By Fr. Sebhat Ayele Mccj
I always used to say that when human beings lose their humanity, they become animals. But life taught me to believe animals are much more helpful than human beings. When human beings lose their breadth of thinking, feeling, loving and living out a universally linked life; they destroy humanity. The worst shock of my life occurred when I personally saw and counted 121 people burning in huts together with chicken, goats, beans and sacks of grains. This tragedy took place on 21st February 2004 at present day Barlonyo refugee camp in Northern Uganda, Lira district. The genocide was committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Joseph Kony. Even though, Barlonyo is unique in style and circumstances, several atrocities were committed by Joseph Kony in Northern Uganda over the years.
After witnessing such horrific carnage and taking 35 wounded victims to Lira hospital, the question that continuously haunted me was, “How can human beings do such a thing to fellow human beings”? I underwent war situations including in my country Eritrea, when Meghistu Haile Mariam took over power in 1974 and in Kampala when Idi Amin Dada was ousted in September 1978. But, none like the Barlonyo genocide which still generates in me a lot of unanswered questions. My belief of the old times was that human beings created in the image of God can’t commit such atrocities. But, now I realize it was naïve and superficial belief. I now firmly believe that the most dangerous creature of God is the human person. Unfortunately, human beings don’t realize that when one inflicts suffering on others, it is self-destruction. The more you destroy others, the more you destroy yourself. As Josh Radnor wisely affirms: “If the divinity in me recognizes the divinity in you, how could I abuse, debase, violate, or harass? I would, after all, only be punishing myself.” Many people may not know how and why the insurgence of Joseph Kony evolved.
I would like to underline that the initial motivations were political and tribal ambitions coupled with psychological frustration. The LRA of Uganda are from the Acholi tribe who never got power since the Independence of Uganda in 1962; with the exception of General Tito Okello who stayed in power for 6 months after ousting in a military coup, the second Obote regime. The Lango of northern Uganda had Milton Obote for 9 years and those of West Nile had Idi Amin for 9 years as well. But, the Acholi ethnic group did not only fail to climb the throne of seat, but in many occasions felt oppressed, exploited and discriminated against. This is also true for many northern Uganda tribes who are Nilotic or Cushitic, compared to the southerners; the Bantu.
When Museveni took power in 1986, the Acholi started armed resistance. And the first one was Alice Lakwena Auma. Her armed rebellion was the renowned Holy Spirit Movement. She escaped to Kenya in 1987 and died in Nairobi 2007. Joseph Kony took from her and named his movement Lord’s Resistance Army. He wanted to reinstate a government which is led by the 10 Commandments of God. Both Alice Lakwena and Joseph Kony claim to receive orders from God. It is more than any normal person. I dare to say that the core causes of all these are elsewhere. Otherwise, these are normal people and what they did could have been committed by others as well. They poured their deep psychological hurts in a wrong way. Originally, both Kony and Lakwena are Catholics. As they were committing these atrocities, they believed they were doing the will of God.
The day Joseph Kony rebels committed the massacre in Barlonyo, I was the first expatriate witness who rushed to the village, 16 kms north of Lira town just few hours after the LRA rebels. In the vicinity, there were many Ugandan soldiers who were meant to protect the refugee camp of Barlonyo. At the beginning, they refused to allow me to reach the location, with the excuse that it was dangerous. But when I insisted, they allowed me. While reaching the site, we encountered many refugees who were fleeing the camp. After witnessing the horrific genocide, I reported to all the international media, including BBC, VOA, Radio Vatican and Voice of Germany. When the news became viral in the region and internationally, Joseph Kony called me on phone and threatened to kill me because I spoiled his name. He denied that the massacre was committed by his rebels; he was blaming the Ugandan military. My reply was, “if you want to kill me, it is your choice, but know that I reported from the ground while you were in the bush far from Barlonyo”. After a hot discussion, I was shocked to hear him say “okay Father, don’t get angry now, send me 1000 rosaries” !!! As he got me by surprise, I did not know what to reply but then, something triggered in my mind and my automatic reply was, “I will send you even one million, but first stop killing innocent people”.
All these confirm that Joseph Kony was sticking to his religion while committing such unheard destruction of human beings. He assumed himself high spiritual powers and he managed to convince his rebels about it; and that is why they dreaded him more than God. As soon he abducted children and youth, the first training was to teach cruelty. We have eye witnesses of children who were forced to kill their parents and eat their limbs after cooking them in pots.
After such a traumatic experience, no one can come out from his camp sane. Monica (not real name) managed to escape from LRA camp assisted by someone. She was brought to our centre. It took us two full weeks to make Monica speak and two full months to get a simple smile. Monica by then, 17 could not remember how many rebels raped her daily and by the time she escaped, she left one child behind. However, the sane question to ask is: could all these atrocities be avoided? I say and repeat it loud and clear “YES”. The real issue is that there was no political will to finish the LRA movement, either internally nor internationally. The international community was informed daily about all the atrocities but did not move an inch to stop it. The regime seemed to be pre-occupied with other concerns.
The Catholic radio station of Lira Diocese, FM 89.8 Radiowa, was burned by Kony rebels on 27th of February 2002 at 5am. The eve before, we got several alerts and we called the commander of the army barracks to send us protection to the radio situated in Ngetta just five Kilometres from the barracks. Despite several calls, the army never responded.
Barlonyo After 14 Years
Last August, I went to Barlonyo after 14 years to assess the situation. The massacre of Kony rebels on 21st February 2004 was originally reported comprising of 121 victims. And that figure was reported to the international mass media. But, in August, the administrator confirmed that the mass grave contains 300 dead bodies and many others are unaccounted for.
We met several survivors and all had sad stories to tell. There are a lot of widows and orphans with no support. Some NGO built a school and some offices, but they still have no support from the government. Alice Awor says people died in her garden and compound. “I cannot erase that memory from my mind,” she says. Apart from abject poverty, people still have a lot of anger and yearn for vengence. “We badly need counselling and support from the government; we are totally neglected,” she says. The survivors reported that they took the government to Lira court for negligence, but had no money for the lawyer. They have 470 orphans from Barlonyo massacre of 21st February 2004 who badly need counselling and essential commodities. My missionary life taught me that the best teachers are not highly educated people in the government or civil society.
The poor and uneducated have their breadth of thinking, feeling, loving; and living out a universally linked life. They have a much bigger heart. In early 2003, Kony rebels raided a village just 5Kms from Ngetta Catholic Mission. They killed 23 people and abducted 69 children and youth. The Sunday after, the Catholic Bishops of Gulu and Lira offered mass for the victims at Ngetta parish. Some MPs and government officials were also present. We invited, as well, some survivors of the massacre. The Mass was full of condemnation, anger and rage against LRA rebels.
At the end of the Mass, one of the survivors, a lady of 45 years, (this was the woman whom I found immersed in blood when I went after the news of the massacre in her village) asked me privately that she wants to say a few words. As she was shy to come out, I took the microphone to her seat. In a very calm voice she said, “I forgive those who killed my husband and my brother-in-law in front of me; and those who abducted my two sons”. There was dead silence for five minutes and the presiding bishop closed the mass with a blessing. She is one of my best teachers in life and there are many like her.
The bitter memory of Barlonyo and all the atrocities of war confronts us with the fact that without the Grace of God, the human being is capable of anything. It is, thus, an invitation to all to respect the God-given ‘goodness’ in every person and the dignity of all other human beings that are created in the image of God. God’s interventions should awaken in all peace-lovers the spirit of forgiveness which will bring forth healing of the past wounds.
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