A team from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum recently traveled to eastern Congo, where they collected testimonies from survivors of the ongoing conflict. In a powerful recent post on World Is Witness, Michael Graham profiled Joseph, a Congolese teenager who was abducted and enslaved for six months by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Joseph told Michael his story, which is described in this first post of a two-part series.
Joseph fiddles with his bright red tie and peers intently out the window of our small prop plane over the landscape of northeastern Congo.
The land below has been Joseph’s home for nearly twenty years. But over the past six months it has also been his prison, one shared with thousands of other children, teenagers, and adults.
I am here in Northeast Congo to look into atrocities committed against civilians in the area, which have increased dramatically over the last eight months. Joseph, after months of enslavement, has experienced these crimes first hand. He is finally on his way home to Dungu, a small village near the border with Sudan.
Over the past eight months the people of northeastern Congo, southern Sudan and the Central African Republic have been terrorized by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a small rebel group of no more than a thousand soldiers that began its life in Northern Uganda twenty years ago among the Acholi tribe.
While the LRA’s original aim was to overthrow the government of Uganda and install Joseph Kony, the LRA’s charismatic and superstitious leader, to power, today their motivation is far less clear. At times it seems they are simply trying to survive.
The stories of the pain left in their wake over the years are chilling. Children stolen from their homes, forced to kill their own families in ‘initiation’. Young boys trained to kill, other children enslaved as porters. Entire villages murdered. Girls of just 10 or 11 becoming ‘wives’ to soldiers.
Several years ago the LRA moved its base of operations from Uganda to Northeast Congo, fleeing the Ugandan military. Since a botched operation against them last December, at least 1,400 people have been killed and nearly 2,000 people abducted, mostly children. More than 200,000 people have been displaced from their homes.
Joseph is a tall teenager, a good student. He smiles readily but talks with a disconnected quietness.
I met Joseph in Faradje, a hundred miles from his home of Dungu, where he told me his story. Joseph slowly describes how one warm morning last September, he was walking along the road to Dungu from his house a few miles outside of town, on route to the market to buy some vegetables for that evening’s dinner.
The LRA came out of the forest, sporting Khaki uniforms and dirty dreadlocks, and tied Joseph up along with seven others. The rebels forced them to march four days through the snake-infested forest. If anyone walked too slowly they were beaten. Joseph’s knee shows the evidence of this punishment, the treatment given a slave. If anyone couldn’t walk any more from their wounds, they were shot.
They arrived at Kony’s main base in Garamba National Park in northeast Congo, a complex of four smaller camps within a few miles, and were greeted by a commander. “You are going to stay with us here, without any problems,” Kony told them. He rubbed oil on Joseph’s chest. “If you try to flee,” he warned, “this magic oil will bring you back to us.” Magic and superstition is a defining characteristic of the LRA’s cult culture. So is brutal discipline.
A few weeks later, this warning was tested when several children attempted to escape.
The teenagers were caught a short time later and marched back to camp. They were beaten to death in front of Joseph and hundreds other children as a lesson.
“If any of you try to flee as well, this is what will happen to you,” said the commander.
Joseph was put to work in the fields, raising maize, peanuts and sweet potatoes. He saw Kony on occasion, tall and thin, his hair well-coiffed and dressed in well-tailored civilian clothes who moved from camp to camp for meetings, or to see his “wives.” While the lower soldiers who could be trusted were provided a young girl, he was reputed to have between 30 and 40 such unwilling wives.
On December 14th, three months after Joseph was captured, Kony’s camp in Garamba was bombed by Ugandan attack helicopters in a secret operation by Ugandan, Congolese and South Sudanese forces, supported by the U.S. military. It was called Operation Lightning Thunder, and was so secret that not even the UN peacekeeping commanders were told of it until mere hours before.
But it ended in disaster. The slow helicopters arrived before the bomber jets, delayed by poor weather. The helicopters destroyed the camp, but with even worse coordination with ground forces (who didn’t arrive until at least 48 hours later), the operation failed to capture or kill Kony, or put a dent into the LRA’s strength.
The hornet’s nest had been kicked.
Joseph was fishing with a small group near the base when it was bombed. The soldiers and slaves hid in the forest near the base until it was safe to move. He remembers the group’s commander being called up on his satellite phone by a furious Kony. “This is war,” pledged the rebel leader.
The LRA forces splintered into dozens of small groups, the larger ones with more than a hundred soldiers, others no more than four or five. Kony ordered some groups west and others east to avoid the circling Ugandan and Congolese soldiers.
In the several years the LRA had operated in Congo they had pillaged, stolen food and supplies, harassed the population, and captured children. During that time they told the people here that their fight was with the government of Uganda, not the citizens of Congo. The killing of civilians here by the LRA was not widespread.
That was about to change.
To learn more, visit our special page on the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Photo: Joseph, on his way home after being enslaved for six months by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group. USHMM/Michael Graham