Resistance Army Leader in Kenya after 'Holy War'

Lakwena, in her flowing green dress and head wrap.

hide captionLakwena, in her flowing green dress and head wrap, says she is ready to lead another "holy war" against the Ugandan Government. She promises it will be swift, if given just two guns; she can take the whole country, she says, in three days.

Eric Westervelt, NPR

Alice Lakwena is the spiritual founder of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Although the army has been charged with war crimes, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports Lakwena lives quietly in a U.N. refugee camp in neighboring Kenya.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, infighting among Eskimos over ANWR. But first, the Lord's Resistance Army is a brutal cultlike group in Uganda's north that last month drew the first war crimes indictments from the International Criminal Court. For two decades, this army has terrorized northern Uganda, killing tens of thousands and taking an estimated 20,000 children as their slaves. Little remembered is the group's spiritual founder, a self-styled voodoo priestess named Alice Lakwena. NPR's Eric Westervelt caught up with her at a refugee camp in Kenya where she's been living since the late 1980s.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

In the mid-'80s, Alice Lakwena's cultlike Holy Spirit Movement made a failed bid to overthrow the Ugandan government. Lakwena told her legions of young soldiers, many of them children, that they were bullet-proof, that rocks were hand grenades. Her followers were slaughtered by the thousands. Lakwena later fled by bicycle into neighboring Kenya.

Today, Alice Lakwena and her bodyguards and a handful of supporters live in a well-kept gated compound at the Dadaab refugee camp. In theory, she's just another refugee in this sprawling camp in northeast Kenya, but almost all the refugees live in tiny rundown thatched huts. Alice has her own large complex, complete with a worship hall. Aides and servants serve cold sodas on a tin tray. In her yard, Alice has her own waterspout, a precious hard-fought commodity for all other refugees. A large woman, Lakwena wears a flowing green dress and a white head wrap. She sits in her compound decorated with handmade posters of the 20 precautions according to Alice. Rule 1: Thou shalt not harbor charms or a chewed toothbrush in thy pocket. Alice says she's eager to return to what she calls a holy war for liberation in Uganda.

Ms. ALICE LAKWENA (Founder, Lord's Resistance Army): Me, Alice Lakwena, I can command a holy war. And people are blocking me here within the camp. Even me, myself, I can command a war nicely. If I go there fighting, (unintelligible), I promise, holy war I will set.

WESTERVELT: In Lakwena's version of holy war, spirits protect you in battle. Just who are these spirits? Alice believes she channels the spirit of an Italian military officer but even a spirit sometimes needs a little fire power.

But you still need guns?

Ms. LAKWENA: Yes.

WESTERVELT: 'Cause sometimes the spirits need guns, too.

Ms. LAKWENA: I need it. Give me only two guns.

WESTERVELT: Two guns, three days--it all makes sense to Alice. There's a long tradition of charismatic mystics in sub-Saharan Africa and Alice's theology is a mishmash of traditional beliefs and her own take on fundamentalist Christianity. Bullets, she claims, have no effect on her or her followers. `The spirit protects me,' she says.

Ms. LAKWENA: Gun cannot enter inside myself.

WESTERVELT: She's bullet-proof.

Ms. LAKWENA: Yeah. Oo, I'm the top commander. I'm the front person. People must see me in front. I said, `See me!'

WESTERVELT: And her bodyguard Benson Alarkai(ph) helps explain.

Mr. BENSON ALARKAI (Bodyguard): When the government is fighting a power like this one, they see and they fire but she's bullet-proof.

Ms. LAKWENA: I'm ...(unintelligible).

WESTERVELT: After Lakwena fled to Kenya, her nephew, Joseph Kony, took over the movement, which he renamed the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA. Lakwena says she has no contact with Kony and doesn't support the LRA. But why is the spiritual founder of a movement whose leaders have been indicted for war crimes, a voodoo priestess who led hundreds of children to their death, living under the protection of the United Nations, which runs the refugee camps, and the Kenyan government, which oversees them? And why is she given what are apparently special privileges--a waterspout, bodyguards and her own compound? Spokesmen for the UN and the Kenyan government said they're looking into it. The relief group CARE which is the lead partner in running the major programs of the camps says she's treated like any other refugee. Kenneth Walker is spokesman for CARE Africa.

Mr. KENNETH WALKER (CARE Africa Spokesman): She gets no more and no less than any other individual in the camps, not one bit. And so in that sense, so far as CARE is concerned, she's an ordinary refugee.

WESTERVELT: But, clearly, Alice Lakwena is no ordinary refugee. She says she wants to return to Uganda and unfurls her flowing green dress and stands up. She and two of her aides start to shake and sing, summoning the holy spirits for battle.

Ms. LAKWENA and Unidentified Men: (Singing in unison) He will come again.

WESTERVELT: The last time Lakwena sang her way into battle, hundreds of young Ugandans who followed her were killed. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

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