Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uganda: Call for Peace from Rebel Chief's Village

As negotiators gather in Juba, south Sudan, to end 20 years of war in northern Uganda, a plea for peace comes from Joseph Kony’s childhood home.
A quiet stream flows across the gently sloping land here and marks the boundary between a sprawling refugee camp and the village of Odek, the birthplace of rebel leader Joseph Kony.

Nearby, the bush and tree-covered Awere Hill dominates the landscape, the place where the notorious leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, once gathered herbs and medicines.

Some in Odek recall Kony as a young man few thought would ever be wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes and crime against humanity.

Since forming his army in 1987, Kony has waged a vicious war throughout northern Uganda and southern Sudan that has killed tens of thousands, left thousands mutilated, and driven more than 1.5 million people into 200 refugee camps.

“He was very friendly to everyone,” said Jakayo Odora, once Kony’s childhood friend and a schoolmate. The two shared a desk through their years in elementary school.

Odora is now an elected village official, and took time away from his hunt for antelope, for which he used a spear and net, to talk about his infamous childhood friend.

“We always shared ideas,” he said. Most of all, he remembers Kony for “the way he talked with people. I liked it. He was a very polite man”.

“He was a good pupil,” recalled Odora. “He did not disturb his fellow students.” Kony was good at history, but not so adept at learning English (although he speaks it fluently) and math, and did not excel at sport, either.

Kony was most skilled at the traditional dance called the larakraka, and formed his own dance group that performed on holidays and at village celebrations, he said.

Odora said Kony began life much like everyone else in the village, and was expected to be a farmer. But that changed when as a teenager, he apprenticed with his older brother who was a witch doctor.

“When his brother died,” explained Odora, “Kony took over full responsibility” for the practice. In northern Uganda, witchdoctors are sought for herbal medicines, casting and removing spells, curses, and diseases.

“He was concerned with health,” said Odora. “He was giving drugs to heal people,” and developed a good reputation. “He was very respected for what he did. He was well known. If he [predicted] something, it would happen.”

Odora offers no theories as to what made Kony form a rebel army. “I was very surprised ….when Joseph Kony went to the bush,” because until then, “he had no political interest. He never told anyone he was forming a rebel group.”

But, when Kony began telling people he had been possessed by a spirit and had been given special powers, people started to notice.

“People joined him willingly,” said Odora, adding that Kony claimed to have the power to turn stones into bombs.

This claim was similar to claims made by Kony’s cousin, a woman named Alice Lakwena who grew up in the village of Opit, just a few kilometres from Kony’s home village.

In 1985, just two years before Kony formed his militia, Lakwena claimed to have been visited by a spirit that directed her to form a religious group she called the Holy Spirit Movement.

Sam Lawino, a former resident of Opit, recalled that she once sold tomatoes in the village market and entertained people with tricks such as rubbing stones together to make them pop, as if exploding.

In 1986, however, she converted her movement into an army called the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces, and led a one-year war against the then recently formed government of current President Yoweri Museveni.

Her army employed bizarre tactics, such as smearing themselves with shea oil to protect themselves from harm, sprinkling the ground with holy water meant to deflect enemy bullets, chanting hymns while marching upright into battle, and throwing stones they were told would explode like bombs.

After Lakwena’s forces were defeated in late 1987, she fled to Kenya where she lives in a refugee camp with 50 of her followers.

In a recent phone interview, Lakwena said she wanted to return to her home village of Opit. “I want to go home,” she said, and planned to bring her followers with her.

Lakwena, however, demanded that the government give her 3,000 cows that she said were killed by Museveni’s soldiers in the war.

Although she did not want to discuss Kony, she said she did not fear him or his army. “How can he bother me?” she asked. “No. no, no. I am a commander. He will not.”

Another person who remembers Kony is his uncle, Severino Lukoya, who is Lakwena’s father. Lukoya now lives in the northern town of Gulu and is pastor of a quirky church he calls the New Tribe of Melta.

After his daughter’s army was defeated, Lukoya gathered up the remnants, and formed a quasi-military group. But Kony captured the group and imprisoned Lukoya.

“(Kony) arrested me and beat me,” recalled Kukoya. “He scattered my followers and was breaking my (shepherd) sticks. I became annoyed with him.”

Although Lukoya claims to have sent the spirit to his daughter, Lakwena, which prompted her to go to war, he makes no such claim about Kony.

“Joseph Kony is using the spirit called ‘destroyer’. I see Joseph Kony as a destroyer,” said Lukoya, adding that because Kony is focused on war, he feels no guilt. “He doesn’t care.”

Kony is reportedly in southern Sudan and last week named a delegation to negotiate a peace deal. The delegation is said to be awaiting the arrival of a similar delegation from Uganda.

Lukoya thinks that the 20-year-old conflict in northern Uganda will eventually end, and hopes that negotiators in Sudan reach a peace agreement. “The government [of Uganda] should accept that the shedding of blood should stop.”

Lukoya said he is still fond of his nephew, “as my child sent by God”, but doubts Kony will surrender peacefully. “What he is interested in is power. That is what he wants….”

Back in Kony’s village, his childhood friend Odora wishes Kony would give up and return home.

Kony once sent his army to recruit him, but Odora refused to go. Kony’s own rebels also killed Kony’s two brothers in an attack on the village, said Odora.

In the early 1990s, Kony ignored a call by the village elders for him to give up his rebel war, and so few in the village have any sympathy for Kony.

Today, Odora can only shake his head in disgust at the damage that the war has done.

“The ICC should indict and prosecuted him,” said Odora. “What he is doing is contrary to what should be done. I’m not happy with what he is doing now.”

Odora also made an emotional appeal for Kony to surrender, “I’m asking you kindly. Two of your brothers were killed. I request you to come back and join us, as we always stay at home.”

Whether Kony will respond to that plea for the calls for peace, remains to be seen.

Peter Eichstaedt is a senior editor with IWPR – Africa.