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A history of Africa's longest-running armed conflict

In 1986, Yoweri Museveni gained the presidency of Uganda. Alice Lakwena, a woman from the Acholi tribe in northern Uganda started the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) in opposition. The group recruited followers and forged alliances with rebel militias with the intent of entering Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, and freeing the north from government oppression. The Holy Spirit Movement had regional support, but regional support only. When Alice Lakwena was exiled, there was no obvious person to take over leadership of the Holy Spirit Movement.

Joseph Kony

Joseph Kony claimed to be a distant cousin of Alice Lakwena’s and the natural successor to lead the Holy Spirit Movement. Soon after Joseph Kony assumed management of the group, he changed the name to the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA. Joseph Kony wasn’t able to maintain the group's number or regional support, so he started stealing food and abducting children to fill the ranks of his army. Subsequently, he lost any remaining regional support. What had started out as a rebel movement to end the oppression of the north became an oppression of the north in itself.

Joseph Kony’s tactics were—and remain—brutal. He often forced children to kill their parents or siblings with machetes or blunt tools. He abducted girls to be sex slaves for his officers. He brainwashed and indoctrinated the children with his lies and manipulated them with his claim of spiritual powers.

At the height of the conflict in Uganda, children “night commuted.” That is, every evening they would walk miles from their homes to the city centers. There, hundreds of children would sleep in school houses, churches, or bus depots to avoid abduction by the LRA.

Kony and the LRA abducted more than 30,000 children in northern Uganda.

IDP camps

Starting in 1996, the Ugandan government, unable to stop the LRA, required the people of northern Uganda to leave their villages and enter government-run camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). These camps were supposedly created for the safety of the people, but the camps were rife with disease and violence. At the height of the conflict, 1.7 million people lived in these camps across the region. The conditions were squalid and there was no way to make a living. Thus a generation of Acholi people was born and raised in these camps.

The ICC indicts five LRA commanders

In 2005 the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and four of his top commanders: Dominic Ongwen, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo, and Vincent Otti. Of those, only Kony, Ongwen, and Odhiambo remain at large. Raska Lukwiya was killed in combat with the UPDF in August 2006 and Vincent Otti was killed by Kony in November 2007—reportedly for wanting Kony to sign the peace agreement, a stance that Kony considered a betrayal.

Juba Peace Talks

In 2006 the LRA indicated an interest in peace negotiations. They were held in Juba, Sudan (now South Sudan), and dubbed the Juba Peace Talks. Meanwhile the LRA set up camp in Garamba National Park in northeastern Congo. In August of 2006 a Cessation of Hostilities agreement was signed by the LRA and the government of Uganda.

The talks took place over the course of two years. Joseph Kony sent a delegation to negotiate on his behalf, but when the Final Peace Agreement was ready to be signed, Joseph Kony failed to show up—five times.

Throughout the peace talks, and in retrospect, it is suspected that Joseph Kony never intended to sign the Final Peace Agreement. Instead, he possibly entered peace talks as a means of resting and regrouping. The entire time that the LRA was involved in peace talks they were provided with food, clothing, and medicine as a gesture of good faith. It now seems that the LRA was gathering its strength and stockpiling food.

There is also significant evidence that Kony ordered his fighters to attack villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the Peace Talks.

Operation Lightning Thunder and the Christmas Massacres

In December 2008, when it became clear that Kony wasn’t going to sign the agreement, Operation Lightning Thunder was launched. It was the coordinated effort of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Sudan, with intelligence and logistical support from the United States.

The operation failed. Joseph Kony somehow learned of the attack in the hours before the air-raid and so he was able to escape. In retribution for the attempted attack, the LRA, led by ICC-indictee Dominic Ongwen, attacked villages in the DRC on December 24, 2008, killing 865 civilians and abducting 160 more over the course of 2 weeks. The LRA fighters were reportedly instructed to target churches, where people would be gathered with their families for Christmas Eve services.

A year later the LRA reprised the Christmas massacres in the Makombo region in northeastern Congo as a reminder of its powers of destruction. These attacks took place over 5 days, from December 14-18, 2009. This time they killed 321 people and abducted 250.

Because of the remote region of the Makombo massacres in December 2009, the outside world knew nothing about the attacks until 3 months later. Human Rights Watch broke the news on March 28, 2010.

The LRA today

The LRA left Uganda for good once the Juba Peace Talks began in 2006. Since 2008, they have carried out their attacks in the border regions of northeastern Congo, South Sudan, and Central African Republic.

See the The LRA Crisis Tracker for information about LRA activity since December 2009.

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