For more than two decades, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has spread terror from its original stronghold in northern Uganda, murdering and raping its way across central Africa. In October, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered a 100-strong U.S. military contingent deployed to provide intelligence and technical assistance to help Uganda and its neighbors finally stop the LRA. Ivan Broadhead joined up with the Ugandan army this month to see how the hunt for the LRA and its leader, Joseph Kony, is progressing.
The 31st Battalion of the Ugandan Army has just been dropped at its forward operating position in the forests of Central Africa. These men are here to hunt for the LRA. To avoid detection and enemy gunfire, our helicopter flew just 50 meters above the forest canopy that extends for hundreds of square kilometers around us. Hiding in these forests are LRA insurgents, and of course, their leader, Joseph Kony, wanted by the International Criminal Court since 2005 for crimes against humanity.”
For security reasons, our exact location cannot be revealed. However, the Ugandan army, or UPDF, has been crisscrossing the forests of the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan in its search for Kony - a self-declared prophet who has said he is on a mission to purify Uganda by overthrowing the government and setting up a theocracy based on mix of Christian and local ideals.
Those ideals have not been evident in one of Africa’s most brutal conflicts, in which the LRA has kidnapped thousands of children to use as soldiers and sex slaves and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Colonel Joseph Balikuddembe is the UPDF field commander. In the last three years, his men have rescued 469 children abducted by the LRA. He describes what he is up against.
“Whenever engaged, they tend to split into smaller groups of 10, 15, even five. But we are able to engage them before they completely disappear. The UPDF is not good news for Kony. They are continuing to be depleted by our operations,” he said.
The current strength of the LRA has been whittled down to an estimated several hundred devoted and elusive fighters. U.S. military technical assistance is expected to aid with satellite imagery to help locate LRA units deep in the bush.
Such intelligence would certainly be valuable, as I discovered on patrol with Balikuddembe’s men at an undisclosed location in the Central African Republic. Within minutes it was all too apparent how impenetrable these forests are - and what a haven they represent to the LRA.
This is thick, thick foliage. I’m absolutely soaking wet. I’ve lost the soldiers. Where are they? They’re five yards ahead of you and you wouldn’t know they are there. These guys are laden down with kit but the speed they move through the forest is remarkable. It really does give you a sense of what the Ugandan army has taken on in terms of a commitment. They are in another country’s forests. They have fine equipment, but not advanced like American and NATO equipment. But what they do have is incredibly skilled soldiers who, just watching them, my goodness, they know the bush.
Some observers question the timing of the current U.S. intervention in the LRA conflict, ascribing the initiative to either electioneering by President Obama, or U.S. interest in Uganda’s recent discovery of oil.
But most people in central Africa just want the LRA nightmare to end. Jolly Okot Andruvle is national director of Invisible Children, an aid group that supports LRA victims, and is herself a former child abductee - the victim of years of abuse by LRA commanders.
"As someone who grew up in this war as a child-soldier, I really appreciate the initiative of the U.S. Government to send troops. There are many civilian lives that are still in danger,” she said.
For child soldiers, the nightmare may never end. Richard Komakech Abwola is 20 years old now. But in 2006, when he was just 15, he was part of an LRA attack on Guatemalan U.N. peacekeepers in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Abwola describes his fear during the attack, how he and a dozen other children were ordered by their commanders to rush the Guatemalans' machine guns and kill the peacekeepers. Much later, Abwola says he fled the LRA for a life of peace. But, having been kidnapped when he was 11, he says he has little hope of ever learning a trade, and cannot remember what his mother and father look like.”
Although the arrival of U.S. military advisers has sparked hopes that an endgame to the LRA conflict might be in sight, it is a salutary reminder that the LRA has faced a multi-national coalition in the past.
After a joint military operation undertaken in 2008 by Uganda, the DRC and Sudan, the LRA emerged weakened but undefeated. Joseph Kony went on to mete out its revenge, bringing violence and death to yet more innocent communities across central Africa.