child soldierIn 1986 in Uganda, Tito Okello the president from the Acholi tribe and his National Resistance Army (NRA) were overthrown by the now incumbent president Yoweri Museveni in the Ugandan Bush War. The president's homeland, Acholiland in northern Uganda, has many guerilla groups with widely popular Holy Spirit movement led by Alice Auma (Lakwena). However, the conflict in the north amongst themselves begin after their relative loss, Tito Okello being overthrown.

Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a guerilla group engaged in violent campaign to establish a government that is subject to or ruled by religious authority, has earned reputation for its activities in the north. It's leader Joseph Kony, the son of a lay apostle father and an Anglican mother, and himself a former altar boy.

At teenage, he was the village witch doctor under his older brother Benon Okello. Originally the group was called United Holy Salvation Army (UHSA) but wasn't perceived as a threat by the NRA, with the addition of remnant troops from other groups and accords and the forced recruitment of children, UHSA is becoming a formidable resistance army.

If the group's mission is to have a nation based on the Christian bible and the Ten Commandments why are they feared?

It has abducted over 104,000 boys and girls making them child soldiers from homes and schools turning them into ruthless killers, displaced over 1.6 million people, and engaged in spirit wars. Kony kills the family members and neighbors of the children before forcing them to fight for him. He is thought to have been possessed by the spirits and even portrayed as either the messiah or the devil. He makes annual trips and ascends to the top of Ato hills in Uganda, there he lies down in the hot sun for days covered with a blanket of red termites that slash deeply into his skin. His body is spread with oil from yao plant then enter a cave and stay in seclusion for weeks. From the hills, he gives absurd directions to children that if they draw a cross on their chests with oil they would be protected from bullets, songs would slay their enemies, rocks would be turned to grenade and mortars while sticks would become swords. He insists that he and his army were fighting for the Ten Commandments.

In the late 1980's troops merged, the LRA started using standard military tactics as opposed to its previous attempts of attacking in cross-shaped formations and use of holly water. The new tactics proved successful hence it gained more reputation and weakening other groups. By 1992, UHSA was renamed as United Democratic Christian Army, it was in this time that they would attack civilians alleged to be collaborating with NRA, and also kidnapped 44 girls from Sacred Heart and St. Mary's girls' secondary schools.

Lira, a town in Uganda, was one of the quiet towns in Africa and hardly made international news. Suddenly it's making news, but the news isn't what its people are doing but what is being done to by the LRA. By the name of their leader, Joseph Kony, the army raided villages, towns and camps of refuge turning them to camps of death and destruction.

The president, Yoweri Museveni, engages Kony's army into a war. Kony's defence militia was helpless while the army far away. The defence militia, a rag tag group of children that acquired weapons from Sudan, ran into line of fire believing that the bullets would do no harm since they believed in mystical powers of their leader and are ordered not to take cover. On the other hand, Ugandan army who most are adults, well equipped, trained, with helicopters, tankers and trucks. The war leaves a lot of people dead mostly children, and the only the mention of the name of Kony and his soldiers is dreaded. It seemed like a one-sided battle since the children lead themselves to their own death.

Safely in the rear area sited with firefights and a whit robe is where the leader stays during the war while children are in the battle front. Why doesn't the commander show the same belief in holy spirits protection and expose himself to the fire of the enemy?

Impacts of the war were fatal, thousands of children robbed off childhood and in many cases life itself. Boys and girls turned into ruthless killers who no longer feel, their souls seared by the atrocities they have seen and forced to participate for instance children starting with 10 years old were taught to kill starting with their families. Other children are killed and one is let to live only to be commanded to kill in order to stay alive.

Not only were the children were affected, although many people who were displaced returned after the war, they still live in internally displaced persons' camps. Complex issues surround their return as they were displaced over a decade ago and all their way of life is gone. Access to economic opportunities, clean water, health care and education is a big problem.

The child soldiers now grown-ups need a lot help. Just as the other people who have returned home lack the basic needs, they also have mental concerns. They need counseling o help them forget what they went through and any economic activity to keep them busy and earn a living. Some are parents and would like their children to be raised in such environment or go through what they did. With nothing to do and lack of basic needs poses a great danger to the society since most of them can go back to their way of life of killing and raids. This will increase the crime rate returning northern Uganda back to where it was.

By Oscar Otindo, Kenya

The writer is a Kenyan volunteer and activist based in Nairobi, Kenya