Letters & Essays

The Book of Wilson

Andrew Rice

Wilson loved Kampala and his life there, but in Uganda a man doesn’t count for much until he has some property of his own, a piece of land that he can cultivate and use as a retreat, and which, one day, can serve as his burial ground. So Wilson built himself a house in his ancestral village of Amugo, a collection of tumbledown shops and mud-wattle huts along a derelict railway line in the north. Wilson’s wife Josephine and four of their children were staying there, visiting his mother, when the rebels attacked. They crept in early on an October morning in 2002, about a dozen youths in ragtag clothes, carrying axes, machetes, and machine guns. A neighbor who spotted the beams of their flashlights screamed and scrambled for the hut where Josephine and the children were sleeping. “We are all dead,” she shouted hysterically, and the shooting began.

A rebel appeared in the hut’s doorway. He wore gumboots, a trench coat, and a baseball cap. He was a boy, really, no older than fifteen. “Where are yours?" he barked at Josephine. She wailed and the boy called for a rope. He and a comrade then tied her eldest sons together at the waist—Jimmy, who was fourteen, and Oscar, a year younger—and marched them into the bush.

Wilson was asleep in Kampala, and he didn’t hear of the attack until later that morning when he was at school, teaching. He left immediately and headed north. Wilson was no family man. He talked to me unabashedly about his many women—hardly remarkable in polygamous Uganda—and he boasted of fathering fifteen children, counting the illegitimate ones that he knew of. But Josephine was his “official” wife, and he loved the big messy family they’d made together. He took enormous pride in Jimmy and Oscar, who were promising, well-educated boys, and as he left Kampala he told his friends that he was going to find his boys. It seemed a febrile plan, but he could not be dissuaded. “We could see the violence in him,” one friend recalled. “There was a change in him,” said another. “He was heartbroken. . . . He had that self-blame.” Any father might have such feelings at the loss of his children. Wilson had something else, too, when he thought of his sons’ ordeal: he had been there himself.

During his last years as a bush fighter, in the late eighties, Wilson had fallen in for a time with the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces, a rebel army that sprung up in the north during the first years of Museveni’s rule, led by a young, Bible-quoting soothsayer named Alice Auma, who preached both rebellion and religious revival. Auma claimed to be channeling a local warrior spirit named Lakwena—the word means “messenger of God”—and to be in communion with animals, mountains, and waterfalls. The north’s malady, she said, was spiritual, and if only northern fighters were cleansed of sin they could easily defeat Museveni. Auma’s message drew thousands of recruits, whom she commanded from a thatch-roofed temple. She enforced a strict code of conduct—no drinking, no fornication—and instructed her soldiers to anoint themselves with a holy oil that, she promised, would make them invulnerable to enemy fire. Wilson, who was not disposed to blind belief, quickly soured on Auma’s crusade. To declare your forces bulletproof, he felt, was pure suicide. Sure enough, the Holy Spirit army was soon defeated, and Auma fled into exile, but a young cousin of hers, Joseph Kony, claimed that Lakwena’s powers had passed into him, and he started his own rebellion, which he called the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Kony had been born around the same time as Wilson, in nearly the same place, and as a young man he had found power in cultivating a reputation as a sorcerer. He was a lanky, dreadlocked former altar boy who wore white robes and purported to be inhabited by warrior spirits and imbued with gifts of prophecy and healing. He had a mesmerizing voice and messianic pretensions, and when he began the LRA in the late eighties, he drew support from some of the renegade forces of the old dictatorships who regarded Museveni as a usurper. But most northerners declined to follow him, and Kony, enraged, turned harshly against his own people. He declared that if fathers would not rise up with him he would take their sons, and kidnapping became the LRA’s primary means of recruiting. It was a fiendishly effective tactic. Children made malleable, disposable troops, well-suited for the campaigns of murder and mutilation by which Kony gained an international reputation in the nineties. Eighty percent of his army of abductees were believed to be between seven and seventeen years old—and for the most part he sent them to attack not an enemy army, but their own brothers and sisters.

A Ugandan churchman who served as a government intermediary during a short-lived attempt at peace talks with the LRA once described to me a summit meeting with Kony in a remote northern meadow. The rebel arrived wearing military fatigues and aviator sunglasses, escorted by a cadre of children who poured holy water from calabashes before his feet. He raised a Kalashnikov above his head and told the peace negotiators: “Look at the gun. I have fought with this gun for seven years, and the government has also fought with the gun—and yet they have not defeated us.”

In fact, defying defeat was Kony’s signal accomplishment. Nobody could say for sure what else the LRA stood for. Kony claimed his orders came directly from God and that he planned to rule Uganda according to the Ten Commandments. But the religion on which the LRA based its holy war was entirely invented—a muddle of animist superstition, Biblical fundamentalism, and shamanism—and its politics were even less coherent. Because Kony’s victims are overwhelmingly from the north, his war has been called an auto-genocide. Still, many northerners blame Museveni equally for their continued suffering. They are convinced he could squelch the LRA anytime he likes, but that he prefers to let the fighting continue in order to keep the north crippled. “I don’t believe in turning the other cheek,” Museveni has said, explaining why he refuses to engage in serious peace talks with Kony’s rebels. “We are killing them.”

When Wilson reached Amugo the day after the attack he found his house burned to the ground. Josephine was gone; she’d fled to her mother’s village, which was some distance away. Wilson kept going north, following the path the rebels had taken out of town. At first he hired bicycle taxis. But the bicyclists were only willing to go so far. LRA troops often kill the riders they encounter, or hack off their legs, because the rebels believe them to be government spies. So Wilson walked.

He walked for days, passing through the flatlands around Amugo and the malarial swamps where the rebels collected water, then crossed the Moroto River and traveled on to rockier terrain. This land was barren, depopulated. When Wilson did encounter people, they fled in terror at the sight of him. In this area, any stranger was assumed to be a threat. He also encountered some children who’d escaped the LRA, and they gave him bits of intelligence.

Following one such tip, Wilson left the road and headed west. He came to a clearing where he found the remains of an encampment. Several makeshift crosses stood planted in the ground amid small plots of soybeans and sorghum. Wilson found four children’s bodies there. They had been bludgeoned to death. The children appeared to Wilson to have been eleven or twelve years old. He knew that the LRA often executed abductees who were slow or injured or who simply cried for their parents. These killings served as a lesson to those who were allowed to live.

The rebels had abandoned the encampment a few days before, and the bodies had already begun to decompose in the tropical heat. Wilson was drawn to one of the children, who lay facedown, his head atop a log, as if he had been forced to the ground and clubbed from behind. The dead boy wore blue, just as his son Oscar had been wearing when he was taken. Then Wilson noticed the belt. It was white, and bore a crocodile insignia, just like Oscar’s. He tried to study the features of the corpse. “They had beaten him with a lot of canes so the body was swollen,” Wilson told me later. “The whole face had already been eaten by maggots. Even though he was my son, I couldn’t recognize him.” But Wilson was certain: Oscar was dead.

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