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By: Scott Johnson
Posted: April 16th, 2012
Maj. Richard Kidega threaded his way through a thicket of sweet black trees and thorny underbrush when suddenly he drew to a halt. A young Ugandan soldier in front had raised a clenched fist: the sign to stop. With their AK-47s raised, Kidega and his men silently scanned the jungle for any signs of the enemy, such as fresh tracks or trampled brush. Hanging vines clogged the path. Dry leaves masked deep holes. The gully was an attractive place for an ambush. “It’s places just like this where the LRA likes to hide,” Kidega whispered, as the hunt for Joseph Kony, rebel leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, slowly moved ahead.
This inhospitable swath of jungle in the Central African Republic is ground zero in the search for Kony’s LRA. On any given day, Ugandan soldiers, aided by U.S. special forces, comb through the forests, looking for one of the most elusive war criminals in history, a man who has kidnapped thousands of children, turning boys into hardened killers and girls into sex slaves. It is estimated that the LRA has killed upwards of 70,000 civilians, kidnapped some 40,000 children, and displaced hundreds of thousands of people in four countries.
The movement, which has now descended into butchery, rape, and even cannibalism, began in 1986 as a popular insurrection against Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Initially many in northern Uganda supported the rebellion against Museveni, whose army ruthlessly persecuted the Acholi people in the north. Eventually, however, the warlord’s insurgency lost steam, and Kony turned on his own people, accusing them of sinning against God. As punishment, Kony and his commanders have cut off the lips, noses, and ears of victims; he has forced abducted children to murder their own families to ensure loyalty; and he has killed those who disobeyed orders.
The hunt for Kony, known as Operation Lightning Thunder, now takes place across four countries and involves several thousand troops, at least 100 of them American. The warlord got international attention after a 30-minute video on him produced by the American NGO Invisible Children became a viral YouTube phenomenon last month, drawing more than 87.5 million views. It sparked outrage—and renewed pledges to bring Kony to justice. Later this month, the African Union will bring another 5,000 troops from the armies of South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Congo to help the Ugandans in their hunt, now in its 25th year.
Should he be captured alive, he is likely to face charges at the International Criminal Court. In 2005 the ICC indicted him and two senior LRA commanders on charges of crimes against humanity. Three years later, on Christmas Day 2008, Kony led his troops on a vengeful rampage in Congo’s Garamba National Park, clubbing and hacking dozens of civilians to death and burning their villages to the ground. He’s been virtually invisible ever since. And sometimes the hunt for Kony feels like the hunt for a ghost. Nonetheless, Col. Joseph Balikuddembe, the bright-eyed commander of Operation Lightning Thunder, is determined to catch his prey. “He can always hide, but he can’t disappear completely. He’ll have his turn. His days are numbered,” he told me earlier this month when I traveled with his troops for a part of the manhunt.
Kony rose to prominence at a time when dozens of Ugandan militia groups were vying for power and influence in the early days of Museveni’s regime. One of the most popular rebels was a woman named Alice Lakwena, the leader of the Holy Spirit Movement. Lakwena claimed to channel the spirit world and convinced thousands of followers that they were immune to bullets. Museveni eventually sidelined Lakwena, sending her into exile. But Kony took up her mantle, donning women’s robes and leading an army of devoted holy warriors into the bush. Kony was raised as a quiet boy; he didn’t like to fight, and his father was a catechist in the church. But by 1987, his army of followers dwarfed the other militias. A quarter of a century later, with all pretense of authenticity destroyed, Kony has made a career of besmirching the Ten Commandments by which he claims to rule.