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Joseph Kony has been called Africa’s most wanted man, and for good reason: Over the past 27 years, he has led a rebel militia of child soldiers that is responsible for the death of more than 100,000 people and the kidnapping of some 50,000 young boys and girls.
From 1986 to 2006, Kony savaged northern Uganda, terrorizing defenseless villages. But after losing clandestine support from Sudan and refuge in neighboring South Sudan, he took his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and began peace talks with the Ugandan government.
When the talks fell apart in late 2008, the Ugandan army attacked Kony’s camp in the DRC’s Garamba National Park, scattering his forces throughout the geographical heart of Africa, a remote and lawless land of humid jungles and sprawling savannahs where several of the world’s weakest countries -- the Central African Republic (CAR), the DRC, South Sudan, and Sudan -- meet. Kony's men have been rampaging through the region ever since.
A small African Union force recently joined the Ugandan army, which has been pursuing Kony for decades. Yet he has always managed to elude capture by sticking to a relatively simple strategy: He divides his militia into independent bands that are constantly on the move and uses decidedly low-tech communication techniques (sending messages with runners, for example) to remain in contact with them.
Late last year, CAR’s transitional president, Michel Djotodia, reported that Kony was ill and his depleted forces were ready to surrender. Djotodia said that he had communicated with elements of Kony’s army and had sent them sacks of food. But such claims mean little. Kony is many things -- a megalomaniac, a self-proclaimed prophet, a savior of his ethnic Acholi people, a witch doctor, a spiritual medium, and a ruthless and paranoid commander who demands complete obedience from his subservient followers. But above all, he is a survivor.
I began tracking Kony in 2005, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague indicted him and his top commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The court charged Kony alone with 33 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity -- including enslavement, rape, murder, directing an attack against a civilian population, and the forced enlistment of children.
I met Kony’s victims and former child soldiers, his army’s so-called child brides, his former commanders, his wives, and the mothers of some of his 100 or more children. I spent hours with Kony’s negotiators and monitored the twists and turns of two years of failed peace talks. In the wake of what was perhaps Kony’s most vicious and senseless rampage in 2009, I traveled to the remote recesses of northern DRC. What emerged was a portrait of a man who operates far beyond the psychological parameters within which most people function.
Kony comes from a family of mystics. This curious fact originally drew me to his home village of Odek in northern Uganda. There, I learned that following the death of his older, witch-doctor brother, Kony took over the practice and developed a reputation as a powerful healer.
Kony moved on quickly, becoming, in 1985, a spiritual guide and leader of a small band of rebels resisting the Ugandan government of Yoweri Museveni, who, in 1986, wrestled control away from the country’s northern tribes, including Kony’s ethnic Acholi people. His family was no stranger to the war. His cousin, the notorious medium Alice Lakwena, led her own army, the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces, whose fighters were known for smearing themselves with shea butter and chanting as they marched into battle in unsuccessful rebellion. Abhorring any secondary role, Kony refused to join his cousin.
After Lakwena’s defeat at the hands of Ugandan government forces in 1987, Kony collected the remnants of her army and began conscripting adults and children for a rebel force to continue the fight against Museveni. He killed, kidnapped, or mutilated those who refused to join or help his army.
For the next two decades, Kony struggled to defeat Museveni’s government, which Kony vowed he would replace with one based on the Ten Commandments -- a mind-boggling claim to make as his men killed, raped, and plundered their way through the countryside.
Perhaps the best insight into the workings of Kony’s mind came during a long afternoon I spent in Gulu, Uganda, with three of his former key commanders. One of them was Jackson Acama, an elementary school teacher whom Kony kidnapped in 1987. Over the course of 17 years in the LRA, Acama rose to become one of Kony’s most trusted advisers. Along the way, he lost most of his right leg. It was amputated by doctors in Khartoum, Sudan, where the ruling regime has long provided Kony with all kinds of support.
According to Acama, Kony considers himself a modern-day prophet in the mold of Old Testament oracles. “Joseph Kony does what God tells him to do,” he told me. Yet Kony’s own Acholi people, whom he claimed to be liberating, paid dearly for their proximity to him. Over the course of two decades in Uganda, Kony became increasingly desperate for support and supplies; he burned Acholi villages and killed thousands of civilians whom he suspected were cooperating with the Ugandan army. Some he mutilated only to warn of the consequences of betraying him. After bearing the brunt of Kony’s paranoid brutality and enduring years of internment in refugee camps across northern Uganda, the Acholi came to loathe Kony. Most attempted to avoid joining his forces by fleeing his fighters.
