A long, bloody war

The title of Peter Eichstaedt’s book is a clue to some of the brutality and inhumanity contained within. First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army details how the LRA kidnaps Ugandan children, forcing the boys to kill and using the girls as sex slaves.

Yet except for the brief prologue about a child soldier who was forced to do the unthinkable and whose tale inspired the grim title, Eichstaedt does not dwell on the sensational aspects of this story, partly because most of the returned children he spoke to do not relish speaking about their time in captivity. Instead, Eichstaedt constructs a history of the rise and continuing reign of the LRA right up to the moment in early 2008 when his book went to press.

The LRA is a guerrilla force that has been spreading terror in northern Uganda since 1988. When Eichstaedt first arrived in the southern Ugandan city of Kampala, he was struck by how modern and prosperous it is and by how little he hears of the ongoing conflict in the north. Because the guerrilla war has dragged on for more than 20 years now, Uganda’s southern residents have grown tired of it and would rather ignore it. The rest of the world has largely followed suit.

Yet northern Uganda is in absolute misery. Uganda is still divided along tribal lines, and the majority northern tribe, the Acholi, is bearing the brunt of the suffering. An estimated 100,000 people—mostly Acholi—have died in this war; 20,000 children have been abducted, and currently 1.8 million people are displaced from their homes. Families are spending year after year in hellish refugee camps, some containing younger generations who have known no other home.

The refugee camps are necessary because the LRA conducts raids on villages. They take food and anything else they can loot, kidnap children, and destroy houses and crops. The Ugandan soldiers assigned to protect the camps, under the ineffectual command of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (a former guerrilla fighter himself, Museveni helped to depose Idi Amin), do not offer a safe haven. In fact, they often accuse the Acholi of collaboration with the LRA and abuse or torture them.

Just one of the many bewildering factors in this conflict is that the terrifying and shrewd leader of the LRA, Joseph Kony, is an Acholi tribesman himself. Kony leads his soldiers and justifies his warfare through a hodgepodge of Christian and animistic religious proclamations. He claims he is fighting simply to enforce the Ten Commandments, yet his army routinely breaks every one. He skillfully exploits the tension between Sudan and Uganda so that he can retreat into southern Sudan to escape the reach of the Ugandan army.

More recently, as the situation has deteriorated in Uganda’s western neighbor—the Democratic Republic of Congo—Kony has secreted his troops there, all the while stalling for time by involving the Ugandan government and the international community in round after fruitless round of peace talks.

Eichstaedt’s account of the cat-and-mouse games played by Kony’s representatives at the peace talks is where his story ends. The most dispiriting point he makes is that Kony and his soldiers do not want peace. Many of them have known nothing but war and have nowhere else to go. In December 2008, the LRA struck in Congo, hacking and shooting to death 200 villagers. The guerrilla soldiers grotesquely fight on, with no clear goal and no end in sight.