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When President Obama last October made a surprise deployment of about 100 elite American Special Forces to remove Joseph Kony and his commanders from the battle field; a countdown on the LRA chief’s days began in earnest. Nearly half a year later, the mystical rebel leader continues to outsmart his hi-tech trackers with elementary techniques, surviving another day to yet unleash terror. Our Senior Reporter Tabu Butagira was among international journalists flown to Obo, a remote and densely-forested outpost in southeastern Central African Republic, by the US government. Below he gives a report card of the Special Forces’ limited engagement in the counter-LRA effort and the incongruity of regional partners pursuing Kony, wanted by the International Criminal Court since 2005, pointing in different directions for his likely hiding place, dimming the prospect of his elimination. The Navy SEALS may have taken Osama bin Laden out of action a year ago, but admit Kony is no amateur in the wilderness.
No one knows Joseph Kony’s precise whereabouts. Could he be alive or dead? How would it be known if he perished, or was clawed by wild animals, in the dense jungles of Central African Republic?
Neither the coterie of regional armies pursuing him, nor the US Special Forces complementing that effort, can tell the last time a word was heard directly from Kony, the commander of the ruthless Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group, they want to capture or kill.
Much of the intelligence about the fugitives is gathered from human sources, mostly hunters and freed abductees, according to the US Special Forces.
The Green Berets and Navy SEALS established forward operational bases in Obo, CAR; and three other places, including in South Sudan and DR Congo, in December 2011, two months after President Barack Obama ordered their deployment.
They quickly encountered unanticipated problems. For instance, the surrounding copious vegetation absorbs electronic signals and sounds, restricting the troops’ ability to deploy hi-tech gadgets to trail the outlaws, according to Navy SEAL Gregory, 29, the ground commander of the US Special Forces.
“All the different nuances that we hadn’t imagined before we arrived here are now starting to rear their heads, he told journalists in Obo. “It’s been a learning curve to adapt to that.”
On the other hand, Kony and his commanders are reported to have frozen use of high frequency radios and satellite telephones, making it harder to intercept their communication. Instead, the rebels bank on runners to deliver messages, and pre-arranged and often shifting rendezvous to sketch their operations.
The rough terrain and dearth of motorable road network means mobility and logistical resupply for regional army squads hunting down the LRA is compromised. After the partially successful Operation Lightning Thunder (OLT) ended more than three years ago - the Ugandan military conducted the assault on Garamba base with US-supplied intelligence the rebels have adopted a tactic of scattering into diminutive clusters of 10-15 fighters, to evade detection.
Finding them has proved testing. Crocodiles in Vovodo River crushed one UPDF soldier tracking Kony, and injured another, said Col. Joseph Balikuddembe. He commands Ugandan troops numbering at least 4, 000 in different locations in CAR, South Sudan and the DR Congo.
These troops are to be re-hatted to form the 5, 000-strong African Union regional task force under Col. Dick Olum’s command. Whereas UPDF Spokesperson Col. Felix Kulayigye said Kony has sought sanctuary in a part of Barh el Ghazel region controlled by Sudan Armed Forces and was receiving arms, uniforms and ammunition from Khartoum, Col. Balikuddembe said they believe top LRA commanders, including Kony himself, hibernate within CAR in Djema area, some 120 kilometres northwest of Obo town. Sudan has denied allegations it resumed help to the rebels.
“He (Kony) is still alive,” Col. Balikuddembe said, “We think he is within CAR based on the reports we get from those rescued (captives).” There is however no evidence that each of the freed former abductees was close or in personal contact with Kony while in the bush, or that their accounts to UPDF constitute authentic tales.
UN Peace Mission in Congo (MONUSCO)’s Mathew Brubacher told a US-organised April 26 briefing on the counter-LRA efforts in Entebbe, that a wife to Maj. Olanya, a brother to Kony, whom they repatriated from Yambio (in South Sudan) to Faradje (in DRC) the day before, said that Kony was in Darfur region.
“She probably would not know where Kony is; he is moving around,” Mr Brubacher said in a masked disclaimer. Drawing from experience as a company commander in northern Uganda, Col. Kulayigye had said given opportunity, LRA rebels can trek more than 40 kilometres through the thickets in a day.
