The Bizarre and Horrifying Story of the Lord's Resistance Army

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A group of child-enslaving cultists might not sound like much of an enemy, but the group, which should not have survived its first battle, has persisted for 25 years

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Ugandan soldiers deploy in 2009 to the Democratic Republic of Congo to fight the Lord's Resistance Army / Reuters

The story of the Lord's Resistance Army begins with a madwoman from the village of Opit in northern Uganda. After 30 years of uneventful life, Alica Auma disappeared into a nature reserve for several weeks. When she emerged, she said she had been possessed by an Italian army officer whom she called Lakwena, which means "word of God." For about a year, Alice Lakwena, as she was now known, worked as a healer and oracle. Then, one day, she announced that Lakwena had a new plan for her. She would purify first her native lands in northern Uganda, and then the world, through combat. War would be a divine form of healing, she said, in which those that die are like rotten flesh cut out by a surgeon, and in which the pure could not be killed.

It was 1986, and though Uganda's five-year civil war had just ended, the violence had not. Southerner Yoweri Museveni's armed uprising had toppled the northerner-dominated government (Museveni is still in power today), sending the national army fleeing into the north, where it splintered into rebel groups that kept fighting. In Lakwena's northern Uganda, violence was becoming an increasing part of daily life, with an ever-shifting roster of armed groups that polarized communities and the country. Government soldiers cracked down, killing and imprisoning northerners with little cause.

Alice Lakwena began her career as an insurgent leader on August 20, 1986. Government soldiers had kidnapped a number of young people in her town and detained them in a nearby barracks. Local families, desperate and aware of Lakwena's self-aggrandizing claims to supernatural power, begged her for help. She gathered 150 men and 40 guns and marched toward the barracks. The soldiers, terrified of her reputation and the eery certainty of the largely unarmed men, fled. These 150 men soon grew into the 18,000-strong Holy Spirit Mobile Forces, which later became the Lord's Resistance Army, which the U.S. will send 100 troops to help defeat, President Obama announced on Friday.

The Holy Spirit Mobile Forces should not have survived one year, much less 25. Their successors in the LRA -- which has ravaged much of Central Africa, kidnapping tens of thousands of children to become soldiers, slaves, and concubines -- should crumble against the overwhelming superiority of these American troops, who will assist the Ugandan army and act as advisers. But the LRA did not crumble against past efforts from the Ugandan army, which were often guided or assisted by the U.S. If Obama wants to make this time different, he'll have to understand why a group that should never have lasted past its first battle has managed to persist longer than al-Qaeda or the Taliban have even existed.

Lakwena's first and only campaign leading the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces would be considered a shocking success even if she hadn't ordered her soldiers not to aim their rifles. She issued complicated requirements for fighting in her army. Soldiers would cover themselves in shea butter and often little else, believing the butter made them bullet-proof; Lakwena told them that God would guide their bullets and would turn their rocks, if they picked the right ones to throw, into grenades. On the battlefield, they would sing religious songs before attacking and chant "James Bond! James Bond! James Bond!" while advancing. Uganda army troops, vulnerable to the same superstitions that helped Lakwena attract so many recruits, and no doubt terrified of the glistening and chanting columns marching toward them, often refused to fight. Lakwena's Holy Spirit Mobile Forces advanced to within 80 miles of the capital before they were finally turned back by an artillery barrage. Their leader escaped on a bicycle and made her way to a refugee camp in Kenya, where she died in 2007.

Joseph Kony, a young rebel commander who had tried to join forces with Lakwena, watched the rise and fall of the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces with interest. Kony appeared to believe earnestly in her mission and ideology and he shared her past as a healer-oracle. According to academics Tim Allen and Koen Vlassenroot, some people in Kony's village say that he shared a grandfather with Alice Lakwena on their mothers' side. Kony claimed that Lakwena, along with Alice's other spirits, now possessed him, and he soon took control of her army as well. At first, Kony primarily handled the spiritual aspects of their war, leaving much of the combat to a co-leader. That co-leader was killed, and Kony took full command of what he quickly renamed the Lord's Resistance Army.

