The rebel leader, Jospeh Kony and his men, who have been fighting President Museveni’s government since 1987, has remained dodgy, even with the intervention of the US with modern technology to capture him. Sunday Monitor’s Risdel Kasasira was in Central African Republic recently and brings you what the UPDF go through in the hunt for the rebels and why Kony still remains elusive.
Many people wonder why Joseph Kony, the leader of Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, has not been captured or killed even with deployment of American sophisticated technical intelligence to hunt him down.
He has been fighting Uganda Peoples Defence Forces since 1987 and the hunt has gone as far as 2000kms outside Uganda.
Four armies; UPDF, SPLA of South Sudan, FARC from Central African Republic, and the Congolese FARDC under African Union authorised Regional Task Force (RTF) are all hunting this warlord in the thick and vast jungles of Central African Republic (CAR) and he still remains elusive.
The question of when, where and how can Kony can be captured is hard to answer even by those actively involved in the hunt.
“I cannot tell you when because fighting is not like a wedding where you set a date to know the time of church, printing cards and others. But all our efforts are focusing on capturing or killing him,” says Brig Sam Kavuma, the RTF Commander.
In fact, foot soldiers feel happy when they meet and fight the enemy because exchange of fire brings life into this wild goose chase.
“The problem is not fighting him but where and how to find him,” says Pte James Musiime under 88 UPDF fighting squad in Kawusa in east CAR.
Life like LRA’s
Unkempt, ragged but burly, Pte Musiime says they now behave and live like LRA for them to keep up with the seemingly un-ending LRA hunt.
Like LRA, they don’t shave, it rains on them, walk long distances and cross crocodile-infested rivers and swamps using ropes. Some of his colleagues have either been killed or injured by these reptiles.
Each soldier carries their food, bullets, 10 littre – jerrycan to fetch water, saucepan, a pouch of bullets, beddings and of course, a loaded gun. Life is inherently unhealthy, with various small insects and scorpions that inflict stings which are painful but not fatal.
These fighting squads are flown hundreds of kilometres on Mi-17 helicopters and dropped in the middle of these jungles where they spend months hunting the enemy.
The planes only come back to drop supplies and go back.
Without roads, the area is inaccessible to vehicles and so makes supply and transport difficult, which in turn leaves them with the only option of air transport.
The American government pays for jet fuel and the planes.
The jungles are vast and span 1,300km from UPDF’s rear base in Nzara, South Sudan to Mbii in the east CAR.
An aerial view of these jungles may give an impression of short shrubs but these are large and tall trees whose branches have spread and locked together to form canopies.
Underneath these forests, there are thorny and climbing plants that make walking a horrendous experience. Soldiers have to use machetes to cut this meandering and thorny vegetation to create path.
In August last year, a soldier got lost as he went to fetch water from a nearby river. He walked 170kms for a month to reach a UPDF base in Zemio, about 500km, east of Obo, the tactical headquarter.
“He spent a month lost without food and he was eating leaves and plants. By the time he luckily found one of our bases, he was so, so tired and hungry. He was almost dropping dead. Interestingly, he was still carrying his gun,” says one of the soldiers.
He fought armed groups in the jungles and luckily they didn’t kill him. But he later died when he was sent home on leave. “He could have died of infections he got during that month he spent lost in the jungles,” the soldier says.
Some of these armed groups like the Janjaweed and Seleka have been hostile to UPDF.
“They see us and our American partners as ‘visitors’ who will leave anytime and feel more comfortable with LRA, whom they see as friends because they live the same life style. They are trading with LRA. They give LRA guns in exchange of ivory and minerals,” says UPDF intelligence office in CAR.
With such hostile groups to UPDF, empty and vast land, LRA finds a safe haven in CAR and DRC.
In these un inhabited lands, there is completely no state control and the only semblance of authority that exists in this area is UPDF, a foreign force which they have also asked to build them roads, hospitals and schools.
With this environment, getting intelligence about LRA becomes hard because these armed groups are not willing to reveal the whereabouts of LRA and instead leak information to LRA on UPDF activities.
People in this area still live as hunters and gatherers. They don’t farm despite having extremely fertile lands. They eat game meat and wild food, but surprisingly speak French, a sign that they could have gone to school, which is an extremely rare social service in these areas.
Some have never eaten salt and use salty plants to cook and use salty plants as a substitute. Armed nomadic pastoral communities wander from Sudan, down to South Sudan, CAR and DR Congo looking for water and pasture.
