When George Omona first saw soldiers in the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army, he was amazed. The scary fighters who had terrorised people for decades across a big chunk of Africa turned out to be emaciated teenagers with dirty clothes who could hardly hold the big guns they carried. Some were unarmed children, barely ten years old. He felt sorry for them. ‘They could not have known anything else but living in the forest like wild animals.’
Soon he had joined their pack, a reluctant member of one of the world’s most notorious rebel groups. A bright boy who dreamed of becoming a teacher, George ended up a bodyguard to one of the world’s most bloodstained killers. He sought to avoid the massacres, murder and rape that were the trademarks of Joseph Kony’s army. But then he was forced to bayonet an old man in the chest, soon going on to beat and stab several more people to death. ‘It’s not my fault,’ he told himself. ‘I am just a soldier, only obeying orders.’
This is, of course, the standard defence of barbarism. Yet what is revealing in this absorbing book is both the utter wretchedness of life in a guerrilla group and the pointless dynamic of the spiralling violence that wrecks so many lives in one of the poorest parts of the planet. The author says he has interviewed more than 500 former LRA members, but in George he struck lucky and found someone with the ability to articulate the harsh reality of life inside a haggard group that has spread terror for so long in four countries on the continent.
George joined voluntarily after growing up in in its Acholi heartland of northern Uganda. The details feel sketchy, but he seems to have thought he was almost going on a glorified internship under pressure from an uncle with LRA links. Clearly he had some kind of special status at the start, invited by the ‘Big Teacher’ for a chat over soft drinks upon arrival in his compound, then assigned to the chief bodyguard’s team. ‘There are people who say we are monsters, but that is not true,’ claims Kony.
His initial status creates suspicion in such a paranoid world, one in which soldiers can be killed on the whim of any superior, and officers make guards taste food in case of poisoning. The ruthless Kony — who sleeps in a different bed each night — even orders the execution of his own closest aide. There is resentment in the ranks that George joined by choice since most of the soldiers were forced into horror after being abducted as children from ravaged villages in Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Uganda.
These kuruts (a corruption of ‘recruit’) are rapidly brutalised. Boys are made to club a friend to death, thus instilling the fear and guilt that stops them fleeing. Girls are given as sex slaves to senior officers; Kony himself had at least 17 such ‘wives’ when George joined the group. There seems constant violence: a routine punishment is being forced to lie spreadeagled on the ground for a savage whipping, ordered to suffer in silence to show strength. One woman endured 400 lashes, a man standing by her head with a gun, ready to shoot if she made a sound, as two more beat her with sticks. At night, they regale each other about deeds such as burning a drunken man to death in a hut after he stumbled into their midst.
Ledio Cakaj, an analyst who spent seven years focusing on the LRA, weaves the story of George’s miserable 36 months there into textural detail about the conflict. This can in places become confusing amid a blizzard of acronyms. But at core it’s a superb narrative of one man’s nightmarish descent into a world of depravity, overseen by an omnipotent tyrant cloaking supreme selfishness and savagery in the garb of religious mysticism.
It is depressing to see how easily George evolves from bright bookworm into dreadlocked killer, before finally being driven to take the often fatal decision to abandon the rebel force. It is also striking how much of the bloodshed is fuelled by the search for food. Kony’s ragged army often seems trapped in near-starvation, soldiers enduring agonies of hunger as they march endlessly through jungle to steal food from villages they destroy. They are pursued by helicopters dropping bombs and even at one point by special forces sent by the United Nations. George hides honey, peanuts and water in his backpack to ensure his survival.
The casual slaughter of those in their way — whether families or fishermen, poachers or peaceful cattle-herders — is terrifying. Many of the abducted women and children are forced to carry huge quantities of stolen loot until they drop. When George finally quits, he goes through contortions as he plots how to discuss his plan with three fellow fighters separated from the main group. Inevitably, his time in the LRA ends in blood, concluding a story that squeezes any sense of romanticism from this dismal rebellion.