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'I Don't Understand What I Did': We Spoke to a Lord's Resistance Army Escapee Who Wants Remaining Fighters to Return Home Too

With the arrest of top commander Dominic Ongwen the LRA is back in the spotlight — but a former fighter told VICE News that most of those still in the bush just want to get back to their families.

by Sally Hayden
Feb 23 2015, 2:45pm

Photo by Ben Curtis/AP

Former Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) fighter Tabu Franklin doesn't want VICE News to refer to him anonymously. "I'm thinking about the people who are still there," he said. "If it looks good they will come back home, and if it looks bad they won't."

He's referring to the LRA militants that remain in the bush, where Franklin spent some 15 years. He knows that those left there have access to some media, and he's been actively participating in radio broadcasts where he appeals for them to escape — though the funding for that has recently dried up. 

Other defectors have been flown above the jungle in helicopters where they shout their existence to the residual fighters, invisible beneath a blanket of vegetation. The most important thing with the broadcasts, Franklin said, is for his former comrades to hear his voice, which is proof that he's still alive.

More than alive, he emphasized. He's happy. Franklin told VICE News that he has never been more content than he is now, and that's because of the "simple things."

In Gulu, northern Uganda, he passes his days growing crops. "They let me be free and relaxed," he said, a privilege not available to those who remain with the militants.

Franklin said that he wanted people who were still there to understand that if they came back home, it means: "For you the good life." His words were pleading; addressed to his former colleagues rather than VICE News. "There will be no badness for you," he pronounced.

* * *

The predicament of LRA wannabe-defectors was highlighted after the surrender of child abductee turned top commander Dominic Ongwen in the Central African Republic in January. Following a reasonable amount of posturing and debate, Ongwen was transferred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague where he will face trial on multiple counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. His next appearance is scheduled for August 24.

Some commentators argue that Ongwen quickly crossed the line between LRA victim and LRA perpetrator — the scale of atrocities he headed appears undeniable. However, his is an exacerbated version of a recurring story.

UNICEF estimates that the LRA abducted around 20,000 Ugandan children between 1986 and 2002. In the following year alone, there were another estimated 8,500 boys and girls taken. During this tumultuous period, many northern Ugandan minors became "night commuters," traveling daily from rural areas to towns where they would sleep in groups in the hope that this would improve their safety. 

'They're in their late 20s or early 30s and are starting to wonder, "What's the future for me?"'

Following a 2006 ceasefire, international humanitarian agencies drastically scaled down or even withdrew their aid. However, although the threat lessened, the fallout continued. By 2012, the UN found that the LRA had been responsible for more than 100,000 deaths, between 60,000 and 100,000 abductions of children, and the displacement of 2.5 million civilians.

In 2006 the group was chased out of Uganda and scattered through what is now South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and finally to the Central African Republic, where some residual members — totaling possibly several hundred — are now believed to reside.

Kasper Agger, a field researcher for the Enough Project who is based in Uganda, has met many former LRA fighters. He told VICE News that Ongwen's defection really plays into the bigger picture of the LRA "as an increasingly beaten rebel group with very few objectives."

"Now they have difficulties finding food and finding ammunition, so for them [the fighters] the LRA is not as exciting as it used to be," he said.

Agger extrapolated on the complexities facing a young person who has come of age in such a setting. "Many of these guys were abducted as teenagers, and they grew up within the rebel group. Now it's 10, 15 years later, they're in their late 20s or early 30s and are starting to wonder, 'What's the future for me?'" he said. "This is walking around in the jungle, there is no future, we are nowhere near getting rid of (Ugandan President) Museveni and conquering Uganda, so it's a bit disillusioned in many ways. But actually breaking off is very difficult."

From Agger's first-hand experience, he knows that many want to surrender but are apprehensive of the outcome. "They fear being killed by local communities in retribution, or if fighters in the LRA suspect the surrender they'll beat you up or put you under arrest… It is not an easy process."

Ugandan forces confirm Lord's Resistance Army commander has surrendered. Read more here.

When an LRA member breaks off from the group, they can travel for days before arriving at a reception center, where they stay for around two and four weeks, depending on the individual case. These centers are currently run by both the Ugandan Child Protection Unit and Christian NGO World Vision. However, "long-term support is very limited these days," Agger said.

"It used to be an absolutely massive thing," Chris Weeks, spokesman for World Vision, told VICE News, as he enthusiastically described the NGO's "Children of War" center. "It had residential quarters and all that kind of stuff, but now it's much smaller. The soldiers just come in dribs and drabs now," Weeks added.

'They've seen many battles, a lot of people being killed, some of them have even been forced to kill their own families.'

Since 1995, Weeks noted proudly, more than 14,000 "children" have been rehabilitated. However, he admits that — as the years pass and the arrivals get older — the center's moniker has become factually inaccurate, though Weeks believes it does still serve a purpose. While new arrivals are not technically children, he said, "in some ways they are."

Many of the personal accounts Weeks has heard begin in a village classroom. The victims were just 12 or 13 years old, in the middle of a lesson, when the LRA stormed into their lives. "Then they were just forced to kill for 10 years," Weeks explained, "and then they came back, and in a sense they haven't really had that part of their childhood. Part of our rehabilitation is almost encouraging them to take up their childhood again from when they arrive."

Sometimes this idea of rebirth is evoked by deliberate symbolism. One activity that the center encourages is a cleansing ceremony that involves stepping on a "fresh chicken egg" — seen as a sign of innocence.

Ugandan lawmaker calls new anti-gay law a "Christmas gift" to the country. Read more here.

After debriefing, counseling, and other rehabilitation efforts, the standard protocol — according to Agger — is to trace down whatever relatives a person may have and then facilitate transport back to their village. After this, he noted regretfully, that there is rarely any form of follow-up.

Weeks said that insuring the acceptance of families can sometimes be an issue, but the center carefully assesses the chances of that happening. "The ultimate fear is that they get through all this and get rejected by the community they came from, so there's a lot of work on both sides," he said.

"We wouldn't take them back to a village where they stood the chance of being rejected. We'd make sure everyone had accepted and was willing to welcome the former soldiers, because they've been through enough."

Returnees often wake with nightmares, according to Agger. If isolated from their communities, the individuals also risk being abandoned to poverty, an education in violence leaving them without the skills to create an income.

"These people may have been abducted when they were just eight, 10, maybe 15, and have spent a decade with the LRA and are hugely traumatized," he said. "They've seen many battles, a lot of people being killed, some of them have even been forced to kill their own families."

* * *

Franklin was kidnapped when he was a teenager. "They forced me to move," he told VICE News, before describing being "dragged" through the bush, away from his community, his family, and everything he had ever known.

Once he arrived at a makeshift LRA base, the process of initiation began. "They train me to be something bad, even though from there I don't understand. I don't understand what I did," Franklin told VICE News.

Research compiled on LRA initiation techniques found that minors were immediately told to forget their previous lives, forced instead to devote their thoughts to long lectures about the laws and "virtues" of the LRA. This was coupled with tough physical labor, frequent beatings, and spiritual indoctrination. Harsh punishments contrasted with high praise for those who conducted successful raids. Children were forced to murder early or risk death themselves, quickly inuring the survivors to violence.

Franklin said for him home represented the only "good" he could fixate on. Once, in desperation, he tried to escape, but was quickly discovered and punished. "When you're punished you have to do something, your friends order you to do something," he said, though he wouldn't say what he was made to do.

Later in the interview, though, Franklin elaborated on some of his actions. "What you are doing from there also is murder," he said, adding that his head was a constant mess of anger and "annoyance."

"It is no good to stay there." In total, he spent 15 years in relative captivity: "Too long."

UN: The capture of Joseph Kony is "coming pretty soon." Read more here.

Franklin's family believed he had been killed and they began to move on with their lives. "When I'm back home I find my family are already still alive — my brother, my sister, though my mother was dead."

"I remember them, but for them they had forgotten about me," Franklin said. "That's why also I tried to come back home."

After learning he was alive, Franklin's sister agreed to support him with money. "People in my family, they love me, they stick together," he told VICE News. "They welcomed us and they kept us alive."

The fates of the people kidnapped with him differed wildly, though none emerged unscathed.  

"When I was abducted, others died. And others are back home. When I found them they were already back home. Others went back to school, others are growing crops. Anything you want to do you are free to do once you're back home."

Franklin blames the government for his abduction. They "weren't taking care of me," he said. For this reason, he's against harsh treatment for anyone who has been through what he has. "If you punish somebody who is back home, how will those who are still there come back?" Franklin said. "They'll think they need to die in the bush."

* * *

The issue of balancing peace and justice has always been a tricky one. In 2000, the Ugandan government announced the Amnesty Act, which provided immunity to all Ugandans who renounced the rebellion against the government and met certain requirements. Some of those who benefited were willing fighters, including many of those responsible for abducting and training the current crop of defectors, such as Ongwen.

Oryem Nyeko, 26, is a communications officer at the Justice and Reconciliation Project, an organization that aims to achieve sustainable peace through research and local justice activities within the affected communities. He's from Gulu himself and said he has been personally affected by the conflict, though noted that this is not the first unrest to affect the region.

Nyeko said that now that the LRA has left Uganda and is essentially powerless, Gulu has bigger problems to deal with than hunting its members down.

"I think the thing that is often neglected, the challenges the region faces need to be addressed because otherwise the conflict is going to fester again. If the people who come back don't receive the sort of resettlement packages in the form of — not necessarily monetary but being given the tools for them to live and reconcile with the community — if they don't receive that and they continue to live with stigma in isolation, then there's a possibility that we will be driven to conflict again."

'We are still after the big commander. But the big commander will not come back home.'

Nyeko also told VICE News that rather than there being open hostility, any latent stigma against LRA defectors normally asserts itself after locals get in petty arguments and those "disagreements quickly take on a different dimension."

"You are a rebel," Nyeko imitated. "You only deserve to be treated in a certain way. You only deserve to be given a certain level of respect."

Gulu locals will be watching Ongwen's ICC trial closely and community meetings are planned so that locals who can't watch proceedings are kept informed of what's going on.

However, Nyeko said that capturing and punishing top commanders, including LRA leader Joseph Kony, isn't something that is at the forefront of most people's minds. "To be honest I think people are mostly concerned with their livelihoods and reconciling with their own communities. Kony isn't the main discussion that people are having right now."

Speaking slowly and thoughtfully, Franklin expressed similar sentiments. "We are still after the big commander," he said. "But the big commander will not come back home. If you need to punish the big commander you do that slowly, slowly. Try to bring the men into Uganda and then they can send a message for those commanders who were still there."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd