Uganda's Gruesome 'General of God' US Advisers Raise Hopes in Hunt for Rebel Warlord
His troops murder, rape and force children to become killers. For decades, rebel leader Joseph Kony has savagely terrorized the jungles of Central Africa and evaded all his would-be captors. Many are hoping that bringing 100 US military advisers into the fight will finally end it.
He's like a phantom. Of course, thousands have seen him, tens of thousands have died because of him, and hundreds of thousands have suffered thanks to him and his supporters. But the people on his trail haven't been able to catch him.
The man is 49-year-old Joseph Kony, the self-appointed general of God, guerrilla fighter and mass murderer. For more than two decades, he and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have terrorized people living in an area of roughly 100,000 square kilometers (40,000 square miles) of jungle in Uganda, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan.
At times, his forces have included several thousand armed men, women and children, though they have reportedly now dwindled to only several hundred. On his behalf, they have murdered, robbed, plundered and raped. Uganda has sent out elite soldiers to hunt him down. In 2005, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of committing crimes against humanity. But no one has succeeded in capturing him.
In October, US President Barack Obama announced that he was sending US forces to join in the hunt for Kony. The roughly 100 military advisers will reportedly be stationed in Uganda, where they will help prepare the missions of elite troops hoping to finally get hold of the murderous rogue. However, American officials in Kampala, Uganda's capital, currently decline to provide any detailed information on the mission.
The Roots of Kony's Terror
In 1986, Kony and his followers retreated into the jungle after Uganda's President for a brief time, Tito Okello, from Kony's Acholi tribe in the country's north, was driven from power by Yoweri Museveni, the country's current ruler, causing the Acholi to fear losing their influence and rights. Since then, Kony has called himself a "mouthpiece of God." At first, he assembled a radical group of people that primarily directed its recruiting efforts toward children and youths. His supporters revere him as something of a messiah with prophetic powers. His ideology has always been crude, and he has never had a well-defined political platform. His only motto has been: "We fight for God's Ten Commandments."
Over the years, Kony's army has grown larger and more brutal. Children have been abducted and their parents murdered. LRA members regularly execute those who try to run away.
Kony is believed to have recruited over 100,000 children over the years, primarily by force. He turns them into soldiers who murder, rape and pillage. A while back, Florence Ameny, a former member of the LRA, described what it meant to be kidnapped by Kony's forces. "I was 13 when I was kidnapped," she said. "That was 1992. All the girls were raped. I was eventually married to a 50-year-old fighter." Long marches were commonplace, she says, and the children were forced to carry heavy loads, which caused many of them to collapse from exhaustion. Raids and fighting were part of everyday life, as were the frequent executions of fellow fighters. The children were systematically taught to have no pity, sympathy or other feelings. Florence was also a soldier. And she also killed the defenseless, including women and children.
Florence says that anybody caught trying to escape was killed. Some were burned to death, others drowned, others hacked to pieces. Kony has never known any mercy. After 12 years, Florence finally succeeded in escaping with her three children and reaching a refugee camp in northern Uganda.
Having failed to capture Kony with various special operations, the Ugandan government tried to play nice for a while. Government negotiators tried to get him to give up, going so far as to guarantee him safe passage, despite the ICC's demands for extradition. But after the talks broke down in 2008, Kony retreated back into the jungle, where he has continued the killing ever since.
Evading His Pursuers
On several occasions, Kony has narrowly escaped capture. Last October, officials thought that they had detected him in Ndjema, in the Central African Republic. But when they struck, they only found a basin of water and a towel that had just been abandoned. Kony had vanished.
Before that, in late 2008, Ugandan forces almost captured him in Garamba National Park, in Congo's remote northeastern corner. More than a dozen US military advisers had come to Uganda and provided native forces with support in the form of night-vision goggles, fuel and satellite telephones. After pursuers led by President Museveni's son Muhoozi Kainerugaba had pinpointed Kony's location using satellite images, Ugandan helicopters dropped bombs on the camp. What they didn't know, however, was that he had already abandoned it. Ugandan soldiers who reached the camp days later said they liberated 100 children. Otherwise, their only spoils were cookware, three rifles, a wig and a guitar. Kony took his revenge some days later by raiding several villages not far from the park.
These kinds stories feed the myth of the general's invulnerability. Even Florence Ameny believes he has magical powers. "He told everyone outright whether they would die, flee or rise in the LRA hierarchy. It was always correct."
But the truth is much more commonplace. Kony is clever. And careful. For example, to avoid detection, he has banned the use of satellite phones around him.
Beefing Up the Hunt
Kony has also benefited from the fact that Uganda, the DRC, the CAR and Sudan have never teamed up to try to capture him. On the contrary, the Sudanese government in Khartoum supplied him with weapons and vehicles for a long time because it was upset that Uganda harbored sympathies for the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the rebel force in the south. Over the years, Ugandan troops have also been active in the CAR and what is now South Sudan. But they haven't been in the DRC, which has not allowed Ugandan troops to chase after Kony on its territory after they reportedly plundered some of its local natural resources.
In the meantime, the African Union (AU) has also announced plans to put together a force and coordinate Kony's pursuit. Until this force is ready to act -- which can often take a long time with AU forces -- the Americans want to get back in the act. And this time they mean business. US officials have already held talks with their counterparts in the CAR, the DRC and South Sudan. They don't want to be prevented from crossing the borders that Kony has crossed so freely.
Though they have only just arrived, the advisers have already been training Ugandan units on how to prepare air-dropped packages meant to help better organize the resupply system on the front. They have observed Ugandan troop operations in the western part of South Sudan and the southern part of the CAR. They have also helped by providing satellite imagery, though it has been of only limited use in some cases owing to the dense forest cover. Lastly, plans call for the local population to play a significant role in helping track Kony down.
Experts predict that the capture of the self-proclaimed general is already drawing near. In November 2011, the International Crisis Group, which has focused on the LRA and its leader for some time now, wrote a report in which in questioned whether the LRA was approaching its "end game." Likewise, Gen. Margaret Woodward, the commander of US Air Force operations in Africa , told the Ugandan newspaper Daily Monitor in mid-December that Ugandan military forces "are going to win here in a short time, and it is not going to be that long before they are victorious in the war and the LRA will no longer be a problem."