Eichstaedt (If You Poison Us) offers a heartfelt if sometimes lopsided look at the consequences of prolonged civil war. Northern Uganda has been under siege by the rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, for 20 years, leading to death tolls rivaling those in Darfur, Sudan, which has garnered considerably more media attention. The LRA is known for employing brutal techniques, including mutilating community members who inform on them, kidnapping children to serve as male child soldiers or female "brides," sex slaves for rebel soldiers. Interviewing victims of these crimes, as well as perpetrators, government officials and non-governmental actors, Eichstaedt weaves a story of a decimated culture caught between merciless violence and the chaos of refugee camps. The result is a close analysis of this underreported crisis, which has only recently shown signs of abating. However, some of Eichstaedt's conclusions seem uninformed at best, including his one-sided look at religious views in Uganda, which prompt his remark, "There is no moral center of gravity here, no spiritual compass that one can hold against the horizon to escape the clamor and chaos." (Feb.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Armyby Peter Eichstaedt
“Richard Opio has neither the look of a cold-blooded killer nor the heart of one. Yet as his mother and father lay on the ground with their hands tied, Richard used the blunt end of an ax to crush their skulls. He was ordered to do this by a unit commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that has terrorized northern Uganda for twenty
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“Richard Opio has neither the look of a cold-blooded killer nor the heart of one. Yet as his mother and father lay on the ground with their hands tied, Richard used the blunt end of an ax to crush their skulls. He was ordered to do this by a unit commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that has terrorized northern Uganda for twenty years. The memory racks Richard’s slender body as he wipes away tears.”
For more than twenty years, beginning in the mid-1980s, the Lord’s Resistance Army has ravaged northern Uganda. Tens of thousands have been slaughtered, and thousands more mutilated and traumatized. At least 1.5 million people have been driven from a pastoral existence into the squalor of refugee camps.
The leader of the rebel army is the rarely seen Joseph Kony, a former witchdoctor and self-professed spirit medium who continues to evade justice and wield power from somewhere near the Congo~Sudan border. Kony claims he not only can predict the future but also can control the minds of his fighters. And control them he does: the Lord’s Resistance Army consists of children who are abducted from their homes under cover of night. As initiation, the boys are forced to commit atrocitiesmurdering their parents, friends, and relativesand the kidnapped girls are forced into lives of sexual slavery and labor.
In First Kill Your Family, veteran journalist Peter Eichstaedt goes into the war-torn villages and refugee camps, talking to former child soldiers, child “brides,” and other victims. He examines the cultlike convictions of the army; how a pervasive belief in witchcraft, the spirit world, and the supernatural gave rise to this and other deadly movements; and what the global community can do to bring peace and justice to the region. This insightful analysis delves into the war’s foundations and argues that, much like Rwanda’s genocide, international intervention is needed to stop Africa’s virulent cycle of violence.
"Heartfelt . . . A close analysis of [an] underreported crisis." —Publishers Weekly
"In-depth reporting . . . an intimate spin." Kirkus Reviews
"You must read this powerful book. Peter Eichstaedt has given voice to the victims of the largely unheard-of tragedy of Uganda. This story calls out to our very humanity." Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu
"A book filled with haunting images that leave one groping for answers." Mac Maharaj, South African author and activist
"This book is a call to action to help our brothers and sisters in Africa that we can no longer ignore." John Dau, president, John Dau Sudan Foundation, and coauthor, God Grew Tired of Us: A Memoir
"This fine firsthand account should be read by anyone seeking to grapple with the challenges of war and peace in coming decades." Douglas Farah, author, Merchant of Death and Blood from Stones
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First Kill Your Family
Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army
By Peter Eichstaedt
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2013 Peter Eichstaedt
All rights reserved.
Faded Luster of the Pearl
Winston Churchill visited Uganda in 1907 and was so taken by the country that in his memoirs of the trip, My African Journey, he wrote, "Uganda is the pearl." A relatively small country, Uganda is one of three nations, along with Kenya and Tanzania, composing the heart of East Africa. About the size of Oregon, it sits west of Kenya and on the northern shores of Africa's largest body of freshwater, Lake Victoria, thought to be the headwaters of the Nile River. The country straddles the equator and is bordered on the south by Tanzania, on the southwest by Rwanda, and on the west by the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To the north is Sudan. Like the other East African countries, Uganda boasts a dramatic terrain. The snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains, also known as the Mountains of the Moon, form the western boundary. In northwestern Uganda, Murchison Falls National Park offers visitors lions, antelopes and gazelles, elephants, giraffes, hippos, and troops of baboons and monkeys. Among the park's famous visitors were writer Ernest Hemingway and his wife Mary, who were injured there in January 1954 when their single-engine plane crashed on the crocodile-infested banks of the Nile River after it swooped low over the torrent of white water and snagged a telegraph wire. Uganda also has the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, which contains several hundred of the endangered mountain gorillas, the country's biggest tourist draw.
