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July 29th, 2008
Lord's Children
Aaron Brown Interview: Betty Bigombe

WIDE ANGLE host Aaron Brown interviews Betty Bigombe, a former Ugandan government minister who is involved in negotiations with the Lord’s Resistance Army.

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AARON BROWN:
Betty Bigombe, thank you for joining us on WIDE ANGLE.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Thank you very much for having me.

AARON BROWN:
Did you see the film?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Yes I did.

AARON BROWN:
What did you think?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
It’s good; it tells a story, but I also think it leaves out some very important aspects of what child soldiers go through. The boys are vulnerable, but you have the girls that are even more vulnerable. Especially the ones that have come out with children who in some cases are not accepted by members of their own families.

AARON BROWN:
The children of the children?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
The children of the children, yes. And so, I think that there’s more to be told about it; that probably the documentary does not quite capture it. But you can’t do everything.

AARON BROWN:
Well, we can’t do everything, but we can do some of it. And I want to talk about as much of it as we can. There is in a child who has been ruined this way–

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
–this empty look in their eyes. In your experience, are we ever able to restore to that child, childhood?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Very rare. It’s very difficult, because when they tell you the transformation they go through when they are abducted– that eventually a brutality is what makes you get recognition. That you may survive, that is, if you can kill in the most terrible manner, going out to raid. And so, when they come back, the community is hostile towards them too. And they feel very insecure.

Now, there are very few, I would say, that can recapture their youth. That depends on what they have done, how long they stayed in captivity, and yes, pretty much, based on what they’ve gone through, or what they have witnessed. Because some of them come back after they’ve killed their own members of the community and parents. And a lot of them are very suicidal. And unfortunately, there’s no proper counseling to help them, to bring them out of what they have gone through.

AARON BROWN:
Is it guilt? Do they feel guilty?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
They feel– yes, there’s a sense of guilt, definitely. A lot of them– it’s very difficult to know, is it guilt, or are they afraid? Because you’re dealing with a situation here where victims became perpetrators of violence. So, a lot them of course will tell you, “I was forced to, I had to do it, if I didn’t do it, they would kill me.” But then, as they will tell you later, is that time comes when you’re no longer ordered. You do it on your own. You initiate this violence, because it earns you recognition and it earns you promotion, food, and you’re awarded with wives.

AARON BROWN:
This happens to children at the age when their moral compass is defined.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Absolutely.

AARON BROWN:
I mean, there are a number of things about this that are horrible and pernicious, but it is at that particular age when human beings define, to a great extent, what is right, what is wrong, how–

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Absolutely.

AARON BROWN:
–how to live in a community.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Right.

AARON BROWN:
And once that is defined–

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Right.

AARON BROWN:
–how do you turn the switch and say, “No, it’s wrong. Everything you know is wrong. Backwards.”

BETTY BIGOMBE:
That’s very difficult, because it would have to be a process. I’ll tell you, a study that has been conducted in Mozambique, which also had lots of child soldiers, where when they returned, the community got involved in their rehabilitation. Only 12 percent of those who came back alive were ever to recapture their childhood, to be able to become productive members of the community. But the rest, somewhere along the lines, just go to waste.

I mean, they also give up because they come out, they think, “After what I’ve done, risking to accept me, how can I live with what I’ve done?” And in schools– some of them were lucky to go back to school– they exhibit very strange behavior. Recently when I was home, and I went to one of the schools, and they were expecting me. It’s one school that has absorbed many child soldiers.

So, a 17-year-old who was abducted when he was seven years old, had returned, was taken in that school, and there were skirmishes. So the principle of the school came to town and said, “You know, we’re trying to restrain a boy who was a child soldier, who picked up a wooden chair to hit another child, saying, ‘I’ve killed 82 people, you’re going to be the 83rd one.’”

So, in defense, if they are offended, or somebody attacks them, that violence always comes back, comes out. And unfortunately, too, the community is not really prepared to be able to understand their problems and to treat them in a manner that they need more understanding; that you have to understand who you’re dealing with. But you also have parents who have come back and said, “This is no longer the child I knew.”

AARON BROWN:
This is not mine. Right, there’s a moment in the film where a grandmother is talking about her grandchild–

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Right.

AARON BROWN:
–clearly is afraid that this child has come back in a way. Your first impulse is to be kind of angry with her, but she’s not being unrealistic; this child is in some ways someone to be feared.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Absolutely, because it’s so many of them, too, that have threatened to kill their parents, threatened to kill their grandmothers. So, most of them go to what you call home, for a period of time, and then because you know very well that their thought goes to be a normal child, you cannot ask them to do the normal work that you would have asked a child to do.

