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.
The LRA showed up about half a dozen more times in Ligua. Other villages suffered even more. When people caught on that I was looking for LRA stories, they began hiking up their clothes to show where they had been beaten and shot. Dieudonné Aiba, who was abducted late last year, showed the half-healed wounds to his left thigh - a small dark discolouration at mid-thigh where a bullet entered, and a pale, crusty star of a scar on the other side where it exited. An old woman who spent nearly a week as an LRA hostage in November said she owed her escape to a case of explosive diarrhoea: the LRA's guards let her relieve herself further than usual from the camp, and one day she ran until she found a Ugandan patrol. But they all had tales of murder. The LRA forced them to carry supplies on hiking trips north. One man, Joseph Guinibini, said he saw an unwilling porter complain that he was tired. The LRA caved in his head, telling him, "Now you have your rest."
The Ugandan soldiers in Obo told me they suspected the LRA's core group was north of the town, perhaps around the Central African Republic city of Djemah, and that Kony was trying to migrate toward Darfur to link up with Sudanese forces willing to re-equip him. Some sources report that the LRA has already reached regions of south Darfur controlled by the Khartoum government, which would place the rebels beyond their opponents' reach. So far, the Ugandans' pursuit of the LRA has led them through the Congo and the Central African Republic, both barely-governed nations with porous borders. (In most parts of the world, it would be considerably more complicated for a foreign military to crash through sovereign territories on a hunting expedition.) If Kony has indeed reached Darfur, his pursuers may face new difficulties; Sudan, which exerts greater control over its territories, has in the past been friendly to the LRA, in part as retaliation for Museveni's support for the anti-Khartoum Sudanese People's Liberation Army.
The night after I met the villagers, I went to the Ugandan camp and sat with the brigadier general who runs Ugandan military operations in the Central African Republic and his young intelligence officer, Mark Sserunjogi, a veteran of the war in Somalia in 2007 and recent graduate in War Studies at King's College, London. Having travelled and studied counterinsurgency around the world, Sserunjogi made a smooth spokesman for the Ugandan military. Except for the brief deafening thwack of the JetRanger helicopter that interrupted our chat, the only sound in the night was the low murmur of CNN International on the other side of the tent, and the occasional buzz of an insect flying in. Since Obo has almost no electricity, darkness surrounded us, and it was easy to imagine that the LRA was watching our one pinpoint of light with interest.
The general explained that he approached the LRA not as a movement to be euthanised but as one to be reintegrated into the Ugandan state, if possible. Some of his own fighters, he said, are ex-LRA who know the rebels and can anticipate their tactics or even talk them into a surrender. Instead of killing, the Ugandans rehabilitate the LRA. "They come out, and we take them to Uganda, put them in a psychosocial programme to get them oriented into normal life. Then we set them free," the general said. Of the former LRA members recruited into the Ugandan army, he said: "You find that they make up the strongest corps, because if they are caught they will be killed. They know it."
This rehabilitative approach does have its downside: in trying to win the hearts and minds of the rebels, the Ugandans were losing the confidence of the local population. Some villagers spoke conspiratorially, claiming that the Ugandan military's overtures to its LRA countrymen - its requests for the rebels to turn in their weapons, submit to deprogramming, and return to fight their one-time comrades - were preventing it from using the full force of its firepower to quash the insurgency. "We are confused," said Paul, the fisherman from Ligua. "We go and tell the [Ugandan soldiers] we have seen traces of the rebels, but they don't show up."
Sserunjogi, the intelligence officer, said the villagers often made incorrect reports, confusing the bootprints of Ugandan soldiers with those of rebels. But he admitted that the primary objective of the Ugandan military in Obo was not population protection, but the destruction and reintegration of the LRA, and the placement of Joseph Kony and others in the dock at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He said the job of protecting the population fell to the Central African Armed Forces. The villagers, however, said their own national army was almost completely ineffective.
And so even if some locals did seem sceptical of the Ugandan force's ability to put a decisive end to the LRA's reign of terror, they were nonetheless grateful for the military presence. "If they leave," a villager named Daba Emmanuel said, "the LRA will be here tomorrow." Emmanuel has a deep personal stake in keeping the LRA at bay. He once fought in its ranks, and if the insurgents arrive they will dash out the brains of deserters like him first.
Late one night in 2008, when Emmanuel was returning from a ceremony honouring a recent widow in his neighbourhood in Obo, the LRA arrived on one of its first raids. "They forced us to gather up everything we owned - food, clothes, everything - and walk away with it," he says. "They said, 'Come, come, we won't hurt you.' But whoever refused to come along would be killed."
Emmanuel spent the next year as an LRA slave and assassin. The story he tells begins with simple drudgery: a hike of several days into the Congolese interior, followed by grinding communal farm labour at an LRA settlement at Garamba, a huge, sparsely populated area best known for its national park. Emmanuel says he spent most of a year in an LRA "family" of 12 to 13 captives, of which a core LRA couple, a man and wife, were the den parents. Even the captives regarded each other with suspicion and caution, often using false names so they would be harder to find if ever they escaped. (Moving them far from home was in fact part of an LRA strategy to make escape difficult.)
