Into the jungle on the hunt for Joseph Kony
The Kony 2012 campaign has made Joseph Kony infamous. But for the Ugandan troops hunting him in the jungles of central Africa, finding him remains a mammoth task.
Near River Vovodo, Central African Republic — Sitting alone with his gun and his thoughts, as the sounds of the central African jungle echo around him, Pvt. Michael Feni talks about the man he has been pursuing for over three years across three countries in this remote region.
“If we can finally catch Joseph Kony and end this all then I am going to be so happy,” Private Feni says, taking a swig from an army-issue canteen filled with the brackish water of a tropical stream. “I am sure it will happen one day but the man is a coward and he just keeps on running and running.”
In the shadowy fight against the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, Feni and the 60 other men in 77-Juliet squad are at the forefront.
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They are one of the Ugandan army's several dozen “hunting squads” combing a desolate area of dense jungle and sun-seared rock around twice the size of Maryland in the far eastern tip of the Central African Republic. The challenge of this terrain and the cunning and brutality of their quarry are the key reasons Mr. Kony remains at large, long past the days when his LRA mounted a serious challenge to the Ugandan government.
Since late 2008 – when the Ugandan military bombed the LRA's camps in Democratic Republic of Congo – the rebels have splintered into small groups and spread out, butchering civilians and abducting children as porters and sex slaves along the way.
Indeed, some human rights activists argue that the Ugandan military and other players must do more to protect civilians during anti-LRA operations, precisely because of the LRA's propensity to lash out at civilian populations when they are on the run. Human Rights Watch senior researcher Anneke van Woudenberg said that this month's attacks by the LRA in the Central African Republic show that the LRA is "not a spent force."
Originally from northern Uganda, the LRA's insurgency has been going on for over 25 years but recently it shot spectacularly to public attention.
Last month a video from San Diego-based advocacy group Invisible Children calling for Kony to be arrested became an Internet phenomenon as it was watched by over 100 million people across the globe. Kony, a former altar boy who claims spirits speak to him and has a warrant from the International Criminal Court, has become a figure of infamy.
A triangle of wilderness
Now, though, no one can really be certain where Kony is exactly but the Ugandan army's best guess is that he and his top commanders are hiding out in a triangle of wilderness between two rivers where 77-Juliet is operating.
In order to catch the LRA, the hunting squads have essentially had to become like the LRA – zigzagging on foot hundreds and hundreds of miles and crossing cocodile-infested rivers as they spend months on end living out in the bush.
“This is our home – we carry everything except maybe our family,” Feni says, nodding at his 30-kilo (66-pound) pack.
“But maybe you can say this can also be our family – our first lady,” he smiles, tapping the AK-47 rifle resting across his lap.
Every morning at dawn 77-Juliet pack that night's camp, brew thick, sweet tea, and wait for the nearest base to radio in the coordinates for the day's march.
Guided by the sort of handheld GPS systems favored by weekend hikers, they then set off – marching for up to ten hours a day and covering a dozen miles – constantly in pursuit of the LRA in a bid to deny the rebels space and time to regroup.
The Ugandan army says the strategy is proving a success. With just 120 fighters in the area, they say the LRA has never been weaker and – instead of attacking civilians – survives only by eating wild yams and whatever animals it can catch.
Experts at avoidance
But the LRA are experts in avoidance and in this unforgiving terrain it's been several months since 77-Juliet had any contact with the rebels. Human Rights Watch says the rebels have started attacking civilians again in areas close to where the Ugandans operate. Some splinter groups are known to be attacking civilians in neighbouring Congo – where the Ugandan army cannot operate – and Human Rights Watch says the rebels have started attacking communities again in areas close to where the Ugandans are at work.
Now, though, Uganda has powerful friends on the ground to help – the US army.
In a bid to finally close the gap on the LRA, late last year President Obama deployed 100 special forces to the region.
Many hope that the arrival of US troops will prove a game-changer, but so far their impact is difficult to gauge.
At Uganda's forward bases in the region the handful of US troops are visible but stubbornly silent. They make polite chitchat but refuse to talk about what they're doing. One burly soldier throws his hand up and scuttles away in panic when a journalist asks him for a lighter.
US help: logistics, intel
Joseph Balikudembe, the commander of the Ugandan operation, says the US soldiers are boosting the Ugandan army's logistical and intelligence capabilities.
“They are helping us with hiring helicopters and providing fuel and other advisory roles. It is mainly logistics and intelligence,” he says.
The US is reportedly using a C-12 reconnaisance plane – and US personnel were spotted boarding a similar looking craft in the field – and troops in 77-Juliet said they regularly communicate by radio with flights they thinks are piloted by Americans.
But none of the US troops have visited 77-Juliet out in the bush and for now it's down to the Ugandan army to pusue the LRA on the ground – whatever the risks.
Crocodile attacks claim soldiers
Last week a Ugandan soldier died after he was attacked by a crocodile. It was the second crocodile attack in a matter of months.
Despite the hardship, though, the soldiers remain positive about their chances – especially as the rains will soon be coming here, making the rebels' tracks more easy to follow.
Standing in the morning mist, as he folds his camouflage poncho into his backpack after a night spent camped out under the star-covered central African sky, 2nd Lt. Kasim Lukumbo looks forward to the day's march.
“Maybe today we will be the day when we find them,” Lieutenant Lukumbo said, slipping a clip into his rifle. “We might get lucky. We just might.”