Late summer in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and soldiers wearing rain ponchos stand guard outside a base littered with the stumps of freshly cut trees. Under a plastic canopy sits the head of military operations, a short, thick-sideburned man wearing Sunday clothes: blue football shirt, three-quarter-length jeans and pristine white trainers. For more than a decade eastern Congo has been torn apart by conflict involving rebel groups, foreign armies and government troops, battling each other for control of territory and lucrative minerals.
But Major Abdoul and his men are here further because of a different war, one in which God is the inspiration and human beings are the bounty. For more than a year, the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) from neighbouring Uganda has exported its unique brand of terror into the remote and vast district called Haut Uélé, killing or abducting thousands of Congolese villagers and forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee their homes.
I have come to find out why.
“Let me give you chapter one,” Major Abdoul says.
The first time LRA fighters came to Congo was in late 2005, he explains. Their “chief” had been attacked at home in Uganda and in South Sudan and he wanted refuge. Major Abdoul was part of a Congolese government delegation that went to meet the chief’s people in a place called Aba, close to the border with Sudan. They told the rebels they could stay in Congo if they agreed to disarm.
“They went back to their chief in the bush and he refused our request. A week later we discovered some of them had moved into one of our national parks, called Garamba.”
Major Abdoul pauses to consider the walkie-talkie that crackles in his left hand.
There was more to tell, he says, a lot more. Chapters two, three, four and a conclusion.
But that would have to wait. “In Congo we respect Sunday,” he says. “An off day.”
In fact, the story has a prologue as well. In 1987 a former altar boy in his twenties named Joseph Kony – the man who would become the chief – left his village in northern Uganda with 11 other men to start a rebellion. The aim was to overthrow Yoweri Museveni, whose bush army had seized power the previous year from Tito Okello, from the same Acholi ethnic group as Kony. The rebels had few guns but then Kony’s most potent weapon did not need bullets. The Holy Spirit, he believed, was guiding him. Fight beside me and pray hard, pray very hard, and no harm will come to you, he told his followers.
The Lord’s Resistance Army, as they became known, proved adept in guerrilla warfare and soon grew in strength. Some of the fighters were believers both in Kony’s spiritual powers and in the need to defend the Acholi people from further revenge attacks by Museveni’s troops, who had chased thousands of former government soldiers back to the north. But kidnapping was the main form of recruitment, with boys and girls often the targets. One of the early victims was Lily Atong. The year was 1993 and she was ten years old. The rebels came to her hut one night and dragged her off into the darkness. She would come to know the chief.
Museveni tried to crush the rebels militarily but they knew the bush too well. Kony, who told his followers that he would one day rule the country according to the Ten Commandments, ordered retribution after each government offensive. The people of northern Uganda – the Acholis, his people – government sympathisers and ordinary villagers both, would suffer. Thousands of civilians were killed, some by young boys kidnapped from their classrooms only months before. Other victims carried a message on their faces. A padlock forced through a mouth. Lips sliced off. Ears and noses, too.
While Museveni was being hailed for bringing stability and economic growth to Uganda, the war in the north dragged on, largely unnoticed by the outside world. He tried to deny Kony food and cover, herding 1.8 million people in northern Uganda into camps for their own “protection”. But the LRA was able to exist comfortably across the border in Sudan with the help of the government in Khartoum, which wanted to punish Museveni for supporting rebels fighting a civil war in South Sudan.
By 2004, the conflict was attracting more international attention, mainly because of the so-called Night Commuters. Each evening, as many as 40,000 children, women and elderly people would leave their villages to walk to the towns, where they slept in churches or schools or on the pavement. In the morning, they would return to their houses.
“How can we sleep at home?” Florence Adwar, a 48-year-old Night Commuter asked me in October 2004. “If we do, the rebels will attack us and take our children.”
By then, 20,000 children had been kidnapped. Though many had returned home or been killed, several thousand remained in the bush as LRA fighters or commanders’ wives. The war was about to enter a new phase.
Garamba National Park is a vast complex of grassland and thick bush in the remote northeastern reaches of Congo bordering Sudan. It attracts few visitors and offers ideal cover for a rebel army, something that did not go unnoticed by Kony’s foes. Within a few months of the meeting between Major Abdoul’s delegation and LRA representatives, the United Nations sanctioned a covert mission to kill Kony before he became too settled. A team of Guatemalan Special Forces operatives, trained in jungle warfare, entered Garamba in January 2006. Ten days later, at dawn, they came up against a band of hardened LRA fighters. Eight Guatemalans were killed, five injured. The mission was a disaster.
After this the rebels, feeling more secure, cleared patches of bush to build camps and plant crops. They used their AK-47s to hunt antelopes. “Back then they did not harass local people, only taking seeds from time to time,” says Father Benoît Kinalegu, who runs the Justice and Peace Commission in Dungu, where Major Abdoul has his base, about 50 miles south-west of Garamba.
