Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A grandfatherly Killer

I post this and previous article on the Congo to show that while Mugabe is evil, that there are worse places to live in than Zimbabwe.

But the most notorious ex-commander is my lunch guest, 61-year-old Brig. Kenneth Banya, who lives in an army flat around the corner."The nasty one," people call him. Three years ago, Ugandan soldiers captured him with an AK-47 in his hands as he led 135 fighters on a mission through northern Gulu District.

For the 17 years before that, almost from the beginning of the war, he served as top adviser and military mastermind to LRA leader Joseph Kony, a self-declared prophet and known psychopath. B

Banya's excuse, offered in soft grandfatherly tones at one of the lawn tables, is that his role was forced on him. "The LRA came for me in October 1987," he says. "They told me if I didn't come, they would collect me with all my family and shoot us. I chose to save their lives and go."It seems the lamest of excuses but Banya is not entirely without charm. Toward the end of the interview, closely monitored by a national army colonel, he gets up and takes my hand in warm Ugandan fashion.

"My favourite teacher in primary school, Mr. Scott, was from Toronto," he says, beginning to walk with me hand-in-hand across the lawn. "Also Mrs. Miller," he says. "She almost took me home with her. I could be living in Toronto now."

Banya, Kolo and Kamdulu are only three of the ex-LRA commanders circulating freely in northern Uganda, still addressed by their LRA titles. There are dozens more: mutilators, torturers, rapists, pedophiles, criminals of the lowest possible order.Other countries hold trials, or truth and reconciliation commissions.

Uganda offers blanket impunity for any atrocity — no questions asked — to any LRA member of any rank who surrenders or is captured in battle.Making sense of the absurdity begins with one extraordinary fact: The Lord's Resistance Army consists primarily of abducted children. Most estimates put the proportion at 80 per cent.

The movement might have been born 20 years ago out of legitimate grievances against federal rule from Kampala. But as far as anybody can tell, Joseph Kony's only goal now is to wipe out the adult population of his own people, the Acholi, and replace it with a generation of abducted Acholi children he has trained to kill.He is no longer waging a rebellion; he is leading a murder cult.So far, his effort has directly killed an estimated 32,000 people. It has also displaced 95 per cent of the Acholi population from farmlands into camps where they are dying from disease, the World Health Organization says, at a rate of 1,000 people a week.Kony has abducted an estimated 20,000 children, many of whom have since escaped or been killed, often capriciously by their own LRA commanders.The abductions have led to a phenomenon unique to northern Uganda: the "child night commuter."
To avoid LRA abduction and other violence, thousands of children as young as 6 walk up to two or three hours every evening to sleep at night shelters in the district capitals of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader.Child abductions, indiscriminate killings, mass evacuations — for years the Acholi people suffered without help from the outside world.They also pondered a desperate peace attempt.

Having the army try to rout the LRA and possibly kill their own children seemed out of the question. Instead, they called for a blanket amnesty."People wanted any shortcut," Amnesty Commission chairman Justice Peter Onega told a recent forum in Gulu, the north's main town. "If (a commander) is sure he is going to be forgiven, he will come out," he said of the theory that led to the commission's establishment in 2000. "

Unfortunately this expectation has not been achieved. The war is still going on."Last October, an outside perspective presented itself.The International Criminal Court at The Hague issued arrest warrants for the LRA's five top commanders on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.Banya's name appeared on an initial list before his capture, the Ugandan Daily Monitor reported. The final list includes Kony and four others, disqualifying them for amnesty and introducing an element of accountability for LRA actions.

At the same time, the Acholi people are realizing that reconciliation between victim and perpetrator must somehow be addressed."We have to talk about reconciliation," says Betty Bigombe, a former World Bank consultant in Washington, D.C., who has returned home to Gulu as an independent peacemaker sponsored mostly by Norway."A woman came to me one day and said, `I know I am the mother of killers but I want to know where my sons are,'" Bigombe recounts over breakfast at the Acholi Inn.One son was abducted as an LRA child soldier in 1994, the other in 2003.

"I was able to find out that both are dead and that the (LRA) commander who ordered one of them killed lives at the Acholi," Bigombe says. "We need some kind of reconciliation process where people could sit with some of these commanders and get some kind of closure."Reintegration is also becoming a priority.Returned abducted children live as outcasts among their own people for having been forced to kill fellow villagers and often members of their own families. Somehow, Bigombe and others are saying, a way must be found to reintegrate them into Acholi society.

So far, the government's key initiative in that direction has failed spectacularly, says a detailed report compiled by UNICEF, the United Nations children's fund.

Two years ago, government planners conceived of a model agricultural community for returned child abductees. They called it Labora Farm and financed it through the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund, in turn 100 per cent funded by the World Bank.

The idea was to give ex-child soldiers a new start by offering them productive labour on 250 hectares of government land.But to run the farm the government appointed Brig. Kenneth Banya. He hired other ex-LRA officers, including his former deputy Okwonga Alero and Kony's former religious adviser, Raymond "the Bishop" Apere."

The perpetrator was put in charge of the victim," says the UNICEF report, as yet unreleased.To work the farm, the report says, Banya recruited 120 women and girls once abducted as children to serve as sex slaves to LRA commanders. They were not paid. Instead, they worked "in slavery conditions," the report says, on the promise of food from the harvest. The only harvest so far was sold on the black market, the report says.

All proceeds went to the directors.

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