
Northern Uganda is centered on the headstreams of the Nile rather than the Jordan, and is a strange place for me to find myself put in mind of Faulkner, but every evening at dusk the main town of Gulu starts to be inundated by a mass of frightened humanity, panting, hurrying, and murmuring as it moves urgently through the crepuscular hours. Most of the “night commuters,” as they are known locally, are children. They leave their outlying villages and walk as many as eight kilometers to huddle for safety in the towns. And then, in the morning, often without breakfast and often without shoes, they walk all the way back again to get to their schools and their families. That’s if the former have not been burned and the latter have not been butchered. These children are not running toward Jordan and the Lord; they are running for their lives from the “Lord’s Resistance Army” (L.R.A.). This grotesque, zombie-like militia, which has abducted, enslaved, and brainwashed more than 20,000 children, is a kind of Christian Khmer Rouge and has for the past 19 years set a standard of cruelty and ruthlessness thatÃ³even in a region with a living memory of Idi AminÃ³has the power to strike the most vivid terror right into the heart and the other viscera.
Here’s what happens to the children who can’t run fast enough, or who take the risk of sleeping in their huts in the bush. I am sitting in a rehab center, talking to young James, who is 11 and looks about 9. When he actually was nine and sleeping at home with his four brothers, the L.R.A. stormed his village and took the boys away. They were roped at the waist and menaced with bayonets to persuade them to confess what they could not knowÃ³the whereabouts of the Ugandan Army’s soldiers. On the subsequent forced march, James underwent the twin forms of initiation practiced by the L.R.A. He was first savagely flogged with a wire lash and then made to take part in the murder of those children who had become too exhausted to walk any farther. “First we had to watch,” he says. “Then we had to join in the beatings until they died.” He was spared from having to do this to a member of his family, which is the L.R.A.’s preferred method of what it calls “registration.” And he was spared from being made into a concubine or a sex slave, because the L.R.A. doesn’t tolerate that kind of thing for boys. It is, after all, “faith-based.” Excuse me, but it does have its standards.
Talking to James about the unimaginable ruin of his childhood, I notice that when I am speaking he stays stock-still, with something a bit dead behind his eyes. But when it comes his turn to tell his story, he immediately starts twisting about in his chair, rubbing his eyes and making waving gestures with his arms. The leader of the L.R.A., a former Catholic acolyte in his 40s named Joseph Kony, who now claims to be a spirit medium with a special mission to impose the Ten Commandments, knows what old Fagin knew: that little boys are nimble and malleable if you catch them young enough, and that they make good thieves and runners. Little James was marched all the way to Sudan, whose Muslim-extremist government offers shelter and aidÃ³such an ecumenical spirit!Ã³to the Christian fanatics. There he was put to work stealing food from neighboring villages, and digging and grinding cassava roots. Soon enough, he was given a submachine gun almost as big as himself. Had he not escaped during an ambush, he would have gotten big enough to be given a girl as well, to do with what he liked.
I drove out of GuluÃ³whose approach roads can be used only in the daytimeÃ³to a refugee camp nearer the Sudanese border. A few Ugandan shillings and a few packets of cigarettes procured me a Ugandan Army escort, who sat heavily armed in the back of the pickup truck. As I buckled my seat belt, the driver told me to unbuckle it in spite of the parlous condition of the road. “If you have to jump out,” he said, “you will have to jump out very fast.” That didn’t make me feel much safer, but only days after I left, two Ugandan aid workers were murdered in daylight on these pitted, dusty highways. We bounced along until we hit Pabbo, where a collection of huts and shanties huddle together as if for protection. In this place are packed about 59,000 of the estimated 1.5 million “internally displaced persons” (I.D.P.’s) who have sought protection from the savagery of the L.R.A. Here, I had the slightly more awkward task of interviewing the female survivors of Joseph Kony’s rolling Jonestown: a campaign of horror and superstition and indoctrination.
The women of Uganda are naturally modest and reserved, and it obviously involved an effort for them to tell their stories to a male European stranger. But they stood up as straight as spears and looked me right in the eye. Forced to carry heavy loads through the bush and viciously canedÃ³up to 250 strokesÃ³if they dropped anything. Given as gifts or prizes to men two or three times their age and compelled to bear children. Made to watch, and to join in, sessions of hideous punishment for those who tried to escape. Rose Atim, a young woman of bronze Nubian Nefertiti beauty, politely started her story by specifying her primary-school grade (grade five) at the time of her abduction. Her nostrils still flared with indignation when she spoke, whereas one of her fellow refugees, Jane Akello, a young lady with almost anthracite skin, was dull and dead-eyed and monotonous in her delivery. I was beginning to be able to distinguish symptoms. I felt a strong sense of indecency during these interviews, but this was mere squeamish self-indulgence on my part, since the women were anxious to relate the stories of their stolen and maimed childhoods. It was as if they had emerged from some harrowing voyage on the Underground Railroad.