This means that when information about their sighting finally filters through a week after to the Joint Intelligence Operations Centre (JIOC) in Obo, where it is analysed for action by US Special Forces, UPDF and CAR forces, the rebels would have already marched hundreds of kilometres away. Yet not every rough character slinging an AK-47 riffle in the jungle is LRA. “We have to try to determine what’s LRA, or is it one of these (other) groups; Ambororo, Janjaweed and Huda,” said Gregory.
Such is the speculation, and confusion, that it is difficult to trust anybody’s word on the whereabouts of Kony or any of his top lieutenants.
Worse, the area where Kony is believed to be hiding also harbours other equally brutal armed gangs from Darfur, Cameroon and Chad. These include the Janjaweed (hunters), Ambororo (nomadic herdsmen) and local poachers who have carved themselves sanctuaries in the forested, expansive hinterland. Each is a rival group, and commit crimes under the guise of LRA, according to some residents. Navy SEAL Gregory, of Texas, likened the jumbled information to being “muddied in the waters a little bit”.
The US Special Forces troops under his command, he said, do not venture into the bushes to physically chase the LRA who have spread terror among Obo residents since a brutal assault a couple of years ago.
Five of 76 natives the rebels kidnapped during that raid remain unaccounted for, according to Mr Richardo Rimmashi, himself a victim who managed to escape during crossfire between the rebels and regional militaries. He now hosts a programme on local Radio Zereda (Peace) FM, sensitising the community on welcoming home, and not shunning or stigmatising returnees, to ease their re-integration.
The radio programme also aims to persuade those still in captivity to contrive ways to escape from custody and the broadcaster issues regular alerts on suspected LRA movements in the area so people keep safe from them. Obo is a rural prefecture of grass-thatched huts, and isolated houses roofed with rusty iron sheets. The main road is jagged dirt stretch, and on either side spring clusters of the mud-and-wattle buildings.
Some of the buildings have roofs caving in and stray dogs can be sighted roaming, including at the bumpy landing strip. The township has an estimated population of 14, 000 plus 4000-5, 000 internally displaced persons, the mayor Joseph Kpioyessirani said.
The locals feel safer with a base of Ugandan military and the American Special Forces in their midst, believing LRA will not dare attack with such fortification.
“The partners,” said Mr Kpioyessirani, “are happy working together to annihilate the LRA.”
So will Kony be captured or killed? The Americans and regional partners hope so, but would not commit on a timeline. The UPDF has been on his chase for 25 years, mostly in northern Uganda, until his weakened fighters fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo in August 2005.
In December 2008, Kinshasa authorised the Ugandan army’s raid on the rebels’ lair in Garamba parkland, an attack Kony and his co-indicted top commanders survived.
Sunday Adye, a woman who says she was one of Kony’s 20 wives in camp Kiswahili at the time of the OLT opening strike, told Saturday Monitor on April 28 that they, together with Kony, ran directly in the direction of the attacking jets “and that is how we survived”.
We want our plight addressed-war victims
Her story is that Kony is a “nice” man, and his field commanders and others commit heinous crimes in his name; to smudge his reputation. “I want the war to end, but it should end peacefully,” she said at Gulu Support the Children Organisation (GUSCO) centre.
For Acholi sub-region, the former epicentre of the ruinous rebellion, eliminating Kony from the battlefield does not count if government is unable to address the plight of the war victims, particularly the generation born in IDP camps that have become adults without life skills or livelihood.
“In all these efforts to capture Kony, what do we have for these young people?” asked Ms Betty Bigombe, now Uganda’s state minister for Water. In 1993 and again in 2004, she brokered peace talks with Kony, but failed to get his signature.
The LRA leaders again failed on several occasions to ink a Government of South Sudan-mediated truce pact, telling his confidants he never trusted his own negotiation team because they became “money-minded”.
The UN reports that ongoing prosecution of former LRA operations commander, Thomas Kwoyelo, is being used by the rebel commanders to dissuade fighters from defecting or surrendering, warning they could suffer a similar fate!