The indoctrination was constant. Signs of outside loyalties, such as prayer, were punished with beatings, and they were forced to speak the languages of the LRA. "They made us learn Arabic and Acholi, and if you spoke Zande you would get beaten with sticks." At first, Emmanuel says, the prisoners were brainwashed into a freedom struggle against Museveni's government in Uganda. But as the movement incorporated more hostages from Congo, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, Joseph Kony began speaking with broader paranoia, against every government in the area. Emmanuel met Kony multiple times, he says, and observed the rebel leader using a portable entertainment system to watch films about dancing and about war.
For Emmanuel and the other prisoners, the drudgery of slave labour gave way to enforced savagery in December 2008, when the Ugandan military attacked and sent the LRA fleeing with its hostages into the bush. The Ugandans were assisted by the new US military command Africom, which, in one of its first missions, provided them with satellite images and fuel.
As a result, the LRA base splintered into many smaller, more volatile groups, whose leaders communicated by satellite phones, and who roamed northern Congo plundering villages and murdering in retaliation for their humiliating defeat at Garamba. "We killed the old immediately, and kept the young for work," Emmanuel says. Before entering a village, the LRA would inject the hostages with an unidentified drug that made them violent and amped up, "like animals".
The height of their marauding occurred around Christmas, just after the LRA's routing at Garamba. Emmanuel's group entered the Congolese town Doro under orders to seize food and take hostages to serve as porters. The raiders corralled the townspeople together. "We put them into the church and closed the doors," he says. "We entered only to choose some small girls and boys. The rest we burnt." Anyone who tried to escape they hacked with machetes or brained with logs or stones, "exactly like this one," he says, indicating a rock around the nearby fire, where his daughter was frying nuts.
Eventually, when the LRA guards trusted Emmanuel to guard a small road, he ran to the nearest village and sought refuge. The villagers suspected he was an LRA scout and beat him nearly to death with sticks and bayonets. Ultimately they let him go, first to Juba, in South Sudan, and finally back to Obo.
The LRA survives only because its victims are so weak and its leaders so fanatical. According to the UN, the LRA murdered 300 people in December 2009 in the Congo, a reprise of the post-Garamba massacres there one year before. The group's leaders are undeniably shrewd: the tactic of kidnapping and indoctrinating pliant children has largely allowed them to circumvent the political challenges many insurgencies face with regards to recruitment. But its atrocities uniformly have the character of desperate ploys. A terrorist group that needs to force old women to shell peanuts all night is a terrorist group with serious problems, one that sounds as if it should be in what Dick Cheney would call its "last throes".
The question then remains - why are millions of dollars of US military aid, a relatively disciplined and well-equipped military and a firmly anti-LRA population not enough to stop the movement for good? After all, the LRA travels only on foot, while the Ugandan military has air support capable of chasing and gunning down rebels very effectively. The Ugandans estimate that the LRA has only a few hundred active members at this point.
To Sserunjogi, the environment is mostly to blame. The terrain is rough, and no military, however well-supported, could deal with such a sprawling area of operation. "In Somalia, you can conduct a cordon operation, like you have seen in Baghdad, but you can't do that here. Where do you begin? The enemy has a very big area to manoeuvre. They are very light, because they take what they need as they go, but we are very heavy, because we bring our own food and we don't steal."
Sserunjogi insisted that his army wanted nothing more than to finish off the LRA for good, and that it would apply all necessary military force to get the job done. But even he spoke of encounters that made military force sound like an ineffective tactic. That night, his composure broke only once, when he told me about an LRA rebel who had been coaxed into surrender last year. "I asked him how old he was when he was taken, and he said he was in Primary 4." The officer imagined the nine-year-old schoolboy's walk to class being interrupted by an LRA raid, then the child's years wielding a wooden log, graduating to a Kalashnikov when his minders decided he could be trusted. "So how do I deal with this boy? How do I judge him?"
In a way, the remaining LRA fighters seem to be just dead-enders, a rump element of a largely defeated movement. But it is nonetheless increasingly difficult to imagine them dying out completely any time soon. As with other insurgencies, the smaller and more resoundingly defeated the rebels are, the more brutally they fight. Once the LRA shrinks past a certain point, it appears that no amount of hunting, population protection, or reintegration effort is enough to bring the last soldiers in from the jungle.
Moreover, as long as the LRA lives to see another day, it stands the chance of kidnapping another generation of children, brainwashing them into its struggle and building another micro-slave state, as it did in Garamba. And Emmanuel's experience shows clearly that even the Ugandans' most decisive victory against the rebels - destroying their stronghold in the Congo - only provoked the insurgents' most gruesome acts of violence. His account doesn't argue in favour of easing up the fight against the LRA, but it does remind us that the last stage of destroying an insurgency may be the hardest.
Image: Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony in 2006. By Stuart Price/AFP/Getty.