Very few people, apart from his victims, have ever met or even seen the enslaving and child-stealing Joseph Kony, and the few pictures and films of him are amateur and indistinct. This very imprecision probably helps him to maintain his version of charisma. Here is what we know and (with the help of former captives and a Scotland Yard criminal profiler) what we speculate. Kony grew up in a Gulu Province village called Odek. He appointed himself the Lord’s anointed prophet for the Acholi people of northern Uganda in 1987, and by the mid-90s was receiving arms and cash from Sudan. He probably suffers from multiple-personality disorder, and he takes his dreams for prophecies. He goes into trances in which he speaks into a tape recorder and plays back the resulting words as commands. He has helped himself to about 50 captives as “wives,” claiming Old Testament authority for this (King Solomon had 700 spouses), often insistingÃ³partly for biblical reasons and partly for the more banal reason of AIDS dreadÃ³that they be virgins. He used to anoint his followers with a holy oil mashed from indigenous shea-butter nuts, and now uses “holy water,” which he tells his little disciples will make them invulnerable to bullets. He has claimed to be able to turn stones into hand grenades, and many of his devotees say that they have seen him do it. He warns any child tempted to run away that the baptismal fluids are visible to him forever and thus they can always be found again. (He can also identify many of his “children” by the pattern of lashes that they earned while under his tender care.) Signs of his disapproval include the cutting off of lips, noses, and breasts in the villages he raids and, to deter informers, a padlock driven through the upper and lower lips. This is the sort of deranged gangÃ³flagellant, hysterical, fanatical, lethal, under-ageÃ³that an unfortunate traveler might have encountered on the roads of Europe during the Thirty Years’ War or the last Crusade. “Yes,” says Michael Oruni, director of the Gulu Children of War Rehabilitation Center, who works on deprogramming these feral kids, “children who have known pain know how to inflict it.” We were sitting in a yard that contained, as well as some unreformed youngsters, four random babies crawling about in the dust. These had been found lying next to their panga-slashed mothers or else left behind when their mothers were marched away.
In October, the Lord of the Flies was hit, in his medieval redoubt, by a message from the 21st century. Joseph Kony and four other leaders of the L.R.A. were named in the first arrest warrants ever issued by the new International Criminal Court (I.C.C.). If that sounds like progress to you, then consider this. The whereabouts of Kony are already known: he openly uses a satellite phone from a base across the Ugandan border in southern Sudan. Like the United States, Sudan is not a signatory to the treaty that set up the I.C.C. And it has sponsored the L.R.A. because the Ugandan governmentÃ³which is an I.C.C. signatoryÃ³has helped the people of southern Sudan fight against the theocracy in Khartoum, the same theocracy that has been sponsoring the genocide against Muslim black Africans in Darfur. Arrest warrants look pretty flimsy when set against ruthless cynicism of this depth and intensity. Kony has evidently made some kind of peace with his Sudanese Islamist patrons: in addition to his proclamation of the Ten Commandments, he once banned alcohol and announced that all pigs were unclean and that those who farm them, let alone eat them, were subject to death. So, unless he has undergone a conversion to Judaism in the wilderness, we can probably assume that he is repaying his murderous armorers and protectors.
I had a faintly nerve-racking drink with Francis Ongom, one of Kony’s ex-officers, who defected only recently and who would not agree to be questioned about his own past crimes. “Kony has refused Sudan’s request that he allow his soldiers to convert to Islam,” said this hardened-looking man as he imbibed a Red Bull through a straw, “but he has found Bible justifications for killing witches, for killing pigs because of the story of the Gadarene swine, and for killing people because god did the same with Noah’s flood and Sodom and Gomorrah.” Nice to know that he is immersed in the Good Book.
The terrifying thing about such violence and cruelty is that only a few dedicated practitioners are required in order to paralyze everyone else with fear. I had a long meeting with Betty Bigombe, one of those staunch and beautiful womenÃ³it is so often the womenÃ³who have helped restore Uganda’s pulse after decades of war and famine and tyranny and Ebola and West Nile fever and AIDS. She has been yelled at by Joseph Kony, humiliated by corrupt and hypocritical Sudanese “intermediaries,” dissed by the Ugandan political elite, and shamefully ignored by the international “human rights” community. She still believes that an amnesty for Kony’s unindicted commanders is possible, which will bring the L.R.A. children back from the bush, but she and thousands like her can always be outvoted by one brutalized schoolboy with a machete. We are being forced to watch yet another Darfur, in which the time supposedly set aside for negotiations is used by the killers and cleansers to complete their work.
The Acholi people of northern Uganda, who are the chief sufferers in all this, have to suffer everything twice. Their children are murdered or abducted and enslaved and then come back to murder and abduct and enslave even more children. Yet if the Ugandan Army were allowed to use extreme measures to destroy the L.R.A., the victims would be Ã– Acholi children again. It must be nightmarish to know that any feral-child terrorist who is shot could be one of your own. “I and the public know,” wrote W. H. Auden in perhaps his greatest poem, “September 1, 1939”:
What all schoolchildren learn,Those to whom evil is doneDo evil in return.
And that’s what makes it so affecting and so upsetting to watch the “night commuter” children when they come scuttling and scampering into town as the sun departs from the sky. These schoolchildren have not yet had evil done to them, nor are they ready to inflict any evil. It’s not too late for them, in other words.
I sat in the deepening gloom for a while with one small boy, Jimmy Opioh, whose age was 14. He spoke with an appalling gravity and realism about his mother’s inability to pay school fees for himself and his brother both, about the fatigue and time-wasting of being constantly afraid and famished and continually on the run. In that absurd way that one does, I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. His unhesitating answer was that he wanted to be a politicianÃ³he had his party, the Forum for Democratic Change, all picked out as well. I shamefacedly arranged, along with the admirable John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, to get him the meager sum that would pay for his schooling, tried not to notice the hundreds of other eyes that were hungrily turned toward me in the darkness, wondered what the hell the actual politicians, here or there, were doing about his plight, and managed to get out of the night encampment just before the equatorial rains hit and washed most of the tents and groundsheets away.
Vanity Fair contributing editor Christopher Hitchens’s latest book, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, is part of the HarperCollins Eminent Lives series. His collection Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays was recently published by Nation Books.