Furious at his rejection, Kony continued to raid Acholi refugee camps for food, supplies, and weapons, kidnapping young boys and girls to fill the depleted ranks of his army due to a high desertion rate. When the interred Acholi refused to give up their children, Kony sometimes punished them by ordering the children to carry out their parents’ execution. His aim was to permanently break the ties binding the children to their families.
Kony’s delusions of divine providence only drove his brutality further. “When a generation rejects a prophet, then any crime committed against them is not a crime,” Acama said. “Those who commit the worst atrocities are the closest to God. The killing is not even a crime.” Such twisted logic may have worked for the psychologically damaged and alienated children abducted for Kony’s army, many of whom believed he had supernatural powers. To outsiders, it was sheer madness.
Eventually, Kony was forced out of Uganda and into peace talks, but he came to the table only after extracting broad concessions. From 2006 to 2008, the international community provided his army -- estimated at the time to be about 1,000 people (including women and children) -- with money, food, and supplies. Without that, Kony threatened to return to Uganda and continue to maraud.
The greatest obstacle to a peace settlement was Kony’s fear of going on trial before the ICC. He believed that any trial -- in The Hague or elsewhere -- would be a pretense for his execution, despite the fact that the ICC does not use capital punishment. Kony’s fear led to the eventual collapse of peace talks in 2008. Although many observers hoped that the beginning of peace talks would signal the end of Uganda’s decades-long civil war, Kony’s deep distrust of anyone outside his inner circle made real negotiations virtually impossible.
Kony’s supporters argued that he was a victim of double standards. Uganda had collaborated with The Hague, they said, to create a litany of trumped-up charges against Kony and his commanders but did not acknowledge its own abuses of the Acholi people. “The indictments by the ICC [are] not a complete reflection of the situation in northern Uganda,” Kony’s spokesman said at the peace talks. “The government of Uganda is responsible for a lot of suffering. More atrocities were committed by the army than [by] the LRA ever since 1986.” The ICC has investigated such allegations, including long-standing accusations of looting, rape, torture, and extrajudicial killings. To date, however, the court has not filed any charges.
Yet Kony continues to portray himself as a victim. In his last reported public appearance at a South Sudan jungle camp in August 2006, he told a contingent of Acholi elders that he was simply misunderstood. “I am not a wizard who talks to spirits. I am a normal human being,” he said. “It was not me who started this war. I just offered help to those who were oppressed . . . I am not a monster with a tail and huge eyes.”
After Kony’s third and final rejection of a peace deal in November 2008, the Ugandan army moved on his camp as part of a mission that U.S. Special Forces had plotted and funded. But Kony and his men had already fled the scene, sparking outrage and rumors that someone had tipped Kony off.
Since then, the LRA has been on the run. Although his army is no longer fighting in Uganda, Kony certainly remains convinced of his own invincibility and confident in his well-honed survival instincts. Those instincts can be seen in his reliance on tried-and-true tactics: He has dispersed his forces into independent units and endured long periods of silence. And by laying low for months at a time, Kony is trying to take advantage of the international community’s short attention span, hoping that it will eventually lose interest in hunting him.
Kony’s fear of arrest and trial in The Hague persists. He and his men have lived in the wild for decades and know no other life. It is unrealistic to think that they would surrender to the Ugandan government without major concessions, including guarantees of freedom from arrest. That conviction was unmistakable in Acama’s voice when he spoke of Kony. “Kony will never give up until people accept him as a prophet, or he is killed,” he said.
“Do you think Kony is a prophet?” I asked.
“Yes,” Acama said without flinching. And Kony’s fighters do, too, he assured me, making the likelihood of their surrender slim as well. Rumors of the demise of Kony’s forces have circulated time and again but have never proven true. This time is no different. Until a properly trained and equipped force is sent after Kony -- not the current half-hearted effort by the African Union -- he will continue to kill, plunder, and rape as he has for nearly three decades. In the absence of any concerted international effort to kill or capture Kony, he most likely will end his days as he has lived them: as Africa’s most wanted man.