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The conflict between the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) began shortly after the Ugandan rebel National Resistance Army (NRA) led by current President Yoweri Museveni seized power in 1986. Defeated soldiers of the deposed government fled to their birthplaces in northern Uganda and in many cases continued to fight the new government; others sought refuge across the border in Sudan. The Acholi leader Alice Lakwena created the Holy Spirit Movement and it fought the NRA’s abuses against northerners during this campaign and in its aftermath. She combined Acholi and Christian doctrine to inspire her followers.

The Holy Spirit Movement advanced south until it was routed by the NRA just one hundred kilometers from Kampala in late 1986. Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army followed quickly on the heels of her movement, incorporating her Holy Spirit followers as well as remnants of the defeated government army. Joseph Kony claimed to have inherited the spirits that possessed Alice Lakwena, who went into exile in Kenya where she remains.

The relations between northerners and the Ugandan government of President Museveni have never been good. The abusive early conduct of the government army in 1986 has never been forgotten or forgiven. The forced displacement by the government, its severe restrictions on movement, continuing abuses by the government military forces (no longer mostly northerners) and widespread detentions without trial of civilians on suspicion of rebel collaboration have further alienated many northern citizens. Northerners voted against the incumbent President Museveni and for the opposition presidential candidates in the 1996 and 2001 races, sent opposition leaders to Parliament and elected anti-Museveni people to local positions.

In the late 1980s the LRA had some popular backing, but its support waned in the early 1990s as it responded to the government’s formation of local militias and displaced persons camps by waging a campaign of abducting, killing and mutilating civilians, cutting off their lips, ears, noses, hands and feet. It considered anyone living in the camps (created in the mid-1990s) a government ally or supporter.

The LRA was able to sustain itself through Sudanese government support that reportedly started in 1994.2 In 1999 the Ugandan and Sudanese governments agreed with each other to stop supporting opposing rebel groups in either country. At the time, the Ugandan government allegedly supported the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). The SPLM and the Sudanese government signed a peace agreement in January 2005. Sudanese support for the LRA reportedly waned since the U.S. government placed the LRA on its list of terrorist organizations in October 2001, but it is not clear that all Sudanese government supply lines to the LRA have been broken.3

In March 2002 the Ugandan army launched “Operation Iron Fist” in southern Sudan with Sudanese government consent. The LRA response was to flee from its Sudanese bases back into northern Uganda, where in mid-2002 it expanded the theater of war to the south and southeast including areas less affected by the conflict such as Lira and the Teso sub-region of eastern Uganda, dominated by the Langi and Iteso peoples respectively. The LRA began more wide-scale abductions, killings and looting throughout the north and east, causing an upsurge in people fleeing their homes. This lead the UPDF to issue an October 2, 2002 order, transmitted widely over radio only, giving people living in the “abandoned villages” of the three Acholi districts only forty-eight hours to move to government camps.4

In early 2002, there were still more than 500,000 civilians internally displaced in northern Uganda.5 By the end of 2002, as a result of the LRA’s return to northern Uganda and the UPDF order, this figure had almost doubled to over 800,000.6 Many northerners blamed Operation Iron Fist for stirring up the hornet’s nest of the LRA.7

The heavy-handed displacement strategy to protect civilians appears also to have been aimed at carrying out the classic counter-insurgency strategy of “draining the sea”— removing the population from the rural areas in which the rebels operate, the population being the sea and the rebels the fish.8 The Ugandan government began this policy of forced displacement in 1996 and to date almost the entire rural population of the three Acholi districts is homeless as the displaced camps have become sprawling shantytowns.

Despite the supposed security provided by these camps, the LRA regularly has conducted devastating attacks on them. One of the worst attacks ever on displaced persons camps occurred on February 21, 2004, when the LRA massacred 330 people at the Barlonyo camp in Lira district to the south of Gulu.  Many victims were burned alive inside their huts. One witness, fleeing the camp, saw the rebels setting “the huts on fire.  Children ran out and they threw them back into the fire.  There were children who were ordered to burn their families’ huts.”9

In 2004, the UPDF embarked on “Operation Iron Fist II” with Sudanese government permission. The renewed government offensive seemed to have some success. One LRA victim told Human Rights Watch that the LRA fighters who captured her in May 2004 were trying to surrender to the UPDF but were afraid they would be shot. These forty LRA fighters had not eaten for three days until they found a field of cabbage.10 If officer attrition is any indication, one Sudanese commander who knew the LRA in 1993 said to Human Rights Watch that in those days Vincent Otti, an LRA commander, was number twenty-seven in the hierarchy under Joseph Kony; today he is number two.11

The Ugandan forces reportedly came close to capturing Joseph Kony in a raid on an LRA base at Nesitu in southern Sudan in July 2004.12 The Ugandan government claims that only 400 LRA fighters remain,13 although few accept that such a small force could continue to cause such damage. Since mid-2004, however, some measure of calm has returned to areas such as Lira district and the adjacent Teso sub-region of eastern Uganda.

