A difficult new work of nonfiction graphic journalism chronicles human rights atrocities in Central Africa.
Army of God: Joseph Kony's War in Central AfricaPublisher: Public Affairs Books
Length: 144 pages
Author: David Axe
Publication Date: 2013-03-12
After a six-week trip to the Congo in 2010, reporter David Axe developed a long magazine article that would eventually serve as a script for Army of God: Joseph Kony's War in Central Africa, a work of nonfiction graphic journalism. Illustrated by Brooklyn, New York-based comics artist Tim Hamilton, Army of God tells the story of the Lord's Resistance Army rebel group, a morally corrupt militia that has moved into northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo and has terrorized the people of the region after having been chased out of Uganda by the Ugandan army in 2005. The LRA is governed by a fundamentalist Christian named Joseph Kony, whose principles don't resemble any known brand of Christianity. Thousands have been killed at the hands of Kony's army, a pack of violent thugs and rapists, the number of which has been estimated to top out at 600.
"They exist to survive," said David Axe, speaking at a recent event for the book held at New York City's Hunter College. "And their means of survival are the worst possible things you can imagine."
In the late '80s, Joseph Kony and his band of rebels attempted to overthrow the Ugandan government in order to install a theocracy that would draw on his fundamentalist ideology. Born to a Catholic father and an Anglican mother in northern Uganda, Kony has long claimed that his actions and those of the LRA are at the behest of a divine power, and that the LRA is guided by the Ten Commandments. Kony's initial grievances against the Ugandan government had popular support, as he was campaigning against the abuses dealt to the people of Uganda's northern region. The effort morphed rapidly, birthing a savage armed group that used abduction, mutilation, terror, pillaging, rape -- particularly of children -- and more to "recruit" fighters, who would be brainwashed into victimizing others. Axe writes that by 2011, the Lord's Resistance Army had abducted at least 50,000 people, while an Al Jazeera profile of the group puts the number of people displaced due to LRA activity at over 380,000.
A 1997 report issued by Human Rights Watch is built of letters from students and interviews with Ugandan children who were terrorized by the LRA. Compared to most of the passages, the least harrowing pieces of the dialogues are where thirteen year-old respondents recount being beaten with bicycle chains and being clubbed. The report lays bare the LRA's horrific methods at the core of Kony's mission:
"Despite the constant looting of stores and homes, the rebels often have only limited food supplies, and new captives receive little to eat. The children are frequently beaten for little or no reason […] Weak with hunger, sore from constant beatings, and limping on infected feet, many of the children have trouble keeping up with the group. But children who cannot keep up are killed, and those children who try to escape face brutal repercussions: the rebels force other new captives to help beat or stab to death unsuccessful escapees. For those children who survive, taking part in the murder of other captives forms a gruesome initiation into the ways of the Lord's Resistance Army."
Wading through Army of God's reported account of things like these is exceedingly difficult. In its complete, collected form (the Dutch comics journalism collective Cartoon Movement hosted it originally), David Axe and Tim Hamilton's story makes for a slim book. But as the subject manner is ceaselessly dreadful, its page count is deceptive -- Axe's telling, in the introductory essay as well as in the comics portion, is uncompromising, and Army of God calls for a commitment on behalf of the reader.
The primary "recruiting tool" for Joseph Kony's army is rape (a crime not limited to the Congo's rebel groups; Oxfam International in 2009 pointed to the rape of thousands of women and girls at the hands of both Congolese government forces and armed rebels). Incidents of sexualized violence are prominent in Axe's reporting, and although Hamilton's visuals don't expressly depict rape, absorbing the images that suggest as much is harrowing. Axe utilizes some of the space in his book to tell the story of a 13-year-old girl he calls "Patricia" whose father was killed by the Lord's Resistance Army. Fighters took Patricia and her brother back to their camp. Her brother was enslaved, and Patricia, "given away" in a mock "marriage", was raped repeatedly and was ordered to kill a villager. She refused and was punished. Axe writes in Army of God that Patricia and her brother were rescued and were treated by an Italian aid group, but when former LRA recruits re-enter society, they're carrying a social stigma for having been raped. They're also marginalized by townspeople who fear that Joseph Kony's former recruits are murderers at heart. The book's fifth chapter has Patricia in a classroom again, with the other schoolchildren condemning her as an "LRA bride".
"Rape is a weapon in the Congo," Axe said at the Hunter College event. "Rape is an attempt to destroy the fabric of a community. The sexual stigma attached to rape breaks up the fiber that's binding the Congolese community. The community becomes vulnerable, and a vulnerable community cannot fight back."
Tim Hamilton's page composition for Patricia's narrative is drafted as if drawn from several camera angles, with bird's eye shots, rich close-ups, and dense long shots set in patches of thick tree trunks and the surrounding jungle's bushy, blacked-out perimeter. Small packs of trembling children huddle in the neighboring brush. The look of horror on each adolescent face is distinctively heart-wrenching, their cleanly defined features owing to Hamilton's thin brushwork. There are darkened tents and silhouetted fighters, each carrying machine guns or machetes. Hamilton often worked with silhouettes for the hallucinatory sequences in his Eisner-nominated adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Blackening a good portion of panels in Fahrenheit countered the book's otherwise flashy color palette, drawing attention to the artist's stylish blend of abstractions and buttoned-up realism. Army of God's silhouettes and shadowing, on the other hand, keep the blunt nightmare in focus while offering Hamilton an opportunity to exercise tactful restraint in the account's more disturbing depictions.
At the Hunter College panel, the somewhat reserved Army of God artist reflected on drafting contributions to pair with Axe's reporting. The initial photo research, rooted in library archives and in images that Axe brought back from the Congo, obviously proved unpleasant. "Unlike David," he explained, "I didn't go to the Congo. I live in Brooklyn, where I did all of my work." Hamilton said that his typical freelance assignments involve illustrating children's magazines. Slides of his thumbnail sketches for Army of God were projected on a screen while a frank discussion of the book's subject matter ensued. He paused, shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and spoke quietly. "This book was not fun to work on," he said.