AARON BROWN:
Do we know much about how they are transformed, or brainwashed, or is it a systematic process, or do they just figure out what’s required of them to survive?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
In a way, yes, because most of them tell you, when they’re abducted, how they’re treated. How if anybody tries to escape, they’re killed in the most brutal manner. And they ask one of the abductees to kill the other one. And if you say no, then– I was dealing with a boy who had to kill his own brother. They were abducted the same night. His brother complained that he had blisters, he couldn’t walk anymore. So he was asked to kill him. And when he was given an axe, and when he didn’t hit hard enough, they said, “We will kill you instead.”

So he said the second time around he had to really hit his brother to kill him. Now, of course he wishes he didn’t do it, probably they should have killed him; he feels extremely guilty. But later, they realize that if you’re brutal, if you show courage, and you did things in the most brutal matter, then you get recognition, you’re given food, if there’s no food, you’re given the looted proceeds and you’re promoted, you’re rewarded. So, very slowly, everybody vies to be that, to show courage and that means show brutality.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Right.

AARON BROWN:
Are they selected in any specific way, or are they just randomly abducted?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
They’re just random. They would storm in a school and abduct as many children as possible. They would storm in a village, usually in the night when people are supposed to be home, and they randomly abduct in the internally displaced camps; they would storm in and just abduct. And let me back up a little bit. I’ve talked to so many who have told me their life story of how the fear, when you first go in, how scared you are, how terrified about everything. How the orders– you can’t even try– even if you’re sleepy, there’s no way you can sleep.

They say, “You know, if you’re given an order to carry out, if you don’t do it, they’ll kill you. If they say cook in 30 minutes, you better cook in 30 minutes or else you’re killed.” So, it is order, and order, and order that they live with and they get transformed to live by that order. And of course that personal ambition also comes in– that “I’m going to vie to become a senior commander, because that way, you are in charge of the others, and you also give orders.” And they also have slaves in there. The younger ones become slaves to them.

AARON BROWN:
Boys and girls?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Boys and girls.

AARON BROWN:
Is there a difference in the way that the girls are treated relative to the violence that’s perpetrated on people?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Not necessarily. The girls, of course, they’re soldiers. They become child mothers, they are still the cook. They are the people that carry all the luggage that they have. So they have more roles to do. But my experience when I went out to the bush to meet with Joseph Kony– I found the child soldiers and the girls most brutal. They don’t blink, they look at you straight, you greet them, they don’t answer. But I believe this is all to show that they are courageous when they do all that.

AARON BROWN:
You know, you’re actually one of the few people in the world that I can ask this question to, and I suspect it’s the question that everyone who’s seen the film, or read about this, knows anything about this wants to ask, which is, what kind of person does this to children? Steals them, turns them into killers, sucks their souls right out of their bodies. What kind of person does that? You sat across from that person.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Well, yes I did, several times. In fact, the first time I met with him, what went into my mind was–

AARON BROWN:
Joseph Kony?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Yeah, that’s right–

AARON BROWN:
Joseph Kony.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Joseph Kony– the first time I sat across with him, what went into my mind was, “I wish I could open up his brain and try to understand why he does what he does and the way he does these things.” I wanted to desperately understand that, because it was, “So, this is him, he actually does exist.” Now, at the same time, he’s the kind of person who can talk a lot of sense, too.

I’ve also talked to the wives or the commanders that have been close to him. One of the things they do say is that he’s got supernatural power. He has direct contact with divine powers. So, apparently, he’s been able to predict many things that have happened. And that’s one of the ways he controls their minds, because he has supposedly 12 spirits that give him orders and commands. And he also claims he is working on the spirits’ orders. I also have had a crime profiler conduct an analysis to try to understand this man, because of what he does.

The crime profilers reported that he has multiple personality disorder but he’s also a psychopath. Right, so, he exhibits very many faces, some of them will tell you, “Oh, he’s very kind, oh he’s very humorous, oh he’s extremely smart.” Because the things he talks about– he would gather all these child mothers, and tell them not to use synthetic materials, let your babies lie on the mat, bare mat, because then there’s circulation of air, and that is good for the baby.

When they have pains, I mean difficulty in child delivery, he gives them herbs that he mixes himself. So, some of them believe– and then they say, “Well, then you don’t want to see the other side of him.” Right, that, when brutality comes.