A British protectorate for the first half of the twentieth century, by all appearances Uganda is an African success story. The weather is moderate, the terrain green and varied, the soil rich, and the people educated and eager to reap the benefits of globalization. English is the official language of this country of twenty-eight million, and it has a 66 percent literacy rate. It is predominately Christian, with the Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal churches sharing about 60 percent of the population. The remainder are divided between Islam and animistic beliefs. Unlike some other parts of Africa, Uganda has controlled the AIDS epidemic and has lowered the infection rate to single digits. The economy has thrived, due in part to a steady flow of foreign aid, which has made up about half of the Ugandan annual national budget. It is also bolstered by the presence of an enterprising Indian business community.
Despite the appearance of stability and prosperity, Uganda has rarely experienced a sustained peace within its borders. The atrocities committed by the seemingly undefeatable Lord's Resistance Army only underscore Uganda's inability to free itself from a brutal and bloody past.
Two months after I arrived in Uganda in August 2005, the LRA was international news. On October 14, 2005, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands, unsealed indictments against the army's leader, Joseph Kony, and his top four commanders. They were charged with a total of eighty-six counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, largely based on evidence collected by the court investigators during the previous couple of years from LRA defectors, escapees, and legions of victims. It caused a surge of excitement in Uganda that finally, just maybe, the international community might do what no one has been able to do: put an end to the LRA. The initial excitement was quickly replaced by the sober realization that it was not up to the court, but the court's member countries, to arrest Kony. Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, had appealed for ICC action in late 2003, just two years earlier, and now that the indictments had been handed down, it would be up to Uganda to deliver the LRA commanders for trial. Despite decades of war, however, the Ugandan army had been unable to kill or capture Kony, who at the time was in South Sudan. Sudan had not signed the accord that created the ICC and was under no legal obligation to lift a hand against Kony. And Sudan was unlikely to act because it had found Kony very useful in the past; they had used him as one of their proxy militias to fight rebels in South Sudan. And further, the bulk of the LRA was in the jungles of northeastern Congo, led by Kony's second in command, Vincent Otti, and beyond the reach of the Sudanese army. Though the Democratic Republic of the Congo was a member of the international court, it had been unable to control or contain the myriad rampaging militias already inside its borders and depended on a massive UN force of some seventeen thousand peacekeepers for a modicum of stability. Many wondered what would change with the issuance of these indictments. In short, nothing changed.
But the court action was a step in the right direction. The indictments said the LRA "has established a pattern of brutalization of civilians by acts including murder, abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation, as well as mass burnings of houses and looting of camp settlements; that abducted civilians, including children, are said to have been forcibly recruited as fighters, porters and sex slaves and to take part in attacks against the Ugandan army [UPDF] and civilian communities." Kony topped the list with thirty-three counts, including "enslavement, sexual enslavement, inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering, murder, cruel treatment of civilians, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population, pillaging, inducing rape, and forced enlisting of children." Otti had thirty-two counts of similar crimes; Okot Odhiambo had ten counts; Dominic Ongwen had seven; and Raska Lukwiya had four.
This was not the first time that Uganda had been thrust onto the international stage by bizarre and bloodthirsty characters. During the 1970s, the notorious Idi Amin blazed onto the scene and quickly developed a reputation for living large and conducting a loathsome campaign inside Uganda to purge it of his perceived enemies.
Before Amin, there was Milton Obote, a schoolteacher who rose to prominence in the 1950s as one of Africa's early progressive leaders. While much of the African continent was mired in civil wars — the inevitable and bloody process of shaking off decades of European colonial rule — Obote forged a coalition called the Uganda People's Congress. Attempting to incorporate the traditional tribal system spurned by the colonialists, he formed the country's first government after Uganda achieved independence in 1962. The king of the dominant Buganda tribe, the country's largest ethnic group, was given the office of president, and Obote became the prime minister. But this attempt to merge Uganda's tribal past with its present was doomed. Uganda's traditional ethnic and tribal rivalries sabotaged Obote's plans. Bugandans believed they had been tricked when they realized that their president had very little power and that Obote ran the government as prime minister. When the Bugandan king attempted to assert himself, Obote's military chief, Idi Amin, stormed the king's palace. The Bugandan king fled to London, where he died in exile.