Indeed, it seemed that Kony might finally be prepared to end the war. In May 2006, he met a team of peace negotiators who had brought along with them a few journalists. Until then one of the few images that existed of Kony showed a wild-looking man in a T-shirt, with long dreadlocks. Now he had short hair and a military uniform. A BBC news clip of the interview shows him in good humour. He talked about being guided by spirits, about how he was a “man of peace”. “I am a human being like you. I have eyes, a brain, and wear clothes, but they are saying we don’t talk with people, we eat people, we are killers. That is not true. Why do you meet me if I am a killer?”
As peace efforts progressed, some of the dozens of wives that Kony had chosen from the ranks of kidnapped girls, and who had subsequently been freed, were convinced to join a delegation to help persuade him to end the war. One of them was Lily Atong, the girl who had been kidnapped in 1993. She had spent 12 years in the bush with the LRA, eight as Kony’s wife. Before being captured by Ugandan troops in Sudan in 2005, she had borne him three children. The youngest child, whom Kony named George Bush, was still breastfeeding; Lily took him along on the peace journey to Congo.
They met Kony, but when the time came for them to depart with the rest of the delegation he refused to let them leave. Lily had been kidnapped for a second time, this time by the chief himself.
Kony’s erratic behaviour was not the only obstacle to a peace settlement. Representing the LRA at the formal peace negotiations in Juba, South Sudan, was a team of Ugandans from the diaspora who were prone to infighting and making grandiose statements. None had been in the bush as a fighter; the team’s one common interest with the rebels was a wish to see Museveni leave power. Then there was the issue of the war crimes charges raised by the International Criminal Court against Kony and four of his most senior commanders, including Dominic Ongwen, who had been kidnapped as a boy. Though many people in northern Uganda would have been happy to see the ICC charges dropped if it helped end the war, the arrest warrants remained in place during negotiations. Kony used them as an excuse to postpone signing a final deal. For three years, the rebels had mounted only sporadic attacks, but by the second half of 2008 it was clear that the peace process was over.
To reach Dungu, the main town in Congo’s Haut Uélé district and the location of Major Abdoul’s base, I hitched a ride with UN peacekeepers on a helicopter flying from Bunia, 200 miles south-east, close to the Ugandan border. Surrounded by thick bush, split by two large rivers and dotted with once-elegant colonial-era buildings, Dungu would have had a certain charm in happier times, perhaps even just a year earlier. But now thousands of internally displaced people had set up makeshift homes there. Congolese soldiers guarded the bridges to prevent further incursions by the LRA, which had already kidnapped dozens of civilians from the town.
One afternoon I took a motorbike to a village called Bamukandi, about four miles from the centre of town. A tall white missionary who was raking leaves next to a Catholic church bellowed, “Ferruccio!” when I introduced myself. Ferruccio Gobbi is a small, compact man with thinning silver hair who first came to Uganda from Italy in 1970, aged 28. Seated in a reception room, beneath a picture of Pope Benedict XVI, he told me his story.
On 17 September 2008, LRA units attacked several Congolese towns and villages, including Duru, where Father Ferruccio and one other Comboni missionary were based. The rebels began their raid at the primary school early in the afternoon, locking the doors and tying up the pupils. At the parish where the missionaries lived, a female LRA fighter ransacked Father Ferruccio’s room, stealing clothes and burning personal items, including his passport. His arms were bound so tightly behind his back he feared they would break. The looting continued for hours. Houses were burned, market stalls razed. One of the fighters made a satellite phone call within earshot of Father Ferruccio’s colleague, a Sudanese who understood Acholi. The rebel was taking instructions from Kony.
At 6pm that day, the two missionaries were forced into a line with dozens of villagers and marched past the hospital and the airstrip. As they were about to enter the bush, the rebel commander ordered that the missionaries be released. Father Ferruccio was trembling. The rebels had searched his trouser pockets but not his shirt pocket, where he had a list of nearly 50 LRA fighters whom he had helped to defect and return to Uganda since 2006. He also had photographs of the rebels on his camera, which had been taken. In the chapel was a diagram showing the LRA positions in Garamba. It had gone unnoticed.
“If they had seen any of that I’m sure I would have been killed,” Father Ferruccio said.
The following morning, about 12 miles from Duru, the rebels released the elderly people they had kidnapped, keeping about 90 men, women and children, many of whom remain in the bush today. Father Ferruccio and his colleague hired a motorbike to take them across the border to Sudan.
I asked him why the rebels had targeted Duru.
“I think it was a revenge attack for helping with the defections,” Father Ferruccio said. “But maybe they also wanted to clear a path to the Central African Republic for later.” (In Uganda, another of Kony’s wives told me that Kony had talked about a dream where the angels told him to start abducting Congolese because the local army had decided to hunt him down.)
