Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Strange warriors

There was strange news from battlefields around the world last fortnight.

In Najaf, Iraq, a band of a few hundred fighters under the banner of Jund al-samaa (Soldiers of Heaven) besieged Iraqi army and police units. Fighting fiercely, the Jund threatened to wipe out the Iraqi forces, but were finally pushed back by US air power, suffering 200-300 dead and around the same number captured. Among the band were included women and children, and some of the fighters were seen to be wearing colourful, flowing robes. The Jund has been described as a "fanatical, apocalyptic cult" who carried out this attack with the hope of hastening the return of the Mahdi.

This account instantly reminded me of one of the most memorable pieces of fiction I have read. The War of the End of The World (
La Guerra del Fin del Mundo) by Mario Vargas Llosa is a religious/political/military epic in which a prophet ("the Counselor") gathers a fanatical following of a motley bunch of people most of whom are from the fringe of society - prostitutes, beggars, lepers and social misfits. With his following growing by the day as he travels across the countryside, the prophet decides to create an utopian colony with his followers as its citizens. When the group settles itself on a large piece of public land to establish the colony, it gets into the colonial government's hair which sends out soldiers to drive out the squatters. The settlers have no weapons to speak of, but powered by the faith of their own invincibility (as claimed by the Counselor), they miraculously succeed time and again in wiping out the small squads that the government keeps sending out to tackle them. Finally, a huge army lays a siege on the camp and crushes it, eliminating nearly every single member of the cult. The story is loosely based on a prophet who lived in Brazil in the 19th century.

Closer to today, and equally strange, is the story of the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group which operates in Uganda/Sudan. Last week, the Economist carried an obituary to Alice Auma, a spirit channeler in Uganda, who was possessed by the spirit of Lakwena, an Italian soldier who drowned to his death in the Nile. It was 1986 and a civil war raged in Uganda, so Alice and Lakwena, who already had a huge spiritual following, joined the fray with the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF). The HSMF soldiers were barred from sporting arms since they were supposedly immortalized and purified by Alice's black magic. "T
he army marched into battle, singing Catholic hymns and with their bare torsos smothered in shea-nut oil, [thinking] the bullets of the enemy would bounce right off them". It sometimes worked, when opposing soldiers dropped their weapons and ran away when faced with a hymn-singing adversary. But eventually, like the Counselor's army, Alice's army was blown to pieces by artillery near Kampala and Alice had to flee. The remnant of the army was organized into the Lord's Resistance Army, which remains a thorn in the Ugandan authorities' side even today.

There was also odd and sad news from Kashmir. Farooq Ahmed Gudoo, an assistant sub-inspector in the J&K police, confessed to killing over two dozen innocent civilian and framing the murders as "shootouts with foreign guerrillas". Here is the odd part- those killed were given a proper burial, with the headstones describing them as foreign fighters. For instance, Abdul Rehman Paddar, a Kashmiri killed by Gudoo and falsely described as an L-e-T commander, rests under a gravestone which says "Abu Hafiz of Multan"....

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