This article originally appeared in The Review, a supplement to the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National.
The latest stage in the world's most lopsided counterinsurgency began with what might be called a "Greetings, earthlings" moment. In early 2008, a four-seater aircraft landed on a red dirt runway in Obo, a town in the Central African Republic near the Sudanese and Congolese borders. Obo didn't see many planes at the time - it is one of the world's most disconnected places, no less than a week's travel from the nearest city of any size - so when the plane buzzed the runway and landed, townspeople ran to meet it. Two passengers emerged: Obo's traders recognised the first as a low-level functionary from the Sudanese border outpost at Tumbura, a day's drive away; the other was a much larger figure in full military dress with three stars on his shoulder, his shoes alone worth more than most people in Obo would make in two months.
The officer cleared his throat and addressed the group in English, while the Sudanese man translated into Zande. He said that in the coming months, Obo would be visited by a terrible scourge that his people - the Ugandans - had been fighting for years, a group that called itself tonga-tonga, "the people who cut off lips and ears". The tonga-tonga hailed from northern Uganda, where the military had defeated them after nearly two decades of fighting. Now they were on the move, and their path had led them here. They survived by abducting children, the Ugandan said, and the children of Obo would be next.
The officer was bending the truth a little - the group calls itself the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, not tonga-tonga - but if anything he understated the brutality of the LRA. Formed in 1987, the group is motivated by a complex mix of fundamentalist Christianity and allegiance to the traditions of the Acholi people of northern Uganda. Its leader, General Joseph Kony, aims to dislodge the Ugandan government headed by Yoweri Museveni and replace it with one led by northerners, who enjoyed privileged status during the first 20 years of Uganda's independence. But when Museveni's military drove the LRA out of the nation in 1994, the group initiated a period of brutal wandering. Uganda's northern and western neighbours, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have each taken turns as bases for the rebels, who move in small, ultraviolent gangs that abduct villagers, drug them and force them to work and fight for the insurgency. The LRA prefers to kidnap children, who are taught the Acholi language and raised to revere Kony. (They learn that powerful magic protects Kony from the Ugandan military, and that he can appear and disappear at will.) An American diplomat in Bangui compared the group to the Manson family, but given that the LRA has killed 12,000 people, the comparison is self-evidently unfair to Manson.
Since the LRA moved into the Central African Republic, the Ugandan military's hunt has entered what one might expect to be a decisive phase. The Ugandans are, after all, schooled in LRA tactics, and they enjoy one of the most decisive technological advantages in the annals of contemporary warfare. When I visited the Ugandan base near Obo, a young officer briefed me on the assets the Ugandans have at their disposal in pursuing the rebels: modern telecommunications, armoured vehicles, JetRanger helicopters and, at times, even the assistance of US intelligence and satellite imagery. The LRA, by contrast, no longer has large, permanent bases. Its fighters' weapon of choice is frequently a log of wood - about 150cm long and 10cm in diameter - applied with force to the back of the head. I shuddered when Daba Emmanuel, 32, an ex-fighter, told me he had killed many people with a plank. I asked if the killing was tough work. He said that it wasn't: "In five minutes, they're gone."
As the LRA cuts its swath, it moves farther from its home. One of the fundamental strengths of a successful insurgent is usually his ability to move undetected through a population of people whom he resembles, whose language he speaks and who feel an ethnic kinship with him. Yet the villagers around Obo are not Acholi, and they loathe the LRA. Most have fled the countryside to shelter near the Ugandan military encampment, and they fear for their lives whenever they stray more than three miles in any direction from the town centre. The LRA owns the forest and frequently makes hostages of those who wander beyond the villagers' shanty towns. At the Obo market - where women sell individually wrapped Maggi soup cubes and little heaps of shrivelled okra - cassava, the white tuber that is the staple of the Central African diet, has doubled in price over the last year, because everyone is afraid to go out to the fields and collect it.
So the niggling question is why the Ugandan military has so far failed to snuff the movement out. The LRA has hidden amid alien corn for years now, and because Obo remembers the "tonga-tonga" speech, the rebels can trust no one there. For foreign observers, like the Nato forces trying to wage counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan, the least appetising inference to draw from the LRA's continued survival is that the business of counterinsurgency is even tougher than it looks. Even when the population is on your side, and your enemy reduced to Neolithic weaponry, the fight continues.
I recently convened a meeting of about 20 Central Africans from Ligua, a village a few kilometres outside Obo that has been progressively abandoned since the LRA came to the area. The villagers have retreated to the relative safety of a refugee camp in town. There they live in wooden shanties, using sacks from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as roofing. The ground
is swept and raked, like a Japanese garden, both to keep things tidy and to leave no refuge for vipers. The displaced villagers met me in their open-air Catholic chapel, which consisted of a few wooden pews shaded by palms and acacias and a bamboo altar topped with a withered pink flower.
The first of them to meet an LRA rebel was a man named Paul who had been fishing for Nile perch on the Mbomu River. First he heard the explosions of a Ugandan military aerial bombardment nearby, on the Congolese side of the river. Then LRA fighters, fleeing from the bombers, crossed the river, found him and forced him to march with them into his village with Kalashnikovs and chain guns pointed at his head. The rebels also carried mortars, which the villagers call "papayas" for their shape, in case they met the Ugandans.
The LRA entered Ligua and immediately shot a 30-year old villager named Paul Ipa'ingba in the leg when he looked out his front door. He fell, and the LRA killed him with a bullet to the neck. Minutes later, the LRA fighters produced an interpreter whom they had kidnapped long ago and taught to speak Acholi, and he informed the villagers that they were now all slaves of the LRA. That night, huddled together and locked into one house, a handful of the villagers were made to shell bushel after bushel of peanuts for their captors. The next morning the rebels took food, kidnapped porters from among the villagers, and left as quickly as they came.