Against Humanity: Lessons from the Lord's Resistance Army

Against Humanity: Lessons from the Lord's Resistance Army

by Sam Dubal

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“Gunya is a woman in her late twenties. Soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) abducted her when she was eleven years old and forcefully conscripted her into the rebel ranks. Gunya spent a little over a decade with the rebels before deserting. While there, she gave birth to a son with Onen, an LRA soldier. Though abducted, she expresses her continued support for the LRA and their tactics, admitting that she sometimes thinks of going back to the lum [bush] when life becomes hard as a civilian at home.”
This is not a book about crimes against humanity. Rather, it is an indictment of the very idea of humanity, the concept that lies at the heart of human rights and humanitarian missions. 

Based on fieldwork in northern Uganda, anthropologist and medical doctor Sam Dubal brings readers into the inner circle of the Lord’s Resistance Army, an insurgent group accused of rape, forced conscription of children, and inhumane acts of violence. Dubal speaks with former LRA rebels as they find personal meaning in wartime violence, politics, and spirituality—experiences that observers often place outside of humanity’s boundaries. What emerges is an unorthodox and provocative question: What would it mean to be truly against humanity? And how does one honor life existing outside hegemonic notions of the good?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520296107
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/02/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 277
Sales rank: 463,726
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Sam Dubal is a medical anthropologist and a surgical resident at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

Read an Excerpt




She is sitting on a worn papyrus mat. The shade of a towering mango tree shields her from the hot sun. She finishes making up her daughter's hair, her hands expertly weaving the strands in and out, twisting them together. Reaching for a knife, she begins to peel the skin off soaked cassava, preparing a meal for her children and elderly mother. Her daughter moves to stand behind her and now braids her mother's hair into cornrows. They watch as the neighbors' goats scurry across their homestead, past the rusty iron-sheet door to their hut.

Gunya is a woman in her late twenties who works as a waitress at a roadside restaurant. She lives with her family on this quiet homestead at the edge of Gulu town in northern Uganda. Soldiers of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) abducted her when she was eleven years old and forcibly conscripted her into the rebel ranks. Gunya spent a little more than a decade with the rebels before deserting. While there, she gave birth to a son with Onen, an LRA soldier who is still fighting in the "bush" (lum).

I take a deep breath, preparing myself for what I imagine will be a difficult first conversation with a woman I expect to match the description of what scholars, media, and NGOs have called "sex slaves" — young girls abducted by the LRA to be wives to rebels. I await a grim narrative about rape, stigma, and victimization at the hands of what has been widely characterized as a violent, brutal army of inhuman rebels with an irrational belief in the spirits possessing its leader, Joseph Kony. Indeed, as I come to join her, it crosses my mind that she seems to embody a form of agentless, feminine victimhood. Such women who have returned from the LRA are often spoken about, particularly by NGOs, as having become animals in the lum and needing "re- humanization" on their return to civil society.

As we sit and chat for the first time, I am quickly disabused of my preconceptions. Gunya identifies herself as a former LRA captain. Though abducted, she expresses her continued support for the LRA and their tactics, admitting that she sometimes thinks of going back to the lum when life becomes hard as a civilian at home. She tells me stories about using rocket- propelled grenades (RPGs) to attack gunships and jet fighters of the Uganda Peoples' Defence Forces (UPDF), the Ugandan national army. She defiantly, almost proudly, shows me what remains of old bullet wounds — scars faintly etched across both of her ankles. They are usually hidden when she goes barefoot with a hoe to till her soil, the caked mud concealing the bodily memories of her past from those around her. She dismisses claims that the LRA are finished as a rebel force, insisting that Kony is gaining momentum and will in the coming years return to Uganda and overthrow the government. She dreams of the end of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's reign, which began by coup in 1986. A change in leadership, she hopes, will bring development and freedom to her people, peace of mind for her, and education for her children, whom she wants to see grow up as doctors or lawyers. My respect for her suffering as a victim is replaced with awe of her courageous agency and will to fight.

Over the course of a little more than a year, I became good friends with Gunya, sometimes just hanging around at her home, other times joining her for clan funerals. We often shared meals, and before we dug our millet bread (kwon kal) into bowls of black-eyed pea or cowpea leaves (boo) and beans (muranga), she always knelt before me, pouring water into a basin for me to wash my hands, as was customary for Acholi women to do for men. I joked with her that she, not I, should be the one attended to — as was the case when she was an LRA officer and had house girls prepare her meals and take care of her children. I insisted that she was the proverbial big man between the two of us, but she laughed in disagreement. Nonetheless, I refused to take my first bite before she took hers.

I also frequented the restaurant in town where she worked. Her boss suggested to me that former rebels like Gunya were valued by employers for their strong work ethic, an ethic contrasted to that of their age mates who grew up during the war in refugee camps for internally displaced persons. According to the popularly circulated narrative, camp residents got "used to free things" and were prone to laziness, while rebels labored hard like brutes in the lum.