AARON BROWN:
I read once where you said that, and I think it was when you first met him, you wanted to talk to him, to convince him to change.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Right, yes.

AARON BROWN:
I mean, if here’s a guy who has a messianic complex, who believes he has a relationship to God, or is a God, that’s different from– those people don’t change. Unless it’s an act, they don’t change. So is it an act, or does he believe it?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
No, he totally believes it, unfortunately. You know, you kind of think you can do the undoable. You kind of believe you can try to convince him, even talk a language he understands best to convince him to give up what he’s doing. In my recent telephone conversation with him, not so recent; this was last year. And he told me– we were talking about the International Criminal Court.

And he said, because I was telling him that he could still come out, and live a normal life. And he kind of said, “Are you kidding me? Given what I’ve done, I know my fate. I have only three options: it’s death, it’s prison, and maybe going into exile.” So, he does know.

AARON BROWN:
So that’s a very rational–

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Right.

AARON BROWN:
So then, part of him is completely rational, if self-absorbed, and then there are other parts that– one of the things that I find remarkable about Kony and about the whole movement, is like all movements– on the one hand, we tend to see it in very simple terms. He’s destroyed thousands of lives–

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
Children. But this has gone on for 21, 22 years now. And in its core, there must be some grievance that people are drawn to. He must touch in some people something, or he couldn’t find followers. Not all of his followers are abducted, some are there willingly. So, what is it– the political grievance, or the political issue here– that he sells?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
You’re right in that it’s true at the beginning, he did not abduct people. You know, people joined him voluntarily. But you have to understand the history of Uganda, where it came from. The violence that followed after Uganda’s independence. And the tribal feelings. That was engrained in us, I suppose. We like to blame the British for it, although we’ve had a chance to correct these problems, but we haven’t corrected them.

So when Museveni came into power, there were five different factions trying to overthrow him. And we negotiated with some of them, some of them were defeated. And those who were adamant, who did not want to come up, but they wanted Museveni to be forcibly overthrown, joined him. And these were some smart people; these were trained soldiers, these were lawyers, these were engineers, medical doctors, that were desperate for change because northerners were fighters, they dominated the army during the colonial times.

And that just went on. During Obote, too, that Museveni fought. So consequently, as one group gave up, or got defeated, or reached an agreement with the government, the desperate people moved on to him, or from the defeated armies of Alice Lakwena, who preceded Joseph Kony, so they joined in following tyranny. And apparently, some fallout came when they wanted to fight conventional warfare. But here is a guy that said, “Carry stones, because stones turn into bones.” This is a guy that said, “Carry trees, sing hymns as you go to the battlefront.”

And so, some were killed. It was just painful at the beginning because here are these innocent people who were told to go with a few guns, and carry stones, that would purportedly turn into bones. And they swear the stones would turn into bones. I mean, after today, I was talking to one who said, “You could feel the sparkle in your hand as you hold it.” And they would see fire. Had he worked on their psychology? I don’t know.

But anyway, to answer your question, at the beginning, yes, he did have that– he enjoyed support. And then when I went in, a lot of people turned away from him; they also defected. And then he started maiming body parts; he started cutting noses, lips, and ears. Then he turned people against him. But you still have people who gained from wars, and will support them. They’re not very many, but they are there.

So they’re his confidants, when they loot goods from people, they share it with him. But, generally, he has brutalized his own people so much so that he really does not have that support. And again in that too, to try to escape, and the transformation most of them go through, because now it’s 90 percent children who were abducted 18, 20 years ago.

AARON BROWN:
Why does he– if trust is the right word, why does he trust you?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Does he trust me? I don’t know.

AARON BROWN:
Well, he talks to you, and he listens to you– whether he embraces everything you say, you know, that’s more of a struggle. But he accepts your presence.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Well, one, I always joke about this, that maybe that spirit had not told him that I’m a bad person. That’s a possibility. But the other thing, too, when I initiated peace talks, my mandate was not to mediate, not to negotiate. My mandate was, negotiate surrender. But I–

AARON BROWN:
Just to back up just a half a step. I mean, you literally were sent by the government–

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Right.

AARON BROWN:
–to what is, correct me if I’m wrong, but your ancestral home.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Right, it’s true.

AARON BROWN:
– in the northern part, to be among your people, in that sense, and the mandate, as you just said, was not to negotiate with him, but somehow convince him and convince his followers to surrender?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Right.

AARON BROWN:
That was an easy job.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
No.

