The BBC’s Dan Damon has just been in the Central African Republic and Uganda, travelling with the US Army to report on the hunt for mass child-abductor Joseph Kony. One hundred special-forces soldiers are deployed there to assist armies of four countries still ravaged by the brutal leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Lapido asked Dan about his week-long trip into one of the most remote parts of Africa.
DD: With four other journalists from American news agencies and wire agencies, we began with briefings from the commanders of the US Africa Command, Africom, which is based in Stuttgart, Germany. A long way from Africa, you might think. One reason the headquarters of Africom is there is because no African country has agreed to host it. But there was already a huge US military presence in Germany and the logistics were already there, so it’s not quite so crazy as it appears. The purpose of the briefings was to emphasise how concerned the US is about the level of instability in a wide area of Africa, from Somalia in the East to Mali in the West, through Sudan, north and South, Central African Republic, Chad, Nigeria and Niger. There are scores of rebellions and insurgencies across that region, much of it inspired by militant Islamism. Kony’s brand of millennial madness based on a corrupt reading of the Bible is volatile fuel on that fire.
We then flew to Entebbe in Uganda, our base for the next few days, from which we travelled in single-engined planes to Gulu in Northern Uganda and to Obo, deep in the most remote part of Central African Republic (CAR) on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
DD: Kony moved out of Uganda in 2006. His group is active in that border region of CAR. Maria Wangechi of the medical charity Merlin told me there had been an attack on a community near Obo within the past seven days - so in mid-April. The villagers said it was only a small group of gunmen. But Kony’s reputation and history is so vile that, as Maria told me, ‘a moment of violence means years of fear’ and the villagers flee for the nearest town. They abandon their fields - and that is a very fertile part of Africa and people’s livelihoods mostly depend on the crops they grow and the livestock they keep - and soon become dependent on food aid, which has very bad long-term consequences for the viability of those communities.
DD: The American intelligence, gathered from local armies, from hunters who come across the LRA, and from abductees who escape Kony’s clutches, suggests he now has a maximum of 300 with him. They operate in small groups, under ‘lieutenants’ that Kony trusts - these are said to be the hardcore of Ugandan [former child soldiers] who came with him when he was driven out of Uganda in 2006 - and they use no electronic communications, even though they have satphones and HF radios. They know they are being tracked by the armies of CAR and DRC as well as Uganda’s Peoples Defence Force, UPDF, and they know too that the Americans are involved now. So they use runners and pre-arranged rendezvous points where they leave notes in a kind of crude code. I was told of one example: ‘I’ll meet you at that place where I had toothache.’ These notes have been found, apparently. Simple but effective in evading surveillance, and the US special forces officer I spoke to told me they are not using the legendary American hi-tech surveillance because it’s not effective in that terrain.
DD: This is a very important part of the story, and one which is often left out. The level of fear of Kony remains high, even in places like Gulu in Northern Uganda, where Kony has not been seen for six years. People are afraid that he is getting help from Sudan, because he helps Sudan in its fight with South Sudan. The UPDF told me they have captured an LRA fighter who told them Khartoum had sent new weapons and uniforms to support Kony. ‘He can come back!’ I was told by almost everyone I met in Gulu. People believe he has ghostly powers, which he recharges from a hill near Gulu, so he might come back just for that.
Tatiana Viviane of the CAR support group Jupedec told me the churches are very important in combating that kind of fear because people need to be reassured that they can find a stronger spirit to fight back against Kony’s evil.
DD: It has to be part of the answer for now, in my opinion. Maria Wangechi told me that now the American unit is in Obo, people feel safe enough to go to the fields 25 km from the town, whereas they were only going 5 km before. US coordination of intelligence, and the medical help they can provide the local armies fighting in tough bush terrain - one Ugandan soldier was attacked by a crocodile just before we arrived in CAR - has to be of value.
But in the end, of course, the comfort - you could say ‘exorcism’ - that people there need in order to escape the horrors of Joseph Kony and the LRA will have to come from their own sources of spiritual power: prayer and faith.