African strife inflamed by mysticism

In northern Uganda, a band of mystic-Christian rebels mounted its biggest-ever attack on civilians, killing some 200 with guns, clubs, and machetes last Saturday.

In nearby eastern Congo a few days later, militia killed 100 civilians and soldiers, cutting off body parts, ostensibly to use for warding off evil spirits.

The geopolitical climate may be tilting toward peace in Africa, helping to stall major conflicts in Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Rwanda, and Liberia. But the change is also bringing into sharp relief smaller battles - and the mysticism and religion often intertwined with Africa's most-brutal killings. Such spiritualist elements can add an uncompromising or extremist component to conflicts, complicating and inflaming clashes that arise for political or economic reasons. And they can be manipulated to prolong otherwise fading tensions.

Here, like elsewhere in the world, "Religion is fundamental in conflict situations - not always overtly, but certainly covertly," observes Weli Mazamisa, a professor of religion at South Africa's Cape Town University. Now this element appears to be coming to the fore.

Religion is certainly not the sole motivator. In Uganda, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels come from the north, home to the Acholi people, who have been disempowered and discriminated against since the days of British colonial rule. Over the course of their 18-year insurgency, they've increasingly targeted civilians, apparently in a bid to enforce loyalty. In their latest attack, some 500 huts with civilians hiding inside were torched or destroyed by rocket- propelled grenades.

In subsequent mass protests in Lira, several Acholis were beaten to death. The UN-sponsored International Criminal Court plans to investigate the massacre, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has vowed again to crush the rebels.

The LRA is the latest in a string of Ugandan insurgencies that involves a mixture of traditional African spiritualist beliefs and a theology derived from Catholic missionaries. LRA leader Joseph Kony is a former Catholic altar boy who has said he aims to create a Ugandan government based on the Ten Commandments. It would also restore economic and political power to the Acholis.

Indeed, there are political and economic elements to the war, "But in the understanding of the people, it is a religious conflict," says Erhard Kamphausen, director of the Academy of Mission at Germany's University of Hamburg, who has studied the war.

Like many African groups influenced by Christian missionaries, Acholis tend to believe their long-running misery is caused by their disregard of "the Ten Commandments and their God," says Mr. Kamphausen.

Traditional beliefs hold strong, too. Kony claims to have magical powers derived from the "Holy Spirit." He is also said to channel several spirits, including ones that dictate war strategy. He apparently manipulates beliefs in witchcraft to instill fear in his followers. Virtually all LRA recruits are abducted children who are brainwashed or forced into committing violent acts.

Father Sebhat Ayele, a Catholic priest in northern Uganda who helped evacuate survivors of the latest massacre, said on one occasion that rebels exhumed eight bodies that had been buried following an attack. "This is clear evidence of witchcraft. You don't touch tombs in Africa. People fear them," he says. Former LRA fighters describe rituals in which victims' body parts are cut out, cooked, and eaten.

Likewise, in the recent massacre in the Congo - reportedly carried out by soldiers led by a General "Chinja-chinja" or "the Ripper" - victims' genitals and faces were cut off.

The belief that "power exists in your enemy" is often behind the taking of body parts, explains Mr. Mazamisa. "My enemy has great hearing," goes the logic. "So I'll take his ears."

Indeed, the belief in powers or spirits is strong. "In African religions, the practitioners are not only the living - but also the living dead," says Mazamisa.

For instance, one belief common in the region, also held by the LRA, is that when a militia member kills an enemy, a purification must be performed to prevent the spirit of the dead soldier from taking revenge on his killer - and on the entire militia. "If the ritual isn't done properly, the soldier must be killed," says Kamphausen, because "he is a danger to his own army."

Kony's foes have also considered spirit-based warfare. A group of traditional healers in Kampala, the capital, last year proposed a plan to cast spells on Kony. The government hasn't accepted the proposal.

Some observers say beliefs of groups like the LRA represent a perversion of traditional African religions, often for political gain. In South Africa, the postkilling purification ritual, for instance, would cleanse the killer of the need to kill again.

The LRA has never stated coherent demands. And no Ugandan officials have ever been able to have a dialogue with rebels, although peace groups note that they have not tried very hard. A peace-talks initiative collapsed last year after rebels failed to turn up for talks.

The spiritualist elements certainly would complicate any talks. "Kony consults the spirits on a daily basis to dictate the battle," says one UN official. "How do you negotiate with spirits?"

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