AARON BROWN:
Oh.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
That’s why I shifted gear.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah, I’d find “Plan B,” too.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Right. So, I decided then to persuade the government. But I saw very clearly, it was not going to– the military victory, surrender, what incentives did I have to get them to surrender when they had weapons? When they felt they had reasons to fight. The government army was also not really fighting them, there was so much corruption in the army, that, you know, they knew where the rebels were; the rebels were never attacked.

Two, despite the fact that Joseph Kony is a crazy person, I’m also a very strong believer that military victory will never bring sustainable peace. You can subdue people, you can humiliate them, they feel they have no voice, they’ll go underground– it will resurface. So, my position was then, you know, even if he is a sick, crazy, man who’s done what he’s done, there are some issues that need to be addressed. Maybe just not northern Uganda, but nationally. And this could be an opportunity to address some of these tribal problems, people who feel marginalized. Use the forum to do that.

Right, so I persuaded them, the president, and made contact, secret contacts, and tried to find him by staying in these camps with internally displaced people, and dancing with them, encouraging them to speak up, I was able to identify some supporters that could connect me with him directly.

AARON BROWN:
Was it helpful in this process that you were a woman?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
At the beginning it was very difficult. At the beginning, the rebels– because, I had not just Joseph Kony, I’ve other rebel groups to deal with, too, that interpreted the president’s appointment of a woman as an insult, as lack of seriousness.

AARON BROWN:
Really?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Yes. Well, and also people generally believed, “Oh, she will last a couple of months, she will run out, she’ll get well away from here. She’ll not be able to deal with this.” You also have–

AARON BROWN:
They pretty clearly didn’t get you.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
So, it also took taking risks, great risks, reaching out and staying in places that nobody ever went to, that finally convinced people that I was serious, and yeah, that’s what it was.

AARON BROWN:
I mean, I know that this isn’t about you, and you don’t like to talk about that necessarily, but I think it’s helpful for people to understand how you became not just the woman you are, but how you became connected to that movement, how you’ve tried to bring them out of the bush and into a more civilized world. If people understand what you gave up in the first place. I mean, you went and lived in the villages, you ate the food, danced the dances, sang the songs, hugged the children, took care of– you lived there.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Right, yes. Well, I did. At some point, when I thought, well, I had two children of my own that never saw me. I was never there for their birthdays, or Christmas, or Easter, or went to their school. Their father did everything. So, that hurt my relationship with my children quite a bit, especially my daughter, who was very young at the time. But the other thing, too, what really propels you is, you know, you go into these camps, people have gone without food, and when you get there, you give them hope. They smile, they think somebody somewhere cares.

So the question is, do I abandon them, do I just go away and live, you know, comfortably? I’m fairly educated, and maybe I would get a better job, and as you probably know, I came to the World Bank, and I was in Washington working, when I went back in 2004. I was actually getting ready to go on a World Bank mission, when there was this news on CNN splash– the Lord’s Resistance Army went into an internally displaced camp and killed over 300 people. And then newscast footage, of the only person who has met this leader, is showing me.

It was at that point in time that I decided, “No it can’t go on anymore, I can’t stay here anymore. I’m just going to go back. I’m going to go back and persuade the government to agree to a negotiated settlement. I’m going to look up my old contacts, and reestablish contact with the rebels, and persuade them to come to the table.” This belief that military tradition was going to come, and it had gone on for, at that time, close to 20 years. People are dying. Children are not going to school– it just can’t go on anymore. So I decided to go right back and take it on.

AARON BROWN:
I’m a little reluctant to ask this. Let me try. You went at this off and on for a 10 year period. I mean, you talked about your relationships with your own children. You gave up a tremendous amount. You stepped away from it. You went back to it. In all this time, all this energy, all this effort, you know, people were dying. To what extent, if at all, do you feel like that is a failure of yours? An inability to close the deal?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
That’s a good question because in 1994, when I met the rebel leader many times and at great risk, too. But that was not the problem. And we got very close. We had the date and venue agreed upon. The rebels were all out on the street. And overnight, the President comes and gives an ultimatum. And counsels the peace talks. That was totally devastating for me.

I felt a sense of defeat. If I’m asked to name three or four things that have hurt me most in my life, that was one. That is one of them.

AARON BROWN:
Because it became clear to you that you not only had to persuade the rebels, and a leader who is not all there, not totally sane on– but you had a government and people who had influence in the government in the capitol for whom war was good business. War helped solidify their power. They didn’t want peace in the end, did they?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
I would say yes. I don’t think anybody would want war in their backyard. Because if you look at the human cost, the economic cost. But you also had people who were directly benefiting from the war. But that was not the official policy. That was not the position. I think my problem was that Mr. Museveni, the President, did not take the war very seriously.

AARON BROWN:
Because it was in some other place. I mean, it was in his country but–

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Well, it was in country–

AARON BROWN:
– it wasn’t knocking on his door.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Well, he visited and spent time. But fighting guerilla warfare is not– the other thing I would say was that why was he believing his commanders all the time? That was my biggest problem. That he really did not know the reality of what was going on. Because he came out again and again to say that we’re going to end the war in two months, or in three months, and it went on. He was certainly listening to his commanders in the field, who definitely distorted the whole picture.

They would tell him that there are now only 15 rebels left when there were thousands. So, my question to him was, “Why do you believe these people who are misinforming you for years? And so, they will tell you, they’re now only left with 15 guns, and you believe it, and then the war drags on. And then you get so many of them coming out.” That’s something I would question. And I will still question because when I was in the field, I used to say, “The war is not going to end militarily.” Because these guys are not engaging the rebels. But, you know, I can’t explain it really.

AARON BROWN:
I guess my point here is that on the one side, nothing I say or think suggests that Kony is anything but, frankly, evil.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Absolutely.

AARON BROWN:
On the other side, the government is not exactly blameless for the continuation of this all. There have been opportunities. In some cases, opportunities you created, or helped create that might have ended this years and years ago. And those opportunities were lost, and how many children, how many adults, how many people have suffered because of those lost opportunities?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Oh, absolutely. Well, you know, you can even say that even abduction of children in camps, government is to blame. For not providing security or not protecting people in the camps. Yes, you absolutely can say that. There are many factors. Because when I go back– let me talk a little bit about the challenges of mediation. You will always have spoilers. People who– they’re not part of the government. But maybe they’ve been benefiting from it.

I talked about some of the soldiers creating ghost soldiers. So instead of having 700 fighters, he only has 200. So that the salaries of the rest is in his pocket. He obviously does not want that war to end. You have ordinary people who are out on the street. We’re sending wrong information to the rebels. We’re giving them wrong messages. “Oh, she wants you killed.” You have also– don’t forget that the government of Sudan, Kartoum was supplied with guns. Was giving sanctuary to the rebels. And seriousness to peace talks also depends on supplies to the rebels. If they’re still receiving supplies. They might be reluctant to talk.

AARON BROWN:
I was reading the other day that there were exiles. You’d gotten in exiles in Britain and the United States who were sending money to keep the rebels in supply. So, there are lots of actors in this–

BETTY BIGOMBE:
There’s very many actors. And I believe, in 1994, the President was misadvised. He was misadvised. And we even had Acholis, from the same tribe, in government writing to him to tell him not to allow me to continue. Because they looked at it as a personal gain. As a, you know, a victory.

AARON BROWN:
A victory they didn’t want you to have?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Yes. That a woman, if I was going to bring peace to– you know, if many times it had been made and not succeeded because some of them had been with the rebels. And the rebel leader had refused to talk to them. So, you have very many players that really ruined the process. And you always have to guard against that. Have your own intelligence. Who is talking what to whom. And what are they saying.

What kind of information is getting to the rebels? That confuses them. What information is going to the government that probably– even when I went back in 2004, and we got close again, I was not well-received by some military officers.

So, you always have very many players, who are looking at their self interest as the most important thing. And they will manipulate the situation. They will, you know, cause a lot of confusion that can undermine them in their entire process.

AARON BROWN:
And–

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Not to mention, proliferation of mediators. You have NGOs clamoring to be the actual mediators. So, there’s very many challenges.

AARON BROWN:
So, it’s, you know, evil meets jealousy meets power meets–

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Right, you got it.

AARON BROWN:
–and not to sound naïve in all of this, but at the end of the day, you can have evil and jealousy, and power, and politics, and history in all of this. And what I see are hundreds or thousands of children whose lives have been stolen from them. I see hundreds of thousands of people who have been brutalized in ways that are unimaginable. Tens of thousands of people within camps. Starving in some cases. Certainly not unusual for them to starve. And don’t you– I do. Don’t you wonder– how does this madness end?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Precisely. You kind of cannot understand, oftentimes, the mind of spoilers. Why do they do it. Because the other thing too is that everybody wants to be directly involved. And if they are left out— you cannot take the entire tribe. If they’re left out, then they must undermine it. Yeah.