Kony, though even madder than Alice Lakwena, is mad in a way that has made for a more successful and lasting insurgency. A defected LRA captain reported that Kony would be possessed "two or three times a day" by a cast of rotating spirits, who would issue barbaric orders. "No one corrected what the spirits said, nor did people dare question the spirits," the captain remembered. Kony demanded civilians be tortured and killed for no apparent reason, destroyed villages, and enslaved an ever-growing army of children, programmed with drugs and beatings to follow Kony.

Alice had found support because she promised a supernatural response to the despised government; Kony used that support to build a self-perpetuating army that promptly turned the rest of Uganda against it. The Ugandan government had otherwise made or enforced relative peace and began to focus on the LRA. That might have been the beginning of the end for Kony, but Central Africa's turbulent regional politics had just shifted in his favor. Uganda and Sudan were at a state of low-level, undeclared war: Uganda was supporting rebels groups in southern Sudan who fought that country's Arab, north-based government. Sudan responded by adopting the LRA as its own, offering them safe havens in Sudan and truckloads of Kalashnikov rifles.

The Sudanese government asked Kony to spread chaos in Uganda as well as in southern Sudan. Some of the rural villages in both countries had never seen a rifle before, much less an advancing column of children, roped together and wildly firing automatic assault rifles. Many people on both sides died in every skirmish, but the hardy Kalashnikovs endured. Kony would stash them in caves and anthills, retrieving them months or years later. Disarming the LRA today would mean sweeping thousands of miles of dense jungle with metal detectors. Defunding them would require persuading Sudanese President Omar Bashir, who is still fighting insurgent groups in Darfur and elsewhere, that supporting terrorist groups, his signature tactic for decades, is no longer in his interest.

Since the late 1980s, the Ugandan government has tried several times to defeat the LRA or at least compel it to disarm. It even created a senior position dedicated to this cause; the Minister of State for Pacification of Northern Uganda. The first person to hold this office, Betty Bigombe, negotiated directly with Kony, deep-jungle meetings that many of her staffers refused to attend for fear that they would be maimed or killed. But President Museveni squashed Bigombe's hopeful 1994 peace talks, and others since then. Museveni has good reason to want fighting to continue. He is still unpopular in the north, and the LRA gives him good reason to fill that once rebellious region with his troops. They've also given him an opportunity forcibly relocate a number of "vulnerable" northern Ugandans into displacement camps, where he said they might be more easily protected. The LRA's bloody attacks also provide a rallying point for once-fractured Uganda, a common enemy that keeps everyone in line. Whatever Museveni's brutalities, the LRA will always be worse.

U.S. assistance hasn't done much to help. In 2002, the Ugandan military launched a U.S.-aided campaign called Iron Fist against LRA camps in Uganda's north and Sudan's south. The U.S. had pushed the Sudanese government to allow the incursions; it also provided logistical and intelligence support to the 10,000 troops that Museveni sent against Kony. The LRA leadership escaped unscathed. A second Iron Fist campaign in 2004 pushed much of the LRA into Sudan and the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo but did little else. Kony was later pushed even further west in the Central African Republic.

Museveni is still chasing Kony; the violence is now mostly off of Ugandan soil, but Ugandan troops are spread more widely than ever. In later 2008, Uganda led Operation Lightening Thunder, which put its troops in charge of a mission to which several Central African nations contribute troops. Lightening Thunder has done little to effect Kony, whose reign of terror has merely shifted westward, but it has entrenched Uganda and Museveni as de facto military leaders of much of Central Africa. Villagers and townspeople in Central Africa have little to show for these past few years of fighting, but Kony and Museveni are doing better than ever.

A handful of American troops might be just the thing that this war -- if a heavily armed cult fighting little-defended civilians can be called a war -- needs to finally end. It might compel more responsible and assertive behavior from the Uganda-led force, might provide it with the intelligence and assistance it needs to find Kony, and might even put an American solution to one of Central Africa's worst problems. Or it might fail as past efforts, Ugandan and American, have failed. But the outcome will be about more than just a madman and his army of enslaved children. There's more here than might initially meet the eye, and if a problem like the Lord's Resistance Army doesn't go away after 25 years, perhaps the Lord's Resistance Army is not the only problem.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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