GAMBELLA, ETHIOPIA —
Military leaders hunting elusive warlord Joseph Kony say that they've weakened his infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the transnational terror group made up of thousands of abducted and enslaved child soldiers.
But top commanders within the African Union (AU) regional task force authorized to stop LRA say that unless member nations provide more support, it may take years before the rebels are defeated and their captives freed.
“We’ve been reducing their strength by killing some of them and capturing some of them to the level of killing No. 2 in the hierarchy of their leadership and so many other top commanders," said Brigadier General Sam Kavuma, a former task force commander who now heads the Ugandan People's Defense Forces contingent to AMISOM. "Some of the top commanders also have defected.”
Founded in 2011, the task force – made up of troops from Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR) – has bases in all four countries.
Although air support is provided by the United States, and some training is provided by Africom, the United States Africa Command, no U.S. forces are directly involved in missions.
While task force countries initially pledged a total of 5,000 troops – 2,000 from Uganda and 1,000 from each remaining country – political unrest and violent conflict throughout the region has prevented countries from maintaining their commitments.
"As we speak, Uganda is at 1,500 — we were at 2,000, but with other commitments we keep going up and down," said Colonel Mike Kabagno, commander of CAR's Uganda contingent.
"Central Africa: Nil. When [former President Francoise] Bozize was overthrown, everyone fizzled out. DRC: 100 to 500; it keeps going up and down," he said. "South Sudan the same thing: they have problems; the figure is now 100 to 200.”
Because AU officials authorized but never mandated the task force, it has no centralized financial support and instead relies on piecemeal funding from contributing nations.
According to Kavuma, battling constantly roving LRA fighters is a massive and complex undertaking that requires reliable, dedicated funding.
“We need the mobility, we need to care for our troops for morale purposes, and [provide] other things that make a force operational," he said.
Kavuma saod that manpower shortages — the original projected force of 5,000 now operates at about 2,000 — makes it difficult to patrol some 240,000 square miles across three countries.
After being forced out of Uganda about eight years ago, the rebels began operating in South Sudan.
An October report jointly issued by the U.S.-based Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative and Invisible Children said Kony, the group's leader, is currently operating in Kafia Kingi, a mineral-rich enclave along the border dividing Sudan from neighboring South Sudan.
It is also believed LRA fighters have split into five main groups that operate primarily in CAR and DRC, both of which offer a wealth of natural resources and dense jungle canopy ideal for long-term sanctuary.
According to the U.S.-based NGOs, Kony's remarkable ability to defy an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for human rights abuses, despite "evading some of the finest troops within the Ugandan and US military," is coming into question.
"His ability to continue doing so will depend on his ability to adapt to internal and external threats," their report states. "He will likely continue to marginalize older commanders within the LRA whose allegiance is in question, replacing them with more loyal younger officers who were abducted as children and earned his trust by serving as his bodyguards."
The U.S.-based Military Times recently reported a spike in defections as the result of a U.S.-military messaging campaign by air and radio.
"Since January 2012, there have been more than 240 confirmed defections of Kony’s army," said the October report. "More than 80 of those occurred in July through September."
The Joint Intelligence Operations Center in Dungu, DRC, collects and analyzes data from captured LRA operatives, defectors and former captives. It says the rebel group's status has been changed from that of an active combat guerrilla group to one that is constantly on the run and just trying to survive.
The intelligence group, which operates as part of the task force, also says the militants released dozens of women and children in August and September, another possible indication of the group's diminished vitality.
But according to the intelligence group's acting coordinator, Captain Louis Charles, eliminating Kony may not eradicate the threat.
“If Kony is captured or killed, I think that some soldiers, some fighters will surrender," he said. "But the groups, some who were born in the forest, they will remain in the forest.”
Despite LRA's apparent dissipation, it retains an estimated 400 fighters who — funded by the illicit trade in ivory — move freely across scarcely populated frontiers not easily accessed by an under-resourced, non-mandated multinational task force.
Infamous for razing villages and abducting and indoctrinating youth as sex slaves and child soldiers, the LRA has killed and displaced thousands in its decades-long campaign to overthrow the Ugandan government.
Civilians who've survived the terror say its guerrillas instill a trauma that never quite recedes.
In the eastern reaches of the Central African Republic, residents of Obo, a town nestled between the borders of South Sudan and DRC, are no strangers to the violence. The town is home not only to those previously displaced by LRA attacks, but those who were themselves abducted.
Mbolifougaini Sidoin, 16, was kidnapped and forced to spend four years cooking for Kony himself.
“I was living in fear when we were with Kony," she said via translator. "He was killing most of the people they had abducted, and whenever we would go to villages I would see the many killings, and I was always afraid I would be killed as well.”
Even those lucky enough to escape aren't likely to return to the life they knew. At one children’s welfare center in Nzara, South Sudan, for instance, some 39 LRA victims receive support and therapy while representatives from an associated nonprofit organization attempt to trace their families.
The reunions are just the first step in a reintegration process that can be painful for victims and their home communities.
The LRA] initiates victims "by training them in their language, instilling violence to kill themselves or a member of their family," says Justin Ebere, director of child welfare for South Sudan's ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare.
In some cases, abducted victims are forced to kill a blood relation or neighbor, a tactic that traumatizes abductees and estranges them from their own community.
"They detach themselves from the community from where they are coming and attach themselves to the LRA," says Ebere.
Kony's LRA fighters used to operate freely in the gold-rich town of Nzako, CAR, where life has returned to normal under the protection of Ugandan troops who arrived in the wake of political upheaval that saw the ouster of former President Francois Bozize.
“The LRA has been weakened now, but in case we go away, I can assure you, Joseph Kony would be an a position to abduct, to train and replenish, and again he would go back to disorganizing everybody and we’d be back at square zero,” says Major Robert Kamara of the Uganda People's Defense Forces.
“If the Ugandan Army would leave, the situation is going to be very bad because they will come back for us, those of us who escaped,” says Gee Rogers, a former LRA abductee who describes a deadly game of cat-and-mouse that has come to define the task force mission to stop the LRA.
While the AU-authorized forces deftly removed LRA fighters from the villages they used to terrorize, the guerrillas remain at large beneath the surrounding jungle canopy, possibly poised to strike the moment task force troops depart.
Marthe van der Wolf is a Dutch-Ethiopian journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and has been covering the African Union since 2012. In November she embedded with the African Union-authorized regional task force for travels through Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan.