A CHRISTIAN fundamentalist army is rampaging in Uganda, a country coming out of a brutal past and where the economy is now the fastest-growing in Africa, the press is free and presidential elections are scheduled for May.
AMURU, Uganda - For two hours, terrified villagers told Brig. Gen. Chefe Ali, army commander of the north, of atrocities and attacks by a fanatic Christian fundamentalist cult led by a self-proclaimed prophet with a murderous manner.
Okeya Santo recounted how members of the Lord's Resistance Army shouted, "Teachers come out!" when they came to his hamlet late last year.
When the 32-year-old schoolteacher emerged from his hut, they shot him in the chest and both arms. "I said, `You are killing me for no reason,' " Santo recalled, his right arm now amputated at the elbow. "They said: `You are a teacher. We don't want teachers.' "
On March 22, the guerrillas returned. This time they burned 17 thatch-roofed huts and the local school. Four villagers stepped on land mines left by the retreating rebels: One villager was killed, and three lost limbs.
At least 250 killed
Since stepping up their attacks in early February, members of the Lord's Resistance Army have killed at least 250 people, mostly civilians, and abducted hundreds more. They say their goal is to topple the government of President Yoweri Museveni and to install a regime dedicated to enforcing the Ten Commandments.
Museveni has led his long-suffering country into the modern world since he seized power in 1986. The economy is now the fastest-growing in Africa, the press is free, and presidential elections are scheduled for May. Foreign donors and investors have poured in more than $1 billion in hopes that Uganda's long years of tyranny and terror are finally over.
But Uganda's progress, at least in the north, is now held hostage by a former Roman Catholic altar boy named Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army.
"They kidnap, they kill, they rape and they maim," said a senior Western diplomat in Kampala, the capital.
Government officials compare Kony's brutality to that of Pol Pot's savage Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and his zealotry to a now-dead American. "We call him Africa's David Koresh," said Maj. Kale Kayihura, the army's political commissar, referring to the leader of the ill-fated Branch Davidian cult.
Outgrowth of Christian cult
Kony's LRA is an outgrowth of the Holy Spirit Movement, a Christian cult that ravaged northern Uganda in the late 1980s. It was led by Alice Lakwena - a nom de guerre that means "messiah" - who claimed she was possessed by the angry spirit of a long-dead 95-year-old Italian soldier.
Kony, reportedly Lakwena's cousin, emerged as her successor after she went into exile in 1988. He too claimed he was controlled by spirits. But backed by officers once loyal to former dictator Milton Obote, Kony soon eclipsed his mentor, at least in terms of cruelty and sheer bizarreness.
At first, his troops routinely sliced the lips, ears or arms off their victims. Later, anyone seen riding a bicycle or owning white chickens was slain. These days, the owners of white pigs are killed.
Kony said he cut off lips to stop people from reporting his whereabouts. Similarly, in an area without phones or cars, he targeted bicycles to stop riders from warning authorities. And chickens?
"White chickens are allegations," scoffed Walter Lutkang, a former LRA guerrilla captured by the military. "What he doesn't like is pigs. Pigs are ghosts."
A grainy video shot in January 1994, when Kony met a Ugandan official for unsuccessful peace talks, shows a tall, thin man in his early 30s with huge aviator sunglasses and gaily beaded braids that dangle to his shoulders. His voice, bellowing through a bullhorn held by armed bodyguards, is mesmerizing.
Betty Bigombe, a state minister who met Kony six times in those talks, says he can barely write his name. But she doesn't underestimate his power. "He controls the minds of his followers," she said.
By all accounts, Kony was an altar boy and catechist as a youth. Later, he became a traditional healer. It's a potent mix: Today he claims he talks to God and has his troops smear a local nut oil on their chests in the shape of a cross to protect them from bullets.
Kony delivers bitter prophecies in daylong sermons, sometimes shaking and speaking in tongues. His chief lieutenant is called Hitler. And Kony sometimes wears women's dresses - perhaps as a disguise, since he also has 32 wives.
Deserters and escapees from Kony's press-ganged army say Kony abducts young women and forces them to marry LRA soldiers. "He wants a new generation of his followers," said one. "That's why he marries (off) all the girls."
For now, the estimated 400 to 800 guerrillas in the LRA are unlikely to rout the government in Kampala. About 20,000 soldiers, or half the army, have been sent to stop them. New helicopters and night-vision equipment are expected and should aid their task.
But the battle is not going well. On March 8, the LRA machine-gunned and burned a 17-vehicle convoy of civilian cars and buses. The military says 22 people were killed; survivors insist that more than 100 died.
In a similar attack last week, the LRA ambushed a truck in northern Uganda, killing all 15 people inside, newspapers reported yesterday.
On March 13, the rebels fired a mortar at St. Mary's hospital, the nation's second largest, outside Gulu, the provincial capital, and set land mines by the entrance that killed one woman and wounded two others.
"This is basically a child army that is terrorizing the people," said Dr. Matthew Lukwiya, deputy medical superintendent. He complains that the army has "no sense of urgency" because only civilians are attacked.
That might change. Last Tuesday night, a large LRA force attacked an army outpost for the first time, wounding three soldiers. In an apparent escalation Friday, the rebels attacked a key northern military barracks and destroyed at least 90 civilian homes, the army said. No military or civilian casualties were reported.