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This is what we can learn from Joseph Kony’s bodyguard

- July 21, 2017
(Zed Books)

Five years after the #Kony2012 viral video attracted attention at the highest levels of governments around the world, international interest in Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) movement has significantly diminished. Yet the group remains active in Central Africa, and misconceptions about the LRA’s aims and activities abound among policymakers and ordinary observers alike. Ledio Cakaj’s moving new book, “When the Walking Defeats You: One Man’s Journey as Joseph Kony’s Bodyguard” is an important and deeply moving correction to many of these misconceptions. I asked Cakaj about his aims for the book, the experiences of George, the book’s central figure, and what we can learn about stopping the LRA’s brutality from George’s experiences.

Q: “When the Walking Defeats You” tells the story of George, a teenager from northern Uganda who became a bodyguard for Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA. George’s story is somewhat unique in that he actually chose to join the LRA (or, at least, his family chose for him to join the LRA), rather than being subjected to abduction like so many thousands of other young Ugandans. It’s hard to reconcile the George we read about in the book — a smart, thoughtful and observant young man — with the brutal acts we know he and others committed during their time in the LRA. Why did you choose George, and what does his story tell us about the movement and how we understand it?

A: Among my hundreds of interviews with LRA defectors over the years, George stood out in many ways. He was reserved at first, almost skeptical, when talking to me, which I thought was a good sign. It seemed to me he wanted to have a real conversation, not just tell me what he thought I wanted to hear. He had a great memory, a keen eye for detail and was also not afraid to show his emotions. I remember in one of our early conversations when he mentioned with a wry smile how he had packed a copy of Ousmane Sembene’s ‘God’s Bits of Wood’ when he first made his way to the LRA camps in Congo. Here was this young man somewhat unaware of how brutal the world he was about to enter really was, packing as if he were going on holiday. And yet I loved the fact that even for a glimpse, in the midst of all the violence and brutality in a small corner of northeastern Congo, George wanted to and was able to read about the anti-colonial struggle in 1940s Senegal.

That particular anecdote encapsulates the microcosm that people like George are often forced to dwell in, where life offers often nearly impossible choices. He wanted to graduate college and become a teacher — to be well-read and respected, and yet, try as he might, he ended up toward a path of violence. But the fact that he joined somewhat voluntarily points out a couple unconventional realities about the situation in Northern Uganda. First and foremost, some people in Northern Uganda still believed in 2006 (20 years after its founding) that the LRA represented more than just Joseph Kony and his brutality; rather the LRA were also a manifestation of the Acholi grievances with human rights abuses committed by the National Resistance Army, President Yoweri Museveni’s rebel group, and the predecessor of the current Ugandan army. That feeling is directly related to the fact that the abuses remain unaddressed.

And second, George joined the LRA in the hope of a quick peace agreement and a demobilization package that might have included a position in the Ugandan army — essentially he joined a rebel group in hope of a job. It was and remains the sad reality in Northern Uganda, as in many parts of the world, that a lack of job opportunities leaves limited options for young people.

Q: As I was reading the book, I found myself feeling empathy for George, even as I abhorred the things he was doing. He obviously suffered major physical and psychological trauma during his time with Kony, especially as the group’s situation and search for food and water became more and more desperate. In researching and writing the book and your other work on the LRA, how did you balance empathy for your subjects and the recognition that many were guilty of committing horrific war crimes?

A: In part, that struggle is why I wanted to write this book. In hundreds of interviews I have conducted with former LRA members, only rarely I have found someone who was either indifferent to or exhibited joy in having committed brutality. With perhaps the odd exception, I never witnessed (not just in Uganda but also Burundi, Congo, Central African Republic or South Sudan) the stereotypical drugged-out killers with empty stares. As George’s story indicates clearly, violence was often committed as a clear act of survival, for sustenance, to demonstrate loyalty, and even to escape the wrath of people like Kony who prey on the weak and indecisive. I found that the majority of people in the LRA abducted or killed people to secure food or water or transport it on long, forced marches. It is absolutely tragic that in this day and age some people are murdered for food but it is sadly a reality for those living near LRA or other similar groups. This simple, yet horrific fact, is not impossible to understand. It certainly made me empathize with former fighters, even after I had seen firsthand the brutality of the LRA in South Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic.

Q: You’ve interviewed hundreds of escaped and returned LRA soldiers and others who either chose or were forced to join the movement. What do you find to be the most common misconceptions about the LRA and Joseph Kony among policymakers and/or ordinary observers?

A: A commonly repeated misconception is Kony’s supposed religious conviction, him being called “Messianic” or that the LRA’s aim was to impose the Ten Commandments. All these make for good sound bites but are not really true, and certainly not valid over the duration of the conflict.

Kony — like Museveni in some ways — has never been rigid about anything except his own survival. I came to see Kony as a pragmatist of the first order. Kony has used bits of religion, including Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam, to advance theories that were all designed to prolong his rule. He has done the same with regard to traditional Acholi beliefs and even select Marxist theory.

Q: Just five years ago, advocacy group Invisible Children captured imaginations and the desire to help of people worldwide with its #Kony2012 awareness campaign. But Gulu today is a very different place than it was when the LRA was active in northern Uganda, and much of the attention in Western capitals surrounding the LRA has dissipated in the years since Invisible Children’s film went viral. The recent withdrawal of Ugandan and American military forces that were hunting Kony and other LRA leaders in the Central African Republic underscores the perception that stopping the LRA is a cause whose time has passed. Yet, LRA-attributed attacks on civilians have resurged in recent weeks. What’s the LRA’s future? Will it survive the eventual death of Joseph Kony?

A: I would like to think that for all the problems with #Kony2012, Invisible Children tried to do the right thing in galvanizing support and bringing increased attention to the long conflict. It saddens me that some people believe the topic of the video to have been a hoax or a conspiracy theory (or worse, an argument to encourage people to become indifferent or jaded). Because it is not, and the LRA remains a threat to civilians.

The recent withdrawal of American and Ugandan troops from South Sudan and Central African Republic means that the LRA could regroup, and even at the low capacity of 80 fighters, still inflict pain and suffering on civilians. The LRA modus operandi of abducting, looting and killing, has also been copied by other rogue groups in the region, a legacy that will likely fester for years.

For much of the last decade Kony has kept the LRA at a diminished state by ordering the execution of a few top commanders — all Ugandan — while at the same time refusing to promote non-Ugandans to senior positions. It has meant that LRA groups have been unable to regenerate given their long distance from Uganda. If Kony dies and his two elder sons who will likely succeed him reverse their father’s policies of excluding non-Ugandans from senior posts, the LRA could become yet again an extremely menacing force by recruiting and promoting people from Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo.