Patrick Chengo remembers waking as a hand tore him from bed. Rebels roped together 10 boys from his tiny village, marching them into the black June night. Clenching his jaw, Chengo, the eldest at 14, refused to cry, hoping to calm the other boys; the youngest, just six, had wet himself from fear. Whips drove the boys far from home, deep into the northern Ugandan forest, where they eventually crossed the Nile into the Democratic Republic of Congo. So began Chengo’s nightmare—six years as a child soldier for Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.
Chengo managed to escape 18 months ago, but freedom has proved bittersweet. His parents didn’t live to see his return. He can no longer read nor do even basic math. His village believes he is a murderer. Chengo, who is haunted by the horrors of the forest, wants Kony captured and tried for what he did to him and tens of thousands of other children. So, apparently, does Barack Obama. In a surprise announcement last fall, President Obama declared the U.S. government was sending combat-ready troops to aid in the hunt for, and fight against, Kony, one of the planet’s most reviled war criminals, and the LRA’s senior leadership.
In the beginning, the LRA was allied with northern Uganda’s Acholi people; it formed in the late ’80s in opposition to the Yoweri Museveni government, which it hoped to replace with one led by northerners, who had ruled Uganda after independence. Political aims, however, were subsumed by Kony’s pseudo-religious imperative: the Christian sociopath claims the Holy Spirit has commanded him to keep killing until Uganda is ruled by the Ten Commandments.
Since being driven from Uganda in the ’90s, Kony has taken his horror show on the road. His ultra-violent guerrillas have terrorized villagers in the Central African Republic, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, razing villages, enslaving boys as soldiers, often reserving girls for another purpose.
On one of her first nights as an LRA captive a decade ago, Grace Aracha, who was then 12, slight and mischievous, was raped with a pistol held to her head. Vincent Otti, Kony’s second-in-command, already had eight child brides; that night, Aracha, who cried and bled until dawn, became the ugly old rebel’s ninth wife. Cursed by beauty, she was later passed around the rebel leadership.
At first, Aracha—who’d been kidnapped on her way to visit her grandmother in Pawel, in northern Uganda—just wanted to survive, she told Maclean’s. Later, wanting praise, and to be obedient, she became a fearless LRA soldier and a good shot. Children, because they are easily intimidated, pliant and eager to please, make perfect recruits, Kony learned early; Acholi volunteers quickly dried up, and adult captives proved inflexible and unwilling to bend to his doctrine. Estimates suggest 80 per cent of Kony’s troops were children.
By taking them far from home, the LRA limited opportunities for escape, says Christopher Blattman, a Yale University political scientist and expert on the LRA’s use of child soldiers. “The first day’s march would deliberately backtrack and move in circles,” he adds, “to disorient.” Children, who were shot when they refused to march, were quickly engulfed by violence. Aracha, who once took a bullet in the breast, remembers a river running red with blood after a battle at Lamogi-Amuru left 2,000 dead.
In Uganda alone, the LRA imprisoned over 65,000 children and created one of the world’s biggest displaced populations, well over two million people. There, the LRA was known for hacking off limbs and cutting off lips and ears to instill fear. Today, in the country’s north, its victims, too poor for prostheses, hobble around on makeshift crutches.
Grim as it all is, it’s hard to find an American stake in the fight against the LRA. Kony could go on killing for another two decades, and destabilize the entire region without any discernible impact on U.S. interests. Some analysts suggest the deployment—one of Washington’s biggest in Africa since 1993’s Somalia imbroglio, which cost 18 U.S. lives—was Kampala’s reward for counterterrorism efforts against al-Shabab in East Africa or, less convincingly, that Uganda’s recent discovery of oil motivated the push. The operation does, however, feel like more evidence of an emerging Obama doctrine that shies away from big, showy, open-ended military commitments like Afghanistan or Iraq, prioritizing missions with narrow goals to take out bad men, like the surgical strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, even Mexico.
But even JetRanger helicopters and American intel may not be enough. Kony operates in an area the size of France, stretching from Sudan to northern Congo—that is, some of the least-governed parts of the world’s weakest states, notes Central Africa expert Laura Seay, an assistant professor at Morehouse College. Much of it has no infrastructure, no roads, no landing strips. Kony, a brilliant tactician, “knows the terrain better than anyone,” says Seay. He is surrounded by scouts—“what amounts to an early-warning system,” she adds. And capturing Kony, who prefers a bodyguard of 13-year-olds, since he doesn’t trust anyone older, probably means going through a wall of formerly abducted children, Blattman notes.
The smaller and more threatened the LRA feels, the more desperately and ferociously it fights. By mid-2011, attacks had jumped almost 40 per cent over 2010. Starting on Christmas Day three years ago, the LRA beat to death more than 800 people, abducting hundreds more, mostly children, in the borderlands straddling northeast Congo—retaliation for the launch of a joint African military assault on the LRA led by Uganda. Since then, the LRA, with its back against the wall, has been able to kill more than 2,000 civilians, abduct over 3,000 and force over 440,000 to flee.
Still, Kony’s force has been reduced to fewer than 1,000 fighters and support staff—down from 5,000 in 2003. Insurgents, since their access to Sudanese AK-47s dried up, have resorted to Paleolithic weaponry, including logs wielded like bats, reportedly ditching satellite phones for human runners, to avoid detection. They operate, meanwhile, among a population which, far from welcoming and safeguarding them, openly despises them.
In any event, fealty and a good hiding spot are hardly safeguards, even for powerful men, as the killings, in the last year alone, of Islamist terrorists Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi highlight. And an American bullseye still counts for a lot.