Tribal and ethnic rivalries bubble just below the surface of everyday life in Uganda. Most Ugandans identify themselves first by their tribe and then by their country. The distrust and historical animosities among the major tribes in Uganda have been the source of most of Uganda's tortured past and help explain the longevity of the Lord's Resistance Army. In the simplest terms, the country is divided into north and south by the Nile River, which flows out of Lake Victoria and angles northwesterly until it reaches Lake Edward, and then flows northward into Sudan. The north and east of Uganda are inhabited by the Nilotic tribes originally from regions of the upper Nile River in northern Africa. The south is inhabited by various Bantu tribes whose language and origin come from western and central Africa. Within these two broad categories, Uganda has several major ethnic groups and many minor ones, all of which were lumped together under the artificial construct that the colonialists called Uganda. The country is a veritable Tower of Babel, with dozens of languages and dialects. Long before the colonial era, these various tribes engaged in endless jockeying for power, which continues today. The northern region is dominated by the Acholi tribe and the closely related Langi, of whom Obote was a part. The east is dominated by the Teso and Karamajong people, who are primarily cattle herders. The south and central regions are dominated by the Buganda tribe, and the western mountains by the Bunyoro. The southwest has a mix, including the Anchole, of which President Museveni is a part.
As the country's first president, Obote realized that any successful government in Uganda had to include representation of the many ethic groups, some of whom had been enemies for centuries. This was why he selected Idi Amin as his army commander. Amin belonged to the Kakwa, a diverse group living in Uganda's northwestern region of West Nile. The Kakwa also populate southern Sudan and the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and are generally referred to by Ugandans as "Sudanese." Although ethnically from the north, Amin grew up in the south. Because of his size and strength, he shunned an education in favor of the British regiment known as the King's African Rifles. He was a vicious boxer and bullying leader, and quickly rose through the ranks to become a general. When Obote took power, Amin was a logical candidate for military commander. Obote believed that he would be protected from an overthrow because the majority of his army came from his trusted fellow Langi and Acholi tribesman.
Amin, however, had other ideas. He used his position to amass wealth and power and, distrustful of Obote's Langi and Acholi generals, replaced much of the army's command structure with his own and other ethnic groups from northwestern Uganda. A scandal eventually erupted when Amin was accused of corruption and his prime accuser was killed. Obote ordered Amin to prepare an explanation but in early 1971 left the country to attend a meeting of British Commonwealth heads of state in Singapore. Suspecting that Obote would return and arrest him, Amin staged a military coup. So began his brutal regime in which an estimated three hundred thousand Ugandans were killed in obscenely violent ways, their bodies tortured and mutilated. He methodically purged the professional classes, intimidated the intelligentsia, and then banished the Asian commercial community, seizing their properties and businesses and giving them ninety days to leave the country. Amin and his cronies took all they could steal. The economy eventually collapsed, schools and hospitals closed, roads deteriorated, and soldiers, loyal to Amin, roamed the countryside, slaughtering humans and wildlife with abandon.
In the process, Amin established himself as one of the world's most demented dictators by launching an outlandish lifestyle that included driving a bright red Italian sports car at breakneck speeds through the dirt-poor backcountry, hosting lavish feasts, and bragging that he and his men ate human flesh. While the world condemned Amin from a safe distance, he found a friend in Libya's Muammar Gadhafi, a fellow Muslim, who helped prop up the failing Ugandan economy. With his country in shambles, Amin did what bad leaders do to divert attention from their failures: he went to war. In late 1978, he invaded neighboring Tanzania over a minor border disagreement.
Any sense of victory was short-lived, however. In 1979, Amin's army crumbled in the face of a counterinvasion by the Tanzanian army and the Uganda National Liberation Army, a force of exiled Ugandans who despised Amin and what he had done to their country. It included a young commander named Yoweri Museveni. Amin fled to Libya, eventually settling in Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2003. With Museveni as defense minister, a new Ugandan government called for democratic elections. Obote returned from exile and in 1980 was reelected president in a highly disputed election. Among the losing candidates was Museveni.
Never having been a fan of Obote and fearing a return to the past, Museveni formed the National Resistance Army and led them into the bush, intent on toppling Obote's government. Unlike Obote's and Amin's armies of drunken thugs, the NRA was disciplined, motivated, and included several thousand Rwandan fighters. Confronted with this serious challenge from Museveni, Obote struggled to maintain control of the country by imposing yet another repressive regime. Relieved of one despot, Uganda found itself saddled with another as Obote sent his army against civilians he accused of supporting Museveni. An estimated one hundred thousand died in this conflict. In 1985, after years of losses at the hands of Museveni's army, Obote was overthrown by a military coup of his own disenchanted generals. The coup was led by an Acholi general named Bazilio Okello, who marched on Kampala in July 1985 and installed another general, Tito Okello (unrelated), as the new president. Obote again fled, this time for good, and died in exile twenty years later.
