“It was a massacre, yes…I can say massacre.”

I was not expecting this. I had been travelling through Uganda for the last two weeks after 5 weeks spent in Rwanda where discussions surrounding the genocide were almost a daily occurrence. I had not been expecting a testimony like this, and yet it was naive not to have. I was travelling through Gulu, a dusty town in northern Uganda, which has attracted humanitarian workers from around the world hoping to clean up the decimation left behind by the Lord’s Resistance Army the previous decade.

For the western world outside Uganda, the massacre was bought to public attention by a contentious film that spread across the internet like wildfire: KONY 2012. The film captured the traumatised child soldiers recruited by the deranged Joseph Kony to pillage and murder just about anyone. It was not long before both praise and criticism surrounding the film emerged. It was deemed both effective and oversimplified, important and naive.

What I soon learn from this survivor and hotel employee in this quiet street in Gulu, is that even if KONY 2012 ceased to be the most viewed video on Youtube, the victims of this futile violence are still attempting to rebuild their lives.

Gulu residents watching the notorious "Kony 2012" film. They were so unamused the screening ended with a near riot with the audience cursing the people who arranged the screening.
Gulu residents watching the notorious “Kony 2012” film. They were so unamused the screening ended with a near riot with the audience cursing the people who arranged the screening.

Sitting at a table in a quiet motel in Gulu, we are now told of this massacre first-hand by one of the staff members, asking to only be referred to as ‘Cobb’.

I ask whether him whether he has heard of this Youtube sensation that brought the name Joseph Kony into households around the world. He has not, and yet he was one of the abductees on which the film was based.

I soon learn three things: Cobb is disoriented when it comes to time (when he was abducted, when he was released), Cobb likes to use numbered lists in an attempt to resolve this confusion and, when the lists do not help, Cobb turns to God.

In the beginning
“Kony’s army first used catapults. But when they stole guns from soldiers, then they started abducting and training,” says Cobb.

The beginnings of Kony’s reign are traced back to 1987, when the LRA was first formed to overthrow the Ugandan government. According to Cobb, and many others, Kony’s killing soon became baseless. ”1.The devil possessed him with demonic powers and 2. His powers were to kill, steal and destroy.”

Gulu, which lies close to the South Sudanese border, is one of the town’s where the LRA’s presence was most felt. It is also the place where Cobb grew up.

Gulu, in northern Uganda
Gulu, in northern Uganda

“They came to my house in the night,” says Cobb. “They pulled my whole family outside – parents, brothers, young children. Children were their main priority because they make the best soldiers…they become immune so quickly and forget whether life is important or not.”

Cobb was taken as a soldier too. “You learn your priorities quickly: you must either 1.Become a soldier or 2. You are dead.”

Kony’s army was notorious for using young children as his head soldiers, arming them with guns and adrenaline to shoot and kill. I ask Cobb if he saw much of this.

“Yes, of course! And you must listen to them if you want to survive. If not, you are tortured with 1. pangas 2. sticks 3. guns and 4. anything in their hands.”

He was tied up to other prisoners that would, eventually, be subjected to training as soldiers. For five months, he was tied like this, forced to carry incredibly heavy loads. To complain, to stop walking or to cry would mean instant death.

“Eventually you control your body’s stimulus. You no longer feel pain in the same way.”

Escape
Witnessing this torture meant Cobb learnt quickly. Although he did not witness this himself, there were rumours of soldiers being forced to kill, chop, cook and eat their victims. These rumours, together with the murders he witnesses first hand, were enough to keep him silent and obedient to the LRA’s orders.

And then a stroke of luck that Cobb had hoped would come, did. During fighting with the government army, an LRA soldier that had taken a liking to him decided to untie him. Cobb ran. He ran intermittently for 48 hours until his legs were swollen and pained.

Uganda, June 2005. Children sleep on the grounds of Noah's Ark, an NGO in Gulu. Every night thousands of children from surrounding villages throughout the district would walk to Gulu town to escape being killed or abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army, which was waging war against the Ugandan government. Photograph: John Stanmeyer
Uganda, June 2005. Children sleep on the grounds of Noah’s Ark, an NGO in Gulu. Every night thousands of children from surrounding villages throughout the district would walk to Gulu town to escape being killed or abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army, which was waging war against the Ugandan government. Photograph: John Stanmeyer

For the next 4-5 years (Cobb struggles to recall which exact years and for how long) Cobb would live in a refugee camp for IDP’s, or internally displaced persons. “If we wanted to move, we had to be escorted. The only ones who could really move, were those with guns.”

On face value, things seem to have improved drastically.

Now, Cobb is a husband, a father and a chef. “People feel very good now,” he says, smiling. “We can move freely from one place to another. We are recovering physically, mentally and spiritually. We can earn livings through agriculture and businesses…but the people still have no real power. That is why it is all about prayer.”

Why does Cobb say the people have no power?

During my travels it becomes common rhetoric that appealing to voters on an the basis of which ethnic group they belong to is still a strong and damaging element in the government leadership, as it was during the time of Idi Amin.

Politics and death
Uganda’s current president, Yoweri Museveni, is notorious for disregarding the north and favouring leadership and citizens hailing from both his region and his own ethnic group. If the conditions of the country’s roads were a litmus test, then the cavernous potholes in the north say a lot in contrast to the recently tarred roads of the Western and Central region. This favouritism, branching out further than the quality of the roads, has left many feeling either hopeless, or in hope of a coup.

For someone like Cobb, political change is a far-off possibility, so he attempts to control the things that are within reach.

“There is still sorrow. But I have given myself to Christ. All I can do is pray Kony does not come back.”

And his fears are not unfounded. On the 24th of March this year, Obama dispatched further military resources to East Africa in an attempt to track down the elusive warlord.

Still at large. Joseph Kony, seen here in 2006
Still at large. Joseph Kony, seen here in 2006

But Cobb has been trying not to focus on fear or revenge, and has since returned to his birthplace here in Gulu, alongside reformed LRA soldiers.

In fact, Cobb has passed some of the soldiers in the street, on many occasions. “When you see an ex-soldier there is nothing you can do. You have to think: 1. That soldier never wanted to be a soldier. 2. The only way to live is to accept that soldier. 3. You can one day laugh with that soldier…It might be hard, but there is nothing you can do.”

Ugandans have been attempting to pick up their lives since Kony fled to other borders, and many feel Museveni is doing a decent job. Last week members of Parliament proposed psychological support for victims of the northern war. Only now? And only after two petitions were submitted to Parliament by the victims?

Museveni may be doing something, but with turmoil left behind by Idi Amin, Obote and Kony as benchmarks, it is easy for him to seem the best of a bad lot.

A Ugandan friend of mine had an interesting point “For those who were born after Amin, we cannot understand our parent’s stories of how violent things really were back then. And for those of us who did not come from the north of the country, we also cannot relate to the violence that people associate with Uganda.”

Despite the recurring coups and years of political unrest, there are some young Ugandans that have managed to live lives free of violence and fear.

Despite his fleeting optimism, Cobb is less enthusiastic about the future.

“All I know for the future is that people will die,” he says bluntly. “Politics always goes together with death.” This is the norm for the Ugandans that lived through Amin’s era only to watch their relatives being forced by LRA soldiers to torture and murder.

“What would really make history,” says Cobb, “is for Uganda to have a truly peaceful leader.”