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This Will Be A Day Long Remembered…

Heartwarming scenes in Kampala, Uganda, today, as emissaries from the notorious Lord's Resistance Army arrived in the city on a rather belated mission of peace. The gruesome civil war has been going on for over two decades since President Museveni took power in a coup in 1986, but it seems the end may finally be in sight. The rebels are in town for the first time since the war began all those years ago to talk peace with government officials, and they certainly talk the talk:

LRA spokesman Godfrey Ayoo admitted that the team had security fears about their visit but insisted that they will forge ahead with their mission.

"The value of what we are doing starting today is much higher than the fear, we want this to be the last conflict in Uganda whereby people will never again take up weapons to resolve their problems"

Stirring stuff indeed. It's a bit late, of course, for the tens of thousands who have died in the years of fighting, but better one sinner repenteth than ninety and nine who have no need, right? Well, maybe. But the LRA's belated decision to talk turkey is, as you might expect, less about peace and reconciliation and more to do with their growing isolation.

Even by the standards of African conflicts, the Ugandan civil war has been particularly pointless and bloody. The government has been guilty of war crimes, but in the Lord's Resistance Army it has found itself up against an almost unbelievably brutal band of rebels who have shown themselves willing to stoop to almost unbelievable levels in their fight for power.

The LRA's activities were laid bare in a chilling Vanity Fair article by Christopher Hitchens last year (one that I urge you to read when you have the chance), and among the most nightmarish aspects of their rebellion, apart from their fondness for cutting off the breasts, lips and noses in the villages they raid, has been their widespread use of children, both as soldiers and sexual slaves. Terrified of being abducted and forced into service as soldiers, the children walk for miles every night to towns and shelters where they can find a measure of safety, thus earning the name "night commuters". Hitch:

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 know-the 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.

The turning point in the LRA's fortunes seems to have been the 2005 peace deal in Sudan, which deprived them of the succor and support of the Islamist government in Khartoum. A strange, if not unholy, alliance, given the LRA's Christian fanaticism and their claims to be inspired by the Ten Commandments – but convenient for the Sudanese; their own troublesome rebels were supported by the Ugandan government prior to the peace deal, so it made sense to provide the LRA with bases to launch their attacks on the Ugandan regime. And so two sets of proxies were employed to sow violence and death in their neighbors' countries. A squalid mess indeed.

There are still sticking points, most notably over the International Criminal Court's arrest warrant against the LRA leader, Joseph Kony, a self-professed spirit medium and fearsome thug, who is wanted for crimes including the killing of children and mutilation of civilians. President Museveni has stated that he is happy for rebel leaders to submit themselves to traditional tribal justice such as mato oput, in which the offenders accept responsibility for their actions and make reparations to the families of their victims, before sharing a bitter drink made from the herbs and root of the oput tree. But the ICC are, understandably, not wild about letting mass murderers off with a punishment barely worse than a challenge from Survivor, fearing it may set a worrying precedent.

Whatever happens, cynicism should not blind us to the reality that 21 years of suffering may be coming to an end for the Ugandan people. But cynicism is hard to shake. The leader of the LRA delegation that traveled to Kampala today, Martin Ojul, made a dramatic symbolic gesture for the assembled press in an attempt to affirm his movement's seriousness about the peace talks. Unfortunately, though – well, here's the guy from Reuters:

As a symbol of what he said was the LRA's commitment to peace, he released a live dove into the air, which flapped about before flopping downwards into the lap of a diplomat.

Let's hope the humans can do a bit better.

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