The Okello regime was short-lived. Although the Acholi generals negotiated a peace deal with Museveni in December 1985, it failed because Museveni distrusted the coup's lingering ties to Obote and refused to let the northern Acholi hold on to power in either the government or the military. Museveni rolled into Kampala in late January 1986 and took over the government. His army then marched north and within two months had captured the key northern towns of Gulu, Pader, and Kitgum. The Acholi resistance was demolished; the Acholi fighters scattered and returned to their villages.
Museveni immediately set about rebuilding and reuniting Uganda. He offered amnesty to former soldiers and urged expatriate Ugandans to return. To impose unity on the disparate tribes and consolidate his power, he did away with partisan politics, which were more tribal than ideological, and created a one-party system called the National Resistance Movement. To appease traditionalists, he restored the tribal monarchies, but granted them only ceremonial authority. He invited the Asian commercial community back and returned their property. Still, not everyone was happy.
Acholi resentment smoldered in the wake of their humiliating defeat. Despite their common language of Luo, the Acholi were never a unified tribe under a single leader but rather a collection of related but independent chiefdoms. By the time Uganda became a British protectorate in 1894, the Acholi were armed and adept at raiding their neighbors, kidnapping women, and stealing cattle. When the British began their pacification of the Acholi in the early 1900s, they convinced the Acholi to surrender thousands of weapons with the promise that if they were peaceful, they could keep their rifles, but only if the rifles were registered. Once the rifles were collected, instead of registering them, the British destroyed them in public burnings. This deceit generated lingering hostility and resentment. However, because the Acholi were traditional warriors, they were enlisted by the British in the army and used to help control the rest of the country. Some were even incorporated into British military units during World War II. The British mistreatment of the Acholi was later duplicated by Idi Amin, who killed thousands as he disarmed them, solidifying Acholi distrust of any occupying force in their homeland.
As Museveni attempted to consolidate his control over the country in 1986, his army in the north often resorted to brutal tactics as they disarmed the Acholi. Fearing that their fate could only worsen under Museveni, a new Acholi rebel group formed across the border in southern Sudan. Composed of former members of Amin's and Obote's armies, the Uganda People's Democratic Army (UPDA) descended into northern Uganda and launched a guerrilla war. Like any paramilitary force, the units operated independently and relied on the support of villagers. If that support was lacking, they took what they wanted. This established a necessary tactical pattern that Kony's army adopted.
In the midst of this seemingly endless turmoil in the north, a woman named Alice Auma appeared from the village of Opit, about twenty miles east of Gulu. Auma is remembered by some as a tomato seller who entertained her customers with tricks such as making rocks pop, as if they exploded. She claimed to have been visited by a spirit named Lakwena, a word that means "messenger" in the Acholi language, in early January 1985. Eventually taking the name of Lakwena as her own, she founded a religious sect called the Holy Spirit Movement.
But in August 1986, as war continued in Acholiland, the spirit Lakwena reportedly revisited Alice and told her to convert her movement into an army that she called the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces. This charismatic woman gathered about eighty disenfranchised Acholi soldiers who retrieved their weapons from hiding in their villages and in mid-October attacked the government army barracks in Gulu. Though Alice Lakwena's forces were repulsed, she attracted the attention of the rebel UPDA units fighting in the area, and soon about 150 UPDA soldiers joined her, forming the core of her army.
Excerpted from First Kill Your Family by Peter Eichstaedt. Copyright © 2013 Peter Eichstaedt. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"In-depth reporting . . . an intimate spin." —Kirkus Reviews
"You must read this powerful book. Peter Eichstaedt has given voice to the victims of the largely unheard-of tragedy of Uganda. This story calls out to our very humanity." —Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu
"A book filled with haunting images that leave one groping for answers." —Mac Maharaj, South African author and activist
"This book is a call to action to help our brothers and sisters in Africa that we can no longer ignore." —John Dau, president, John Dau Sudan Foundation, and coauthor, God Grew Tired of Us: A Memoir
"This fine firsthand account should be read by anyone seeking to grapple with the challenges of war and peace in coming decades." —Douglas Farah, author, Merchant of Death and Blood from Stones
Meet the Author
Peter Eichstaedt is the Africa editor for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in The Hague. He is a veteran journalist who has reported from locations worldwide, including Slovenia, Moldova, Afghanistan, Albania, Armenia, and Uganda, and a former senior editor for Uganda Radio Network. He is the author of If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans.
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