Gunya and I spoke regularly about Onen, who had remained with the LRA in the lum, and of the relationship they once had together, having courted each other when they met in the LRA. She knew that if he ever came back to Gulu, he would go live with Amito, another of his wives. Even so, she maintained contact with his family in rural Gulu District, taking their kids to see their paternal kin and the land that they will one day inherit by patriarchal right. Short on cash and without other support, she was also keen for his family to pay the fine due for unsanctioned sex (luk) for the children, who were born outside of formal marriage.

Gunya often impressed me with her military tactical knowledge and her fascination with weapons. She once mentioned that she enjoyed watching American war films, which played often in video halls in town, and asked me if I knew any. One night, I bought a bootleg copy of Black Hawk Down, a chronicle of the 1993 American military intervention in Somalia. Gunya and I sat down to watch it after the end of a workday. She gave me a running commentary on the battle scenes, critiquing the positioning of gunners on tanks and the imperfect techniques of rocket launchers aiming their RPGs at helicopters. "Mmm hmm," she nodded approvingly, when an RPG was shot at a cluster of American troops in the film. They are stupid to crowd together like that, she asserted. She called the American soldiers "lazy" and said that the LRA would have no problem dealing with the one hundred US military "advisors" deployed to central and eastern Africa in 2011 by President Barack Obama to fight the LRA on the ground.

One day in September 2012 I came to see her, excited to share the latest copy of Rupiny, a weekly Luo-language newspaper. Its cover story reported that the LRA had abducted fifty-five people in the Central African Republic (CAR). A picture of two LRA soldiers, said to be seventeen and twenty-four, caught Gunya's eye as she pored over the paper. They are not fighters, she said, but porters — people briefly abducted by rebels to help carry supplies and set up camps. She insisted that what they report in the paper is not what actually happens on the ground. She suspected the story was fake, but was nonetheless glad to hear that the LRA were still a strong force. Examining the content of the article itself, Gunya was struck by the description of a young child "rescued" by the UPDF. She did not see merit in his so-called rescue. Gunya worried about the kind of interrogation that this child would receive at the hands of the government soldiers, and lamented that he was taken away from his parents, who were likely LRA rebels in the lum.

"This child wasn't 'rescued,' but abducted and torn from his parents," she wryly remarked. Rather than envisioning the child as being a "captive" of the LRA, she wanted me to understand that to her, the LRA was his family, his life-world. Coming "home" to civilian life in Gulu would in fact mean a forcible separation from his family in the lum. While it was true that the LRA beat or killed those who tried to escape, there were also many who chose to remain with the LRA, and who were unwillingly captured even after having been themselves abducted into the LRA. The way in which "captivity" was imagined as a brutal violence from the outside did not always match the meaning it was given from within, particularly when contextualized within the structural violence of everyday life experienced by Acholi peasants and workers. Indeed, Gunya was one of many of my former rebel friends who had escaped or been captured but now lamented the conditions of life they experienced as they rejoined civilians in towns and villages across Acholiland. She and others wondered whether they would have been better off staying on the front lines in the lum.

As with all names that appear in this book, "Gunya" is a pseudonym. Gunya chose her pseudonym, which means "chimpanzee," because it reminded her of code names that rebels used for one another. She asked me to use it because, as she put it, "The LRA were there in the lum as gorillas [sic]. ... It was gorilla warfare [sic] there."

This book is a collection of the lives of Gunya and other LRA rebels — lives that are too complex to be understood through the simple moral lens of humanity. The rebels and their associated violence were often characterized as brutal and inhumane, but as I came to hear these stories, it became clear that these characterizations did not well describe the ways that rebels actually lived. The violence they had committed and the violence they suffered was not simply horrific, immoral, or "against humanity." When humanist accounts of the LRA and its violence give it cruel names, speaking about "abduction" into and "captivity" within the LRA, they hide away the meaning and complexity of that violence and of the rebellion itself. The coming chapters tell a tale of the new forms of ethical life that arose in the course of the rebellion — forms of life beyond humanity. Life within the LRA offered all kinds of transformative experiences. Rebels forged new kinship relations. They reconstructed their relationships with God, as they witnessed miracles and reached new depths of spiritual consciousness. They reconfigured their understandings of politics as they resisted and fought against the Ugandan government. Rebels returning from the front lines of war often developed a more profound discontent with the everyday violence of peasant life in Acholiland. These experiences transcended the boundaries set by the notion of humanity, and by doing so, brought the very category into question.


I had no interest in thinking or writing about "humanity" before I began long-term ethnographic research in northern Uganda in 2012 with former Lord's Resistance Army rebels. Indeed, I came to Uganda expecting to explore questions about violence and ethics — particularly the moral justification and condemnation of LRA violence: abductions, mutilation and killing of civilians, and so forth. But I could not avoid the way in which discourses about humanity constantly pervaded everyday conversations and memories about the rebels, who were characterized as outside the human in so many ways. "Humanity" appeared not only in official discourses and accounts of the war and the LRA, but also in the daily lives of combatants themselves during and after the war.

