Global Politics

US Trainers Helping Uganda Fight LRA Face Challenges

There may be no rebel group in Africa so feared as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Started in Uganda in the 1980s, it's led a man named Joseph Kony, who claims to have spiritual powers.

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Kony has kept his forces strong by abducting tens of thousands of children, first in Uganda, and then in neighboring countries. The group is known for its brutality; one of its signatures is cutting off the lips of victims.

Walter was 3-years-old when the LRA attacked his village and set his sister on fire.

"She was burned very badly," Walter said, "and a bullet came and shot me too."

Walter's sister didn't survive. He now has a glass eye and his face is badly disfigured.

The United States has tried to help put an end to the LRA several times over the years. Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced that it's sending about 100 special operations troops toward that end. Virginia Blaser with the US State Department in Uganda said the LRA has affected hundreds of thousands of people.

"We are in a position to be able to help and we have been asked to help," Blaser said. "We are delighted to do so."

The promise of American troops is welcome news to some who know the LRA firsthand.

"If the American soldiers come, it's very good," said a young man named James. "They have to fight Joseph Kony and give freedom to the people of Africa."

James was a soldier with the LRA. When he was 5 he was abducted and given a gun. He spent the next four years raiding villages, slaughtering people in Sudan and Uganda.

"I don't remember right now because there were so many," James said. "I cannot count them right now."

When James was 9, he injured his leg and couldn't walk, so the LRA abandoned him. When Sudanese fighters found him, James figured he'd be killed. Then, he said, a large white man stood in front of him.

"I said this man is going to kill me, or he's going to eat me because he was too big," James said. "He had big stomach."

The man was Sam Childers, a onetime American drug dealer turned evangelical pastor who went to Africa to try to rescue child soldiers. There's a Hollywood movie out this year based on his story. It's called "Machine Gun Preacher."

The real-life Childers said he likes the idea of sending in US Special Forces.

"I believe it could make a very big difference," Childers said. "The deciding factor is how far are they willing to go to end this problem. Let's just hope that they're going in to do the job right."

But "going in" doesn't exactly describe this mission. US officials have said that fewer than 50 Special Forces will enter the countries where the LRA now operates. The State Department said no American troops will actually fight the LRA; that would likely fall to the Ugandan military.

The US has provided logistical assistance in the past to help track down Kony. A failed effort in 2008 set off a series of civilian massacres by the LRA.

Still, advocates said they're optimistic this time will be different. John Bradshaw, with the Enough Project, a group that's lobbied the US government to take action against the LRA said while there have been a number of U.S. personnel involved over the years, it was never this many.

"The main thing is that they will be more actively engaged with the regional forces," Bradshaw added. "I think this is going to be better managed, with better information and a better chance of success."

But many LRA experts are less enthusiastic.

"I'm not very sure that the effort made by the US today will come up with a sizeable result. I'm quite pessimistic about it," said Frederick Kisekka Ntale, a political economist specializing in conflict at Makerere University in Kampala. He said countries like Uganda get a lot of international aid to fight the LRA threat, which gives them an incentive to keep fighting, without actually bringing Kony in.

"It is a cash cow for further escapades and further escapades and further escapades."

Still, people like James, the former LRA fighter, are hoping this effort will be the final one, because he said the LRA fear American soldiers.

"If American soldiers are truly committed, Joseph Kony may give up and tell his soldiers to surrender and live in peace."

  • JamesPraying.jpg

    James praying (Photo: Dennis Porter)

  • Walter2.jpg

    The LRA attacked Walter's village when he was 3. (Photo: Dennis Porter)