Many northern Ugandans believe their plight is intertwined with the war that has raged in southern Sudan since 1983, especially as Uganda and Sudan seemed to be engaged in a proxy war across this border by supplying each other’s rebels.14 The war in Sudan between the Sudanese government and southern-based rebels, the SPLM/A, was brought to a negotiated solution with a Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed on January 9, 2005 between the Sudanese government and the SPLM/A.15 The ex-Sudanese rebel leader John Garang was sworn in as First Vice President of Sudan on July 9, 2005. In his inaugural speech, outlining the security concerns of the new government from his perspective, he said, “we must expel the LRA from Eastern Equatoria [southern Sudan].”16

Despite Vice President Garang’s unexpected death in a helicopter crash only three weeks after his swearing-in in Khartoum,17 many in the SPLA, particularly those responsible for operations in the area where the LRA has been present, are also concerned about eliminating the LRA. One high-ranking SPLA commander responsible for that sector, Obuto Mamur Mete, suspects that the LRA still receives support not from the central Sudanese government but from Sudanese army personnel based in Juba, southern Sudan’s capital some one hundred miles north of the Uganda border. This SPLA commander alleges that the deliveries have continued on at least four occasions in April, May and June 2005 in two locations south of Juba.18

Cmdr. Obuto Mamur, who is from the Latuka people of the area in southern Sudan affected by the LRA, said that the SPLA has fought the LRA in Sudan many times. The LRA has attacked and displaced southern Sudanese inside Sudan since 2002 on an on-going basis—in late July 2005, the LRA killed nine in southern Sudan; since early 2005, 9,000 southern Sudanese have fled for refuge in Uganda on account of LRA attacks on them in Sudan.19 The LRA has attacked Sudanese in refugee camps in Uganda as well over the years, causing many to be relocated within Uganda.20 Cmdr. Obuto Mamur claims that the LRA numbers some 1,000 fighters inside Sudan, and has avoided capture or destruction in 2005 by slipping inside Sudanese government lines near Juba. He insists that cutting off this escape and the supply lines from Juba are essential if the LRA is to be expelled from Sudan. Commander Obuto Mamur has also expressed willingness to chase the LRA into northern Uganda.21

The rebel SPLA will be converted into an army for the southern regional government pursuant to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the Sudanese government, but nevertheless Sudanese government army troops may remain in Juba until July 2007, which may complicate efforts to end LRA presence in Sudan—if the personnel friendly to the LRA remain in Juba.22 The 10,000-strong UN peace support operation that is being deployed primarily in southern Sudan, known as the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), will not actively pursue the LRA but will provide protection to humanitarian convoys where they might be vulnerable to LRA attack inside Sudan.23

A military solution to the conflict in northern Uganda remains elusive, however, and its primary victims remain northern Ugandans. This conflict has been devastating for them: as of mid-2005, more than 1.9 million persons have been internally displaced in northern Uganda, of which 1.1 million live in the three Acholi districts, and represent 90-95 percent of that sub-region’s population.24 UNICEF estimates that more than 20,000 children have been abducted over the course of the conflict since 1986 to serve as child soldiers and sex slaves. Although most child and adult abductees have escaped, many remained for years with the LRA. They remain psychologically and often physically scarred by the treatment they suffered and were forced to inflict25—as are those who although not abducted witnessed killings, rapes and other violence by both sides.26

Peace negotiations seemed on the verge of a major breakthrough when it was reported that the LRA was ready to sign a ceasefire agreement in December 2004. The signature was never forthcoming, however. The violence that abated in November 2004 quickly mounted again after the main LRA negotiator, Brig. Sam Kolo, defected to the government side in mid-February 2005.  

The conflict in northern Uganda has been designated “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world” by UN under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland. He has been trying to draw attention to this dire situation since 2003, with little success as newer international disasters continue to draw attention away from Uganda’s chronic tragedy.27

[2] See Gerard Prunier, “Rebel Movements and Proxy Warfare: Uganda, Sudan and the Congo (1986-99), African Affairs (London: 2004), 103/412, pp. 359-83.

[3] See for example Frank Nyakairu, “Sudan still supporting LRA,” The Monitor, Kampala, May 20, 2005. While enjoying the hospitality of the Sudanese government, the LRA joined in fighting its enemies, the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

[4] Human Rights Watch, Abducted and Abused: Renewed War in Northern Uganda, June 15, 2003,, See this report for more details on that displacement order and the military operation that followed it.

[5] Human Rights Watch, Abducted and Abused: Renewed War in Northern Uganda, June 15, 2003,, quoting UN OCHA, “Humanitarian Update – Uganda,” Vol. IV, Issue 2 , February 28, 2002. (Some 508,400 internally displaced Ugandans in southwestern and northern Uganda presently reside in and around protected villages/IDP camps on a full or part-time basis.) Since early 2002, the number of internally displaced persons in northern Uganda has more than tripled.