Minister Bigombe’s fear, which perhaps captures the trepidation of Acholi people, is that a Kony at large is as dangerous and will keep them restless unless, and until, he is either killed or captured.
If that happened, his dead body will have to be on a public show, otherwise many who believe he has mystical powers will not trust he is dead – and that makes the manner of Kony’s endgame crucial.
The rebels abducted Michael Mugaga in 1998, and reportedly made him one of Kony’s many fierce guards. Now a market master in Bobi, a former IDP camp of 3, 575, south of Gulu town, he thinks killing or capturing the rebel chief is mission impossible.
“The man is operating using a spirit,” he said, pointing to a dent on his side from a bullet that to this day remains lodged in his lower abdomen.
There are many victims of the LRA war like him carrying bullets in their skull or other body parts, and without means to undergo a surgery procedure to remove them. Other LRA commanders may be seized, according to Mr Mugaga, but not Kony. It’s not clear if he’s just brainwashed.
The UPDF has been pursuing the elusive fugitive for 25 years, and the closest they got to him was seizing what they say was his Kaunda suit. Ms Bigombe said she last had a telephone conversation with Kony in November, 2008, and he told her then that: “I will one day die like [former German leader Adolf] Hitler; no one will know the circumstances or where my body is.”
He could as well just vanish in the dense jungles, the minister suggested. Because of these uncertainties, the US Special Forces and UPDF commanders are keeping to their chest the game plans to eliminate the LRA commanders, if they ever will.
“Joseph Kony is not stupid to survive this long [in the bushes], said Navy Capt. Ken Wright, the US overall commander on Counter-LRA Effort. “We are very careful about not giving them any ammunition to stay in the jungle a day longer.”
There is concern as to the LRA’s continued source of financing, armament and logistical supply. Until that supply chain is broken, including how he receives classified intelligence information, capturing or killing him could elude his pursuers in mysterious ways like Kony’s survival.
UPDF Spokesman Kulayigye, citing information extracted from ex-abductees, pointed an accusing finger at Gen. Omar’s Bashir’s government only for his boss, Chief of Defence Forces Aronda Nyakairima, to say on April 30 that there is insufficient evidence – at least for now - to incriminate Khartoum.
World’s most expensive war?
The push to have LRA commander, Joseph Kony, captured gained currency particularly among American youngesters after a slick, 30-minute ‘Kony 2012’ video made by Invisible Children went viral on YouTube.
Apart from embodying recycled material from its previous video titled, Rough Cut, critics argued that Invisible Children misrepresented the facts about the LRA insurgency, as if it was still active in northern Uganda, and portrayed Africans as people incompetent of solving their own problems without foreign intervention.
President Obama may have earlier deployed about 100 commandos of the elite US Special Forces, but their preference to keep in isolation at four ‘Forward Operating Bases’ in CAR, DRC and South Sudan – without venturing on Kony’s trail in the bushes – has raised questions about the possibility of ever grabbing the most-wanted warlord.
Worse, Kinshasa is report edly distrustful of the Ugandan military that invaded eastern DRC in late 1990s, and whose commanders, the World Court would find guilty of pillaging its natural resources. The ghosts of the theft caused friction between Congolese forces and their UPDF counterparts around DRC election time, until an obstinate Congolese commander in Ddungu, who opposed the presence of the Ugandan military in the area, was withdrawn. Kinshasa has reportedly shielded a battalion of its soldiers American troops specially trained for the counter-LRA efforts! On the other hand, CAR has limited military capability while an imminent all-out war with Khartoum means SPLA will focus on different priorities, and not LRA hunt.
With no one in the know of the whereabouts of the indicted rebel commanders, all, for now, appears a blind chase in the wilderness whose tangible benefits include jobs and allowances for thousands in the military, media, service sector and diplomatic world. The conditions of present regional soldiers in the squads hunting the outlaws on foot in the expansive jungles, home to wild animals and crocodiles, remains perilous.
Military analysts estimate LRA to be 200-strong, and the African Union plans to deploy 5, 000 troops to annihilate them.
This theoretically means there will be 25 soldiers chasing just one rebel fighter, making this counter-LRA effort one of the world’s most expensive– perhaps even wasteful – military undertaking.
Story by Tabu Butagira