Rebel Kinship and Love within the Lord’s Resistance Army

Sam Dubal

Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, USA


The forced conscription of soldiers and forced marriages within rebel ranks are among the crimes against humanity that the International Criminal Court (ICC) and others have charged against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Based on thirteen months of ethnographic fieldwork with former LRA rebels, this article examines rebel kinship, or the forms of meaningful social life that were formed through forced conscription and forced marriage. Focusing on a forced marriage between two rebels and a sense of militant kinship fostered within the LRA, I show how rebels live and lived beyond the moral boundaries of the static social-philosophical construct known as ‘humanity’. I argue that reading violence and its consequences through the moral paradigm of humanity – in which violence necessarily dissolves rather than forges social life – precludes a genuine understanding of profound forms of life that emerge in its aftermath.

In the eyes of most of the humanitarian West – including the International Criminal Court (ICC) – many LRA practices constituted crimes against humanity. Among the charges of crimes against humanity that the ICC levelled at LRA commanders are forced conscription of soldiers and forced marriages within the rebel ranks. Characterised as absolutely inhuman, these acts are thought to constitute a seriously violent evil beyond the pale of humanity.

Although many of these acts were indeed violent, this did not imply that meaningful and valued relationships did not form in the aftermath of these so-called crimes. Simply understanding (and dismissing) these crimes as ‘against humanity’ fails to appreciate the dynamic breadth of rebel kinship that flourished in and through the violence of the war – forms of meaningful and often non-violent social life that were lived beyond the moral limits prescribed by the social-philosophical construct known as ‘humanity’. This article explores the forms of social connection forged rather than dissolved through violence, shifting who related to each other and how in unexpected ways. In doing so, it attempts to open new moral spaces beyond the boundaries of the good that the amorphous concept of ‘humanity’ delimits.

It begins with the story of Amito, a woman forcibly abducted and married into the LRA who unpredictably develops close ties to her husband and his family, creating love out of violence. It then examines the forms of militant kinship that formed out of forced conscription, a kinship that sometimes coalesced into a sense that the LRA had itself become a clan.

The material upon which this work draws stems primarily from thirteen uninterrupted months of ethnographic research undertaken in and around Acholiland in northern Uganda, from July 2012 to August 2013, following a shorter spell of research from June to August 2009. I spent most of this time learning from networks of former LRA rebels through a variety of research methods, including participant observation and semi-structured interviews. These networks included men and women who had spent varying amounts of time as or with the rebels, ranging from a few days to over two decades, and with varying ranks, ranging from no rank up to high-ranking commanders. Taken together as a group, these rebels had participated in almost all phases of the war, from the beginning and up until the present. Rather than refer to them as ‘respondents’ or ‘informants’ or ‘interlocutors’ throughout this piece, I name them as ‘friends’, because this more accurately describes how I see them. All names appearing here are pseudonyms. >> View Full Article (PDF)