They will write letters and drop them off for the rebels, not to trust. So going back to the question of diasporas supporting the rebels, I do not know. It’s difficult for me to say for a fact that they are actually sending help. Because I do not know. I don’t know whether anybody has investigated. But as for verbal support, some of them do. They’re thousands of miles away. Their children are going to see. They do not know that these people in the camps, food comes once or twice a month, or once in two months. And it lasts eight days, and then they have nothing else.

When they try to go out and supplement, look for vegetables in the wilderness, they’re blown up by landmines. They don’t get to read about it. They’re comfortable. And for them, they think they are hurting Museveni if the war continues or humiliates Museveni if it continues. So, while I cannot substantiate, or I have no reason to believe that they actually are shipping or sending money, or shipping military wares, the verbal support, the moral support is definitely there.

AARON BROWN:
Can we go back? I just have a couple more things. But I want to go back to the role of women in this. Because I think I sometimes don’t quite get how women are seen in African culture. Because on the one hand, like in all other cultures, they are seen as lesser players. But in another sense, they’re somewhat revered. I mean, I actually think that people are saying, “No, actually they’re smarter, saner, more decent. And so, if a woman comes to us, we need to be more respectful. We need–” Am I right? And is that part of the conflict here?

That on the one hand, you were seen one way, but on the other hand, you were taken in?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
That’s true.

AARON BROWN:
Yes.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Yes. It took a lot. Like I said earlier on, I was dismissed. Nobody took me seriously. Insulted. And while some friends said, “Well, the President wants you dead. Why does he send you to this place?” So, it really took all that living with these people who were bearing and taking the brunt of the war. It was taking risks. Going into these places when you’re not even sure whether you’re going to come out alive. I’ve seen landmines blow up people right ahead of me, killing them. It means going through ambushes. And you don’t give up.

The next day, you’re still there. So, it is that stamina, that determination that I believe the rebels, the people saw in me. And therefore give me support.

But you also have the ordinary woman. Just like I said in the camps. You go in. They still want to dance for you, to entertain you, and they’ve gone without food for days. But they’re happy that you are there. They’re looking up caring for the sick. They’re also going out, taking risks to look for food. To look for firewood. To look for drugs to give to their families. They hold the communities together. And to me, these are the real heroes. Because they don’t give up. They’re so resilient.

I was talking to a woman. Talking to a woman who came to church to me and said, “Next time, you’re going to meet with the rebels, that Joseph Kony, I’m going to go with him and with you. My three sons were abducted. I don’t know where they are.”

So, I said, “Okay, I will let you know.” But of course, I couldn’t take her. So, the following time, she heard I had gone to the bush again. She came back and said, “Well, you didn’t take me. I want to look at that man in his eyes and ask him where my children are. When LRA abduct, when they rape, when they destroy, when they kill, I say, I’m not a mother of killers. I’m not a mother of rapists. I’m not a mother of people who destroy for the sake of destruction.” Then I said, “You know, I can’t. Because that will jeopardize the peace concept. But I will find out where your children are.”

So, I did my research. I found them. Both of them were dead. When she came back, and I said, “I’m very sorry they’re dead.” Tears rolled down. And she said, “How did they die? Was it painful? Were they just shot? Were their bodies ever buried or eaten by animals? Is there somebody that could take me so that I could pick up the bones and–”

Now, a woman– and many of them who have gone through that, will still receive me with a big smile, and hug me. And she’s so despondent at the same time about life. But you know, she’s not giving up on the other children who are still alive. She’s still going to get up the next day. And care for them. And look for food. And try to get them educated. So, to me, these are the real heroes. They are the people that really keep you going. Because you look at them and say, “If this is what she’s going through,” and they’re in thousands– you know, who am I? What am I? The little that you can do is to keep her hoping, and alive.

AARON BROWN:
And is it a false hope?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
I don’t think so. I think the peace process has gone to a level that now, people are trying to go back home to rebuild their homes. I think it’s genuine hope in here. Although, what worries me, and this is where I always keep saying that there is a need to protect people. The Lord’s Resistance Army has relocated. Half of them are in Congo. Half of them are in Central African Republic. Part of them are in southern Sudan. But they have resumed abduction of people and children in these countries. And they’re training them. So, you have the problem exported to these neighboring countries. In 1994, 1995, after the first initiative failed, LRA withdrew for almost nine months. And people were home. Nobody expected them to come back. But they had gone to Sudan.

They walked thousands of miles. Came in one night, and killed 300 people in one little town. So, can we believe that now that they’re several hundreds of miles away that they will never be able to come back? That is one question. So, protection must given to people in Central African Republic, in Congo, and Sudan, so that LRA does not rebuild its manpower strength.