Despite this rough terrain, UPDF continues to vigorously hunt for the rebels and this pressure has forced LRA to split into several highly mobile groups operating with a significant degree of autonomy in the CAR and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“They split into six groups and they are primarily in survival mode. They are trying so hard to conceal their activities,” Col Michael Kabango, the commander of Ugandan troops in CAR, says.
To conceal their activities, they have reduced attacking civilians, looting and kidnapping because if they do, UPDF would know their whereabouts.
The first group, according to Col Kabango, is under Kony who is believed to be hiding in the disputed enclave of Kafia King with an estimated 50 fighters.
But the Government of the Sudan indicates that there are no LRA elements in the enclave, on the border between the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Sudan.
The second group of about 40 fighters is under Johnson Okello Palutaka and has not been violent. Col Kabango says they were in touch with Seleka, requesting for negotiations with CAR.
Dominic Ongwen, who was along with other four LRA commanders indicted by International Criminal Court in 2005, is said to have broken off from the LRA and is now seen as a renegade.
His group, according to UPDF commanders, is in Rafayi and continues to commit atrocities. Ongwen and Kony are the only two living out of five LRA commanders indicted by the ICC.
The other three indicted commanders; Vicente Otti, Okot Odhiambo and Raska Lakwiya have died.
The fourth group is commanded by Sam Otto Ladeere which works as a courier group of ivory from Garamba in DR Congo while Odoch Gwee commands the fifth one.
Ogwee replaced Odhiambo who was killed last year after sustaining injuries in a battle with UPDF.
The returnees say his three wives have been inherited by other commanders, a conservative cultural practice done when a husband dies. The last group is commanded by Doctor Acaye, mostly composed of the injured fighters.
Some of these groups have already moved into DR Congo where UPDF is not allowed to operate yet Congolese forces have no capacity to engage these rebels, UPDF says.
Currently, MONUSCO peacekeepers would be the only force in DRC that can fight LRA but they rarely risk direct contact with the LRA, instead seek to deter LRA attacks through a presence in key towns and periodic patrols along roads.
They were attacked in 2010 and their base overrun, an attack that was seen a humiliation to the UN forces.
According to a report released by Invisible Children, an advocacy group, highly mobile LRA fighters easily exploit gaps in the mission’s predictable civilian protection tactics and regularly carry out attacks in close proximity to MONUSCO bases in Niangara.
One would hope that with American troops using technology, Kony would easily be monitored but Brig Kavuma says it is hard to monitor because they don’t use phones to communicate.
“If five people are hiding in a thick forest and they are not communicating on phone, where will you find them? It would be human intelligence to help us,” he says, “But this huge country has only four million people living along the roads. Even with technical intelligence, it has been difficult”
The American government recently sent four Ospreys to help in easy mobility of troops in the area but have since left the country because they are used in other parts of Africa including Mali in West Africa.
But for how long will UPDF remain in CAR chasing LRA? Brig Kavuma says unless they kill or capture Kony or weaken LRA to a level where it cannot kill or abduct people, they will not withdraw.
“His fighters are not many now. Currently, out of five ICC indicted commanders, we are talking of only two. If we continue capturing those who are not indicted but have influence, it will be good for us,” he says.
It might take years for UPDF to weaken LRA to that level because among the four armies hunting LRA, it’s only UPDF that’s active on ground and this makes them over-stretched. The DR Congo, CAR and South Sudan have internal conflicts and LRA is not a priority.
New fighting techniques
To maintain pressure, UPDF is now using three-pronged offensive approach. They are combining airpower, infantry and dog section.
Col Kabango calls it a winning a formula. The dogs were donated by Bridgeway Foundation, an American charitable arm of Bridgeway Capital Management, an investment firm with more than $2 billion under management that gives half its after-tax profits to organisations working to end genocide and protect human rights.
Whenever a helicopter attacks the enemy, ground troops and kennel section quickly move close to “engage” the fleeing fighters.
“Dogs help us to identify injured fighters who are hiding near the contact area. This is good because they sometimes hide and we can’t find them. But with dogs, it’s easy to smoke them out,” Col Kabango says.
The dogs are still undergoing training and might soon be sent to the field to complement human effort to end this two-decade insurgence that has left thousands dead and displaced.
Capturing or killing Kony remains high on the UPDF agenda, but it will not come easily because the warlord has mastered the jungle life survival tactics that has made him survive for the last 27 years.