Of course, "humanity" has always been a troubling issue for Africa. As Achille Mbembe puts it: "Africa is never seen as possessing things and attributes properly part of 'human nature.' ... Discourse on Africa is almost always deployed in the framework ... of a meta-text about the animal — to be exact, about the beast." As the absolute other to the West, he argues, Africa becomes a way for the West to define itself as different, to create a self-image that poses a problem to the "idea of a common human nature, a humanity shared with others" (2001, 1, 2).

The LRA were appropriated to fill this savage slot, against which the very definition of the human was produced and reproduced. They became irrational, brutal, Black animals committing inhuman violence. This depiction gained an unprecedented level of attention when the NGO Invisible Children launched a campaign called "Kony 2012," which sought to create enough pressure to arrest LRA commander Joseph Kony by the end of 2012. Invisible Children's campaign was brought to international attention through a viral video that has been viewed more than 101 million times on YouTube and set a record for the most ever single-day views of a YouTube video at more than thirty million. The video juxtaposes an image of Kony alongside Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler as an embodiment of pure evil. As a scholar-activist, I was compelled to intervene, and together with Ayesha Nibbe, I organized a group of scholars working in and around northern Uganda to piece together "Making Sense of Kony," a series of more nuanced academic accounts of Kony and the LRA. This project was partly motivated by a desire to complicate the black-and-white picture created of Kony, to disrupt the simplistic narrative of good and evil that had emerged through an activist campaign led by mainly white young Americans.

But scholars were not the only ones challenging this narrative. Rebels had also resisted their expulsion from humanity over the course of the war. For example, in a famous 2006 interview, Kony declared to a journalist who visited him in the lum, "I am a human being like you" (Schomerus 2010, 115). He was hitting back at discourses constructed by the West and by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni that had expelled him from "humanity" as a savage, barbaric animal and terrorist.

As I discovered in the course of my ethnographic research, this attempt to reclaim "humanity" was surprisingly common. A rebel friend of mine shared the picture in figure 1 with me and asked me to include it in this work. She explained that it was a photo of an LRA family in Sudan, resting in the rebels' Nisito base in a temporary shelter (bolo) after arriving from Juba. The father, holding his daughter, sits on a box of AK-47 bullets. His wife, sitting next to him on the ground, gazes longingly into their daughter's eyes. My friend reflected on the photo: "Some said the LRA were not human beings. Some people thought they were animals or some other thing. This [image] will help show that they were also human beings."

The question of the humanity of LRA rebels was an uncomfortable one that surfaced over and over again in my time in Uganda. "Do they see them as the rebels or do they see them as human beings?" a rehabilitation officer asked about her fellow staff who had been assigned to help defecting rebels "reintegrate" into civilian society. "They are the same human beings like us," she insistently answered. A hotel manager in Gulu once told me of former rebels, "They will all need some form of counseling," before quickly asserting that she was not discriminating against rebels, but rather approaching them with the attitude that "this person is a human being." My rebel friends who lived for long periods of time in the lum asserted that they did not live with their fellow rebels in harshness or ferocity (gero), but rather "like human beings" (calo dano adana). A former rebel speaking on the radio airwaves, trying to convince current rebels to defect, urged her former comrades: "Return home so that you can become a human being" (Dwogo cen paco wek odoko dano). Friends of mine resisted this characterization. "[Civilians] think you eat human meat. They imagine you have fur, your claws are long, and you don't have toes anymore ... but people in the lum are really human beings," one insisted.

This book is not about crimes against humanity. It is not about the indictments of Joseph Kony and Dominic Ongwen — senior commanders of the LRA — by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity. It is not a story of enslavement, rape, inhumane acts, or murder. It is not a story of the suffering, survival, or resilience of former child soldiers abducted and forced to kill in the name of God. It is not a story about how violent and animal-like former rebels are, or how they should be humanized, reformed, and reintegrated into a peaceful civil society. Nor is it an attempt to rationalize or explain a "bizarre," "irrational" rebellion through a scholarly uncovering of its history, politics, and spirituality.

Rather, this book is about coming to terms with the problem of "humanity." The need to speak out and about the humanity of LRA rebels suggested that their standing in humanity was indeed under threat. A chorus of voices — consisting of both scholars and rebels — sought to defend or reassert the humanity of the LRA. In doing so, they echoed the sentiments of anticolonial voices speaking back to the ways in which Europeans had expelled Africans from humanity. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote of this resistance in his preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1961):

The black and yellow voices still talked of our humanism, but it was to blame us for our inhumanity. ... "You are making monsters out of us; your humanism wants us to be universal but your racist practices are differentiating us." (xliii–xliv)


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Table of Contents

List of Acronyms ix
List of Characters xi
Acknowledgments xv
1. Introduction: Against Humanity 1
2. How Violence Became Inhuman: The Making of Modern Moral Sensibilities 37
3. Gorilla Warfare: Life in and Beyond the Bush 83
4. Beyond Reason: Magic and Science in the LRA 115
I nterlude: Re-Turn and Dis-Integration 147
5. Rebel Kinship beyond Humanity: Love and Belonging in the War 160
6. Rebels and Charity Cases: Politics, Ethics, and the Concept of Humanity 178
7. Conclusion: Beyond Humanity, or, How Do We Heal? 210

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