AARON BROWN:
The endgame, as we say, is complicated here. And one of the complications seems to be that the world court has indicted Kony and three of his commanders. And that’s created an obstacle in some ways, some would argue, to a negotiation. Do you agree with that?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
First of all, my take is that without the arrest warrant, probably LRA would not have demonstrated seriousness at the peace talks. I think International Criminal Court has been a catalyst in getting LRA to go to the table and talk.

But of course, the question is what incentives does he have to come out with the arrest warrant hanging in there? I also want to realize that there are victims. In fact, what victims were telling me the other day is that, you know, “We desperately want peace. But we’re also very worried that peace agreement will be reached. And Kony will be given a package. Maybe a house, a car, and guns, and salary. He’ll be rewarded for what he’s done. For having killed us. For having abducted our children. For having raped our people.” Now, I just told you this story of this woman which will ask me– and painfully. When she was walking away, she told me how, you know, whether she could pick up the bones somewhere and give them decent burial.

When she finally wiped out her tears, as she was going away, you know what she told me? She said, “I still have two sons left. They will also revenge.” Now, if there is no justice, it’s very likely that victims would want revenge. So, while they desperately need peace, what they’re saying is, let the international court seek– let the whole thing be sequenced. Let’s have peace first. And then take him to court.

AARON BROWN:
Right. But, I mean, just going back to something you said earlier– believe me, I’m not making an argument for anything that allows evil to live well. I’ve seen enough of that in my life. Whether it was the former dictator in Haiti, or anywhere else. You know, that’s not the argument.

But people who make the argument say if he believes as you told me he believes that his life is down to three not great options– death, prison, or maybe life in exile– do you understand why some people would say if the price of an end to this brutalization of people is this guy goes away and lives in exile, it’s an imperfect end? It’s not certainly justice by any reasonable definition of justice. But it’s the best you can get after 21 years. Is that reasonable?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
I have spent a lot of time with victims to be able to get a sense of what they feel about this man. There’s no doubt that everybody is so desperate. In fact, to tell you the truth, what has been quoted often times that “Oh, the Acholi people are saying they ready to forgive him.” This is all very much driven by a quest for peace. Okay, but when that reality– somebody that one day, you know, he’s alive. He’s had 200 children with those children, those young girls. He has done so much. Somebody somewhere will one day say, “We want justice.” At some point.

Of course, for the time being, they’re so desperate that they’re saying, “Forgiveness.” Those who have come out already, the rebels, they’re experiencing a lot of difficulties.

Because the community’s really not quite forgiving them. There’s a school, which is exclusively for LRA, you know, this built by the Belgium government. Children born in captivity. Those who fought. Those who are now old. Once you find them in that environment, they’re happy, they’re dancing. Of course, they have a lot of flashbacks, and they’re violent among themselves. But get them to go out on the street, they’re dead scared that their victims might spot them out. And might take the law in their own hands.

So, while the demand for peace is very, very high, there are also people who feel that justice must be served.

AARON BROWN:
But here’s where I see the dead end, if you will. Even if Kony is killed, and his commanders are killed, and they’re all wiped out, there’s still– no one ever forgives, I don’t believe, the people or the movement, or the individuals who stole children, brutalized children, brutalized communities. That forgiveness is not– that’s not gonna happen. There’s always going to be the– you can’t kill everyone who has lost somebody, and you can’t kill everyone who’s killed somebody.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
That’s true.

AARON BROWN:
So, how does this end? How does this end well? Or, because what you just said, I think, you know, I’m not sure you meant it quite this way. But it’s what I heard. Is that every time this kid leaves that school, that protected environment, he lives in fear. And he lives in fear with good reason.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
I believe so. In the documentary, the young boy says, “Well, you know, the first few days, you’re well received. And then, later, it becomes very difficult. People are pointing you out that you did that.”

When the ritual before the performance of the Acholi traditional ritual of forgiveness, as he was waiting, he whispered that he was very nervous. And the woman asked him, “Why are you nervous?” He said, “I’m so scared of people. For the first time, I’m going to see them. And they are going to see me.” So I suppose this is something that we do not have one single solution to the problem. Because it’s far too complex.

As I said earlier, you’re dealing with a majority that are victims that became perpetrators of violence. So, there’s really not going to be one single solution.

