For the past 27 years, Joseph Kony has kidnapped children from their homes and forced them to fight in his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). But in an army comprised mostly of soldiers who did not voluntarily choose to fight, how do Kony and his top commanders “force” their abductees to commit heinous crimes — especially over extended periods of time? If the LRA is headed by only a small number of top commanders in authority, can’t the soldiers just organize themselves and refuse to fight? And if they don’t simply rebel or run away — does that make the abducted children the “bad guys” too?
Psychological warfare is as real and as powerful as hand-to-hand combat, and it’s one of Joseph Kony’s main strategies for maintaining his power. These are the most common lies told by Kony and his top commanders to brainwash the abductees:
1) Spreading fear of escape
In order to prevent his captors from fleeing the LRA, Kony and his commanders spread a double-edged sword of fear: that fighters will be beaten and killed by Kony’s army if they attempt escape, and if they happen to successfully escape then they will be killed by the communities that they escape to. According to an article by The Guardian recounting the story of Edward, a child abducted at age 13 and forced to be Kony’s right-hand man until he was 27, “abducted children were repeatedly forced to kill other children who attempted to escape, and warned they would face the same fate if they tried it. ‘So many times it happened,’ [Edward] said.”
While the LRA commanders are true to their threats of violence, what’s not true is their widespread claim that escaped LRA soldiers will be killed by the UPDF (Uganda People’s Defense Force) or other local militaries that are on the hunt for Kony. Moreover, abductees are fallaciously led to believe that, if for some reason they were not immediatley killed upon returning, their families and communities would still reject them because the crimes they have committed make them permanently unwanted in society. (This is actually untrue, and Opondo’s story is proof of that.)
2) Performing specific rituals to foster a unique LRA identity
Kony and his commanders want to cultivate a specific LRA identity so that fighters will feel a personal loyalty to the LRA. In order to strip new abductees of their sense of home, the LRA forbids certain foods and practices that will remind kidnapped soldiers of their culture. For example, the calabash gourd, a important ceremonial instrument in Uganda, is forbidden by the LRA.
Instead, special rules are put in place to help newly abducted soldiers gain a sense of belonging. Certain activities like whispering (a sign of plotting) is considered taboo. But perhaps the most important LRA ritual is killing: “If you didn’t want to kill, the commanders would say, are you not one of us? Please, come forward and kill,” states one rescued solider in the aforementioned article in The Guardian. By forcing recent abductees to kill their families or community members, the LRA reinforce the fear that escapees will be alienated by society if they return home. Killing is not only normalized by the LRA, but it’s also the only way to ensure one’s favor in the eyes of LRA commanders and potentially receive a promotion through the ranks. Over time, these rituals form the infrastructure of a new, skewed moral value system.
3) Lies about spiritual mysticism
Another way Kony maintains his power is by making others believe that he is a superior, godly being. The LRA actually started as a religious group called the Holy Spirit Movement before Kony renamed it the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony claims to speak with spirits, and all LRA actions are enforced in the name of religion. While escaped LRA member Edward recalls that he despised most the commanders, he truly believed Kony was “a godly person” because “they made us believe that.”
Among Kony’s spiritual manipulations are the claims that Tipu Maleng (the Holy Spirit) is protecting him by letting him know who has bad intentions towards him, and that the spirits of those who the fighters have killed will return to kill their perpetrators if the fighters attempt escape. These spitirual lies and superstitions create deep-rooted fear in soldiers that impel their cooperation.
4) Promises of future political power and wealth
The LRA began as a group rebelling against Uganda’s government, and Kony promises that once they succeed in overthrowing Museveni’s rule, LRA fighters will be rewarded with government positions and wealth. A former long-term abductee recalls: “They used to tell us that if we fight and overthrow the government then we shall get wealth and even the young soldiers would get high ranks in the army.” The promise of future prosperity and the perceived importance of overthrowing Museveni’s government appear to be a common motive to continue fighting.
Kony and his commanders brainwash abductees until, over time, these lies become indoctrinated as truth in the fighters’ minds, thereby making the possibility of escape an unfathomable concept. The only way to speak louder than Joseph Kony is to combat his lies with messages of reassurance, safety, and escape instructions. Our programs spread “come home” messages to encourage fighters to run away, as well as offer physical and psychological rehabilitation to former child soldiers.
*Sources for this post come from:
New York Times, Religious Beliefs of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army