My translator and driver, a young Congolese man named Brown, indicated that we needed to leave. It was after 5pm and he was nervous. “Oh, Papa, this is a very bad area,” he said of Bamukandi, where there had been several recent LRA raids, as we mounted his motorbike. Brown took a shortcut and soon we were lost, bumping along a tiny footpath past abandoned huts, with the light fading. “I don’t want to meet Kony,” Brown said.
14 December 2008. A blanket of early-morning fog hung over Garamba National Park. Lily Atong was with Kony at Camp Kiswahili, his main base. At 7am he announced he’d had a vision that an attack was coming. He had correctly predicted many Ugandan strikes in the past, his followers knew. He was right again.
Uganda, South Sudan and Congo had agreed to work together to destroy the LRA, launching a military campaign called Operation Lightning Thunder. “We knew that Kony had no intention of stopping fighting,” Major Felix Kulayigye, spokesman for the Uganda People’s Defence Force, told me in his hilltop office at an army base in Kampala. “This is a man who has access to 50 women at a time. He has received state visits from regional leaders. Yet he is a peasant. What do you expect him to do? He cannot come home to be vice-president.”
The United States, which had designated the LRA a terrorist group, eagerly backed the offensive, providing $1m towards logistics and help with intelligence. Norbert Mao, a former opposition MP from northern Uganda involved in the peace process, told me that the former US assistant secretary of state Jendayi Frazer had wanted to give “a Christmas present” to President Museveni in the final days of the Bush administration.
As the Ugandan helicopter gunships approached Garamba, Kony remained calm. “At first he told us to move to another place, and then he said we should stay and prepare him tea,” Lily would later recall. “He said: ‘The bullets will not kill anybody – let’s have tea.'”
When the attack began, the rebels scattered into the bush. Fighter jets later continued the pounding. There were casualties – how many, nobody is sure – and the various LRA camps in Garamba were destroyed. But Kony, his top commanders, and many other rebels escaped unharmed. The following morning, the chief gathered his followers in the bush a few miles away from Camp Kiswahili. He reminded them it was God that sent him to earth to fight, so they should not fear.
“If I had signed the peace deal I would have been killed,” he said. “If they were serious about peace they would not have done this.”
The planners of Operation Lightning Thunder failed to consider the inevitable consequence of their mission – that Kony would take revenge on civilians, as he had done in Uganda. His response took just ten days. On 24 and 25 December, LRA units mounted simultaneous raids in and around three Congolese towns 160 miles apart, none of which had been given army protection. To ensure maximum casualties, the rebels waited for villagers to gather for church services or celebrations before striking.
What followed became known as the Christmas Massacres. Machetes, knives, hoes and clubs were used to kill nearly 500 people, in perhaps the biggest killing spree ever carried out by the rebels. Bullets were not wasted. In the villages of Mabando and Bama, mothers were forced to put their small children in grain mortars and pound them to death, according to Sister Ellen Yawala, who was in the town of Doruma, 100 miles north-west of Dungu, at the time of the attack there.
“Many of the dead had broken arms and legs,” she told me one morning at a convent in Dungu. “Their arms tied behind them. You could tell by the look on their faces that they died in bad conditions. Some of the women were naked from the waist down.”
The attacks continued into 2009. With Ugandan ground forces now in pursuit through the thick bush, Kony ordered his fighters to split into smaller groups. Some headed further west past Doruma towards the forests of the Central African Republic, some north in the direction of South Sudan, others deeper into Congo. Several of Kony’s wives and children were sent off in a group with one of his senior security officers. Lily Atong was among them. She had her one-year-old baby, Sophia, Kony’s child, on her back. Young George Bush was there too, carried by a boy.
The Ugandan army soon had their trail and launched an ambush. The young boy grabbed George Bush and fled into the bush. Lily followed. She evaded the soldiers but could not find the boy and her son. “We walked the whole day looking for him. Finally I said, ‘God has a plan for me and for Bush.'”
The next Ugandan attack came swiftly. When a bullet grazed the face of another of Kony’s wives, she and Lily surrendered. The Ugandan soldier who fired the shot apologised when he realised who they were. We know you were forced to become Kony’s wives, he told them. We have come to rescue you.
Lily was flown to Sudan and then back to northern Uganda. When she was reunited with her two eldest children at an orphanage, they were overjoyed to see her. But they had a question – where was George Bush?
“Until today they ask about him,” Lily told me. “‘Have you heard about Bush?’ I tell them, ‘No.'”
Since coming home Lily has learned that she is expecting her fifth child by Kony. She recounted her story at a centre for formerly abducted women near Gulu in northern Uganda. When a woman first arrives there, the counsellors ask her to set a goal she wants to achieve before returning to normal life – learning how to bake bread, to use a sewing machine, to braid hair. One woman answered that she wanted to go a full month without having a nightmare. “It is the cannibalism that some of them were exposed to that disturbs them the most,” a counsellor told me. “Being forced to stir body parts in a pot over a fire. How do you forget that?”
In the months after the airstrike, the Ugandan army said that it had rescued 300 kidnap victims. Most were not Ugandans but Congolese, Sudanese, or from the Central African Republic. They spoke a babel of languages.
The LRA’s leadership remained ethnically Acholi but it was fast becoming a multinational rebel force. The rebels splintered into even smaller groups, comprising as few as four fighters, moving swiftly and silently on foot. They continued to prey on Congolese civilians, stealing food and items such as jerrycans, to be lashed together to build rafts to cross the region’s web of rivers. Villagers disappeared into the bush with the raiders, forced to beat or even kill their colleagues who tried to run away.
With the Congolese army still deploying to the area, some towns established self-defence groups. But resistance and reasoning were usually futile, as 56-year-old Joseph Mbaramuke found out. After his village came under attack, he gathered his family and set off on foot for Dungu.
Several rebels ambushed them on the road. Mbaramuke pleaded with them not to take his children. They shot him in the side and left him for dead.
He told me this outside his flimsy hut in Dungu. His son, 16 years old and vacant-eyed, had returned from the bush two months earlier, following a fight with Ugandan soldiers. The rebels put the new recruits on the front line in the battle, the boy said, allowing the older fighters to escape.
By the time of my visit in August this year, at least 1,200 civilians had been killed by the LRA in Congo during the preceding 12 months, according to the UN; perhaps as many as in any single year during nearly two decades of war in northern Uganda. More than 2,000 people had been kidnapped or reported missing. In July there were 56 LRA attacks – an extraordinary number, even if most of the raids were small and some might be the work of local bandits. Fear of attack or abduction has caused hundreds of thousands of Congolese to flee their homes. Denied access to their fields, they are now hungry in a fertile region.
Aid workers are doing what they can, but it is not enough. Road travel is considered too dangerous. In most conflicts, humanitarian access can be negotiated with even the most hardline rebel groups. There are no lines of communication to the LRA.
To reach Faradje, a town on the eastern edge of Garamba National Park, I had to take another helicopter flight. Three children, two girls and a boy, were also on board. Each of them carried a new backpack and a bottle of water. Their flight passes stated: “Ex-abducted child”. None showed emotion until we were about to land, when the boy, perhaps ten years old, broke into a smile. Their mothers ran on to the dirt airstrip towards the helicopter, arms raised.
A Congolese psychologist working for an aid group in Faradje told me that some of the kidnapped children were so tired from marching in the bush that they slept for two or three days consecutively when they first reached safety. For weeks afterwards, they would tread carefully, so as not to leave footprints. At night, around the fire, they ensured that there was no smoke. Lessons from the LRA are not easily unlearned.
Officially, Operation Lightning Thunder ended in March. But the hunt for Kony continues. While units such as those under Major Abdoul are in charge of security in northern Congo, Ugandan forces are doing most of the hunting for the rebels there. The Ugandans are also in South Sudan, where LRA attacks are causing great distress to the local people, and in the Central African Republic, where Kony is said to be hiding.
“Two weeks ago we had a visit from the commander of the special forces, who is also Museveni’s son [Major Muhoozi Kainerugaba],” Norbert Mao, the northern Ugandan former MP, told me in mid-August. “I asked him where Kony was and he said, ‘I don’t know. He is off air.'”
But the rebels’ continued ability to launch attacks, as well as reports of them using sophisticated weapons, suggest that Kony is talking to someone. The Sudanese government in Khartoum is the most likely party, most experts believe. With a referendum on independence due in South Sudan in 2011, President Omar el-Bashir, Kony’s fellow fugitive from the International Criminal Court, has a motive for seeing the LRA spread instability there.
At his base in Dungu, Major Abdoul said it would not come to that, because the story of Kony’s rebellion is fast coming to a close. “We are now just waiting for the big party when the LRA is defeated,” he said.
His end is not the end.
Later the same day, a tiny five-seater charter plane airlifted victims of an LRA attack from a town called Bangadi to Dungu. The two men and a woman, all elderly, thin and poor, had been ambushed when they returned to their abandoned village in the hope of finding food. There were five rebels, including one female, all with dreadlocks, all dirty. Only the woman fighter could speak the local language. After the villagers had been beaten so severely on their legs that none was able to walk, she told them: “Don’t cry.”
When I listened to accounts of the attack, it seemed senseless. The villagers had little worth stealing, and posed no threat. Then I realised they carried a message in their stories, in their misery, in their shattered legbones.
We are still here.
Xan Rice is a New Statesman contributing writer. He lives in Nairobi, Kenya.