It would have to be a hybrid of some level of justice. Somewhere could truth and reconciliation be a remedy in this situation. Could taking two or three to civil court be a solution, so that victims feel justice has been served. Some of the former rebels themselves were telling me, “You know, we go out to rent little huts in the community. But you conceal your identity. Because if anybody knows, you’re the prime suspect if anything goes wrong. And then, you have victims talking, saying, “Well, they’re here back alive, but others, we’ve never seen their bodies. Or so-and-so is killed.” So, it’s a community that’s been greatly scarred.

But what is required, as I said earlier, is being very proactive in talking to the people to find solutions to this problem.

AARON BROWN:
The sad truth is, these are the sort of resentments that live on for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
That’s true. That’s true.

AARON BROWN:
This is not somehow unique to Uganda, or Africa. You can see it in Eastern Europe between Serbs and others. You see in the Middle East. I mean, and someone says, “Well, where did this begin?” You say, “Well, this began 1,000 years ago.” And 1,000 years from now–

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Right. Yeah, it is. It’s very complex. It will take time to reconcile the community. Like I always say, that, you know, when the same people have killed one another, and you’re trying to reconcile them, and try to say, you know, live together and start loving one another. It’s not as easy as two people in different countries have killed one another, or have hurt one another.

Because later, they don’t have to deal with one another directly. But these are people who will have to cohabit. Somehow find a way of living with one another. So, it will have to be a process. And you’re right to say it will take years to heal.

AARON BROWN:
You’ve been at this a long time. In some ways, it occurs to me that you didn’t so much seek it out as it sought you out. Somehow, you became this person. How are you changed by it? How are you different because of it? Are you a more optimistic soul, less optimistic? How is Betty different?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Betty’s hopeful. She sees a real future that the war is over. But at the same time, I know very well that it doesn’t just happen like that. There’s lots of challenges ahead of us. Reconstruction. Putting up schools. I’m now more active in educating– that it is so important to address some of the underlying causes of the conflict in Uganda. Take this opportunity to reconcile the people. First of all, the Acholi community, the laboring districts that have been hurt. And nationally. We need to look back at the time that Idi Amin came into power.

Can this be resolved? I’m a strong activist for sustainable peace. That it took long to go this far. It took a lot of pains. But definitely, there are dividends. So, one most always deal with these complex situations with hope. Because at the end of the day, after trying and trying, and a lot of times falling down, that it is important not to give up. And I think my spirit is just never give up.

AARON BROWN:
Why does he go after child soldiers? Why not adults?

BETTY BIGOMBE:
You know, first of all, you need to understand that the problem of child soldiers is not only Uganda. It’s not only Joseph Kony. With Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sri Lanka, Columbia, and many other places. I think, first of all, these warlords find it easy to transform the mind of a child. Children walk very fast. And now there are all these weapons that are very light. You know, you train them. You train them to use it. They’re reckless. They, you know, they go. They do exactly what they’re told to do. It’s very easy to manipulate them. So, warlords more and more are going after child soldiers for this– they act as spies. They go and find information. They’re sent, in the case that I’ve seen them, they climb up trees to see where the so-called enemy is. They carry heavy luggage. So, they find them useful. If you took somebody at me, at my age, I’m not going to walk fast. I’m not going to walk fast. You know, it would be difficult to change me from what I am today.

So, more and more painfully, and I think it really is a very serious problem. That warlords are using child soldiers more in the DRC/Congo. But the recent indictment of one of the warlords by the International Criminal Court from DRC– Mr. Lubanga was then indicted. And he’s sitting in the Hague. It’s a very positive step. Because I look at that as a deterrent in future for warlords not to abduct and use children in wars.

AARON BROWN:
You know what I think part of it is? I don’t know. I can’t prove this. There’s two parts. One is that children want to be loved.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Absolutely.

AARON BROWN:
And, in a weird way, they’re not that picky about who loves them. They want to be loved.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Absolutely.

AARON BROWN:
And the second thing is that children are children. And so, climbing the tree and spying in a child’s mind can be a game. It’s not as horrific as sometimes as we see it. This ability to rationalize. And adults know that about children and take advantage of that in children. And, I mean, no one ever should pretend that these people haven’t taken horrible advantage.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Of course.

AARON BROWN:
I’m grateful for your time, and your honesty with us. Thank you so much for joining us on Wide Angle.

BETTY BIGOMBE:
Well, thank you very much for having me. And I think this is a great job to bring the story out to the American people. On the one hand, I want to express my gratitude that you’re doing what you’re doing. Thank you.

AARON BROWN:
Thank you.

  • Willie Matthews

    this was and still is a very interesting story i could not wait to get to my pc to learn more thank u so very very much.willie matthews.

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