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Matthew Green

In Kony's Shadow

The Night Wanderers: Uganda's Children and the Lord's Resistance Army
By Wojciech Jagielski (Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
(Old Street 305pp 9.99)

Joseph Kony could never have imagined it. Once an obscure warlord traipsing through the central African bush, he has been catapulted onto the leaderboard of global villains. Schoolchildren have been riveted by an internet video of his atrocities released by Invisible Children, a group of American activists. Their film has garnered more than 89 million hits on YouTube since March. Some viewers rallied behind their Kony2012 campaign to call for the Ugandan rebel's arrest by the year's end. Overnight, Kony has become the world's favourite bogeyman.

It is fortuitous then that the English translation of The Night Wanderers by Wojciech Jagielski, a veteran Polish journalist, has arrived at just the moment when ever larger numbers of people are curious to learn more about Kony, his child soldiers, and the conflict they spawned.

Anyone hoping for an adrenaline-fuelled war-zone romp will be disappointed. Rather, Jagielski succeeds exquisitely in capturing the haunted atmosphere of Acholi-land, the swathe of Uganda north of the White Nile that Kony still considers his home. The cast of characters - some of whom are composites of people Jagielski met - feel like authentic, whole human beings. (Refreshingly, he does not quote a single foreign aid worker in the entire 305-page book.)

In the manner of his late compatriot, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Jagielski likes to take his time getting to know a place without any preordained plan. Many correspondents, including me, have met the people he describes: the boys and girls living at a centre for escaped child soldiers; army officers lounging by the pool at the Acholi Inn; Spanish missionaries steeped in local lore. Yet few writers have managed to muster the level of patience and empathy that suffuses Jagielski's account. Nor have they matched him in conjuring Acholi-land's sense of place: its angry storms, sweeping savannah, and rivers where spiteful water ghosts will drown even the most hardened guerrillas if they cross without removing their boots.

The narrative hinges on Jagielski's friendship with Nora, an attractive Ugandan woman who works with returned abductees, and Samuel, one of her charges. Nora is a complex character: like Jagielski, she is an outsider, hailing from another part of Uganda, and at pains to insist she will one day escape the city of Gulu's claustrophobic grip. Flirtatious and serious, scolding and caring, she guards a secret.

Samuel refuses to speak of the pain he has both endured and been forced to inflict until Jagielski starts to win his trust. The confession begins: he killed for the first time when the rebels forced him and other recruits to club to death another abductee as punishment for sobbing. The commanders told the newly blooded children: 'Rejoice, because now you've become soldiers in the Lord's Army.'

Such encounters build gradually, making the flashes of horror all the more stark. Jagielski is not here to fillet his interviewees for atrocity porn, but at the same time he manages to convey the appalling suffering caused by the war. There are glimpses, too, of Kony's terrifying, schizophrenic personality - the mild-mannered man who loves to indulge his own children, but who can order a massacre in a heartbeat.

With Uganda in election season, Jagielski makes a trip to Kampala, the languid capital, where the torment in the north seems like a half-forgotten daydream. He traces the tortured cycles of bloodshed and revenge that once turned the country into a byword for anarchy, and gave birth to Kony's now faded rebellion. In Kampala's transcendence of past torment, he sees a universal message of redemption.

The history is well told, but Jagielski is at his most compelling when narrating the story of the spirits, the unseen actors whose presence haunts Acholi-land and rules its people's fate. We learn how soldiers who fought in Uganda's civil wars went mad, driven to suicide by the restless shades of the unburied dead. One man, Jackson, tells how his father returned half-crazed from the killing fields and hung himself from a mango tree. His sons were terrified an evil spirit would latch onto them next if they touched the body. They dug a pit and bribed an old woman with two jugs of kwete beer to clamber up and cut the rope. The corpse tumbled, but its legs jutted out of the hole. Jackson had to push them down with a pole before the grave could be filled.

Christine, another of the abductees' carers, explains that the nested circles of family, tribe and nation that would normally anchor individual morality have been broken. It is not the children who committed crimes that need to seek forgiveness, but the adults who allowed their world to capsize. 'None of these children started killing of their own free will,' Christine says. 'What they need most now is to be released from a sense of guilt.'

The Night Wanderers is not an action movie in waiting. It is a lyrical tale told from the heart of a man who knows when to set aside the journalistic impulse to explain and instead content himself with reflecting a reality that few outsiders can truly comprehend. Therein lies his wonderful work's greatest strength.

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Matthew Green's book on Joseph Kony, The Wizard of The Nile: The Hunt for Africa's Most Wanted, was published by Portobello in 2008. An e-book version is now available.

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