[6] Human Rights Watch, Abducted and Abused: Renewed War in Northern Uganda, June 15, 2003,

[7] See Lucy Hovil and Zachary Lomo, Behind the Violence: Causes, Consequences and the Search for Solutions to the War in northern Uganda (Kampala: Refugee Law Project, Makerere University, 2004), Institute for Security Studies, Monograph No. 99, (retrieved July 4, 2005).

[8] See Human Rights Watch, Abducted and Abused: Renewed War in Northern Uganda, June 15, 2003,; Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights,; “War Crimes in Kosovo,” March 1999, (all retrieved July 20, 2005).

[9] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ogur camp, Apac District, April 8, 2004.

[10] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Kitgum Matidi camp, Kitgum, March 5, 2005.

[11] Human Rights Watch interview, SPLA Cmdr. Martin Kenyi, Rumbek, southern Sudan, July 16, 2005.

[12] John Muto-Ono P’lajur, “Army saw Kony escape, says Iron Fist Intelligence Officer,” The Monitor, Kampala, August 5, 2004.

[13] “Ugandan minister says LRA decimated with fewer than 400,” AFP, Kampala, February 15, 2005.

[14] For an account of the larger Sudan-Uganda proxy wars, see Gerard Prunier, “Rebel Movements and Proxy Warfare: Uganda, Sudan and the Congo (1986-99), African Affairs (London: 2004), 103/412, pp. 359-83.

[15] “The Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Government of the Republic of the Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement / Sudan People’s Liberation Army, Nairobi, 9 January 2005”. Institute for Security Studies, (retrieved July 21, 2005).

[16] Dr. John Garang de Mabior, “Address on Inauguration of the Sudan Collegiate Presidency,”, Khartoum, July 9, 2005, (retrieved July 21, 2005).

[17] SPLM/A Press Statement, SPLM/A General Headquarters, Nairobi, Kenya, August 1, 2005.

[18] Human Rights Watch interviews, SPLA Cmdr. Obuto Mamur, Rumbek, southern Sudan, July 16, 2005; SPLA Cmdr. Martin Kenyi, Rumbek, southern Sudan, July 16, 2005.

[19] The UN reported that the LRA attacked a camp for displaced southern Sudanese outside of Juba, southern Sudan, on July 25, 2005, killing nine. “Uganda: Suspected LRA rebels kill 9 in southern Sudan camp,” IRIN, Nairobi, July 28, 2005, (retrieved August 8, 2005).

[20]  “Sudan-Uganda: Rebel attacks force thousands of Sudanese into Uganda,” IRIN, Kampala, June 17, 2005. (retrieved June 24, 2005).The LRA has attacked Sudanese refugee camps in northern Uganda over the years, causing hundreds of deaths. As a result, the Sudanese refugee camps formerly in the three Acholi districts in northern Uganda have been relocated by the Ugandan government to northwestern Uganda. Southern Sudanese who live in territory near LRA bases in southern Sudan (territory controlled by the Sudanese government) have also been attacked, killed, robbed, tortured and forcibly displaced. Most Sudanese affected by the LRA are not Acholi, as the area of LRA bases and operations in southern Sudan is shared by many different tribes. The Sudanese Acholi do not share the views of the Ugandan Acholi in any event, according to Cmdr. Martin Kenyi.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview, Cmdr. Obuto Mamur, SPLA, Rumbek, southern Sudan, July 16, 2005.

[22] Annexure II of December 31, 2004, “Implementation Modalities of the Protocol on Power Sharing of 26 May, 2004 [to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement], signed Naivasha, Kenya, December 31, 2004, pp. 100-101,. (retrieved July 24, 2005). Except for the forces in joint units with the former SPLA, the Sudanese government army forces are to be redeployed north of the north-south border by and within a time period running from the Pre-Interim period—beginning January 9, 2005—up to two and a half years from then, or by July 9, 2007.

[23] UN Mission in Sudan, briefing, Rumbek, southern Sudan, July 13, 2005.

[24] “Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP): Mid-Term Review of the Humanitarian Appeal 2005 for Uganda,” OCHA, Geneva, June 22, 2005, (retrieved July 24, 2005). Not all the displaced live in camps; some moved to the towns.

[25] Kun Li, “Children bear the brunt of Uganda’s 19-year conflict,” UNICEF, Kampala, March 23, 2005.

[26] International Center for Transitional Justice and the Human Rights Center, University of California, Berkeley, “Forgotten Voices: A Population-Based Survey on Attitudes About Peace and Justice in Northern Uganda” (July 2005).

[27] “Humanitarian Aid to Africa Sadly Lacking, U.N. Official Warns,” State Department Press Releases and Documents, May 11, 2005.

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