Twice Captive of the LRA

Former wife of rebel leader Joseph Kony talks of life with Africa’s most wanted man.

Twice Captive of the LRA

Former wife of rebel leader Joseph Kony talks of life with Africa’s most wanted man.

Wednesday, 1 July, 2009
At the age of 27, Lily Atong has lived most of her life as a captive and wife of Joseph Kony, the enigmatic and rarely seen leader of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.

She has three children by Kony - one named George Bush, after the former US president though it is unclear which - and has survived despite being held by the Ugandan rebel group for two extended periods.

Her second and most recent escape from the rebel army, currently holed up in the remote northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, came last December when the rebels were attacked by the Uganda army.

The attacks came after Kony failed to appear on November 30 to sign a peace agreement with Uganda that had been two years in negotiations.

“Kony told us he refused to turn up at the signing venue (Ri-Kwangba) because there were plans to arrest him,” Atong told IWPR in an interview at the Gulu Support the Children Organisation, GUSCO, in northern Uganda where she is receiving psychological treatment and rehabilitation.

“He said he had information on plans to arrest him if he had risked appearing to sign the agreement,” she said.

“It's hard to determine what Kony really needs. He talks of peace and fighting. He told us he will do anything as [long as] he still holds the power. He said will continue fighting rather than being taken to the [International Criminal Court, ICC] to be hanged.”

Kony and his top commanders are wanted by the ICC in The Hague, which does not have the death penalty, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Additionally, Kampala has indicated it could put Kony on trial in Uganda should he turn himself over to authorities.

Atong was first abducted by LRA rebels in the Amuru district in northern Uganda in 1991, when she was just ten years old. “We were eight going to school. We met the rebels who abducted all of us,” Atong told IWPR.

She and the others were taken to one of the LRA camps in Nisutu in Eastern Equatoria state of South Sudan where Kony was based. Kony selected her and two other abductees to help his wives.

“After five years, Kony told me I was his wife. I feared he would kill me if I refused. I cried, but I had no option but to yield. So I became his wife,” Atong said.

She gave birth to a baby boy in January 1997 whom Kony named George Bush, and in 1999 had another baby also by Kony.

In 2005, when Ugandan troops attacked an LRA camp in South Sudan, she managed to escape and returned to Gulu hoping to start a new life.

During the Juba peace negotiations in 2006, however, she accompanied a 22-member peace team from northern Uganda to meet Kony in August that year to try to persuade him to release the hundreds of other women and children held captive by the LRA.

“At first, I didn’t want to go,” Atong said. “However, I changed my mind after several people persuaded me. I also accepted to go with the selected leaders because I wanted to go and [collect] my son, George Bush, who remained in the bush.

“I knew I was going to come back with the leaders. However, on the day we were supposed to come back to Uganda, Kony told me I was going to remain with him. He said if I risked moving, I would be shot.

“I pleaded with him. He became so furious and threatened to kill me. As I feared to be killed, I decided to remain with him.”

She was forced to stay two more years with Kony and again gave birth to another child by him, she said.

Atong was among ten of Kony’s wives who he kept at the LRA’s Nigeria Camp. They were part of an estimated total of 30 wives that Kony keeps scattered in various other camps, most of them abducted girls, Atong said, along with his estimated 100 children.

Shortly before the December 14 attack, however, Kony distributed his wives to different field commanders then left with his private guards.

“Kony abandoned us [women]. He went with a few of his heavily armed escorts,” Atong told IWPR. “He is ever changing his location. None of us [women] knows where he is stationed.”

The December attack deeply affected Kony, “Kony was OK before the attack but after the attack, he became so wild, crazy and rowdy. He started issuing orders and shouting at his troops.

“Life in the LRA camp was not bad before the attack. We had lots of food from CARITAS. We planted beans, groundnuts, sweet potatoes, peas and other crops for food. Everything was peaceful.”

The Catholic Church aid agency CARITAS was contracted by international sponsors to supply food, water and materials to the rebels as an incentive for them to continue negotiating and stop raiding villagers.

But, Atong said, “During the talks, the rebels kept on abducting people from DRC and southern Sudan and train them [to fill the army’s ranks].

“The LRA rebels are [very] many. Some are in Central African Republic while others have moved near Kisangani in DRC.”

She feels lucky to have again escaped the LRA.

“We [women] and the rebels walked for several [kilometers]. One day, we were ambushed by the Ugandan soldiers. They fired at us and we took off in different directions,” she said.

“Five of us [women] took off in one direction. I knew it was soldiers who had attacked us. I decided to move back [toward] the soldiers while raising my hands and pleading with them not to kill me. One of the women also decided to follow me. The soldiers spared our lives as they didn’t shoot us.”

She said she was finally taken to the Ugandan army camp before being airlifted to Uganda.

The Ugandan military spokesman, Major Felix Kulayigye, said Uganda will pursue the LRA until Kony is killed or signs a peace agreement.

“Our intelligence forces are in DRC to support the Congolese forces in hunting the LRA,” he said. “We shall continue to pursue the military option until Kony is killed, captured or signs the peace agreement.”

Samuel Richard Egadu is an IWPR-trained journalist.
Support our journalists