Maj. Richard Kidega threaded his way through a thicket of sweet black trees and thorny underbrush when suddenly he drew to a halt. A young Ugandan soldier in front had raised a clenched fist: the sign to stop. With their AK-47s raised, Kidega and his men silently scanned the jungle for any signs of the enemy, such as fresh tracks or trampled brush. Hanging vines clogged the path. Dry leaves masked deep holes. The gully was an attractive place for an ambush. “It’s places just like this where the LRA likes to hide,” Kidega whispered, as the hunt for Joseph Kony, rebel leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, slowly moved ahead.
This inhospitable swath of jungle in the Central African Republic is ground zero in the search for Kony’s LRA. On any given day, Ugandan soldiers, aided by U.S. special forces, comb through the forests, looking for one of the most elusive war criminals in history, a man who has kidnapped thousands of children, turning boys into hardened killers and girls into sex slaves. It is estimated that the LRA has killed upwards of 70,000 civilians, kidnapped some 40,000 children, and displaced hundreds of thousands of people in four countries.
The movement, which has now descended into butchery, rape, and even cannibalism, began in 1986 as a popular insurrection against Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Initially many in northern Uganda supported the rebellion against Museveni, whose army ruthlessly persecuted the Acholi people in the north. Eventually, however, the warlord’s insurgency lost steam, and Kony turned on his own people, accusing them of sinning against God. As punishment, Kony and his commanders have cut off the lips, noses, and ears of victims; he has forced abducted children to murder their own families to ensure loyalty; and he has killed those who disobeyed orders.
The hunt for Kony, known as Operation Lightning Thunder, now takes place across four countries and involves several thousand troops, at least 100 of them American. The warlord got international attention after a 30-minute video on him produced by the American NGO Invisible Children became a viral YouTube phenomenon last month, drawing more than 87.5 million views. It sparked outrage—and renewed pledges to bring Kony to justice. Later this month, the African Union will bring another 5,000 troops from the armies of South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Congo to help the Ugandans in their hunt, now in its 25th year.
Should he be captured alive, he is likely to face charges at the International Criminal Court. In 2005 the ICC indicted him and two senior LRA commanders on charges of crimes against humanity. Three years later, on Christmas Day 2008, Kony led his troops on a vengeful rampage in Congo’s Garamba National Park, clubbing and hacking dozens of civilians to death and burning their villages to the ground. He’s been virtually invisible ever since. And sometimes the hunt for Kony feels like the hunt for a ghost. Nonetheless, Col. Joseph Balikuddembe, the bright-eyed commander of Operation Lightning Thunder, is determined to catch his prey. “He can always hide, but he can’t disappear completely. He’ll have his turn. His days are numbered,” he told me earlier this month when I traveled with his troops for a part of the manhunt.
Kony rose to prominence at a time when dozens of Ugandan militia groups were vying for power and influence in the early days of Museveni’s regime. One of the most popular rebels was a woman named Alice Lakwena, the leader of the Holy Spirit Movement. Lakwena claimed to channel the spirit world and convinced thousands of followers that they were immune to bullets. Museveni eventually sidelined Lakwena, sending her into exile. But Kony took up her mantle, donning women’s robes and leading an army of devoted holy warriors into the bush. Kony was raised as a quiet boy; he didn’t like to fight, and his father was a catechist in the church. But by 1987, his army of followers dwarfed the other militias. A quarter of a century later, with all pretense of authenticity destroyed, Kony has made a career of besmirching the Ten Commandments by which he claims to rule.
Though he is believed to have only a few hundred soldiers scattered over a wide area, Kony has with scary efficiency brought death and displacement to this largely forgotten corner of Africa. One casualty is 8-year-old Foster Mizeredi, taken with his sister during a raid on his village in Congo last year. After a few weeks, the LRA commanders forced him and other abducted children to beat a man to death with a club. The man was killed for speaking Azande instead of Kony’s native Acholi language. “All of us participated,” said Mizeredi. “I also had to beat him.”
Before escaping earlier this year, the boy witnessed the murder of a man unable to carry his load and the killing of a woman who admitted to being a witch. “They tell you to go and kill that person, and if you don’t, then you are killed,” he said recently, wiping tears from his eyes at a refugee camp near the Congolese border. “That’s what I remember.”
The most remote American base is a small cluster of mud huts with thatched roofs in an outpost called Jemma, a place Kidega describes as “the front line” against the LRA. Every morning Kidega, who served as my guide while I traveled with the troops, briefs the U.S. soldiers. They ask him how many tracking squads are on the move and what their coordinates are, and they chart them on a map. He knows them by their first names only: Sky, Robert, Tony, and they mostly talk about operations. Many of the Americans spent time in Iraq or Afghanistan, and Kidega once asked them, “We have seen what you have done over there. But what will you do in Africa?” “You will see,” the Americans told him. “You will see.”
When Ugandan soldiers recently crossed a river, a massive crocodile attacked one of them, nearly severing his left calf. It was the Americans who helped evacuate the soldier and treated him. “He could have died,” said Balikuddembe. Similarly, when a Ugandan was wounded by the LRA earlier this year, Americans treated him after Kidega carried him out of the jungle. “In the past we didn’t have helicopters,” says Kidega, “but now when something happens, we know there will be a rescue. We know we have friends.”
The Americans also train the Ugandan soldiers and fly air reconnaissance but haven’t so far gone on patrol. Ugandan officials say the logistical and technical support is crucial, especially the service of a U.S. surveillance aircraft that makes regular sorties over the jungle, looking for traces of enemy fires or any human movement in the thick canopy.
In the dry season, between November and April, water is scarce and so is food. LRA rebels dig up wild yams or eat the berries found inside the hardened shells of the talakijing tree. If they find water, they pound the bark of the larwece tree into powder, turning it into a poisonous brew, which they dump in the water to kill fish. If somebody is wounded, they use the leaves of the ogali plant as a bandage. They hunt antelope, wild boar, buffalo. And if they have time to settle, they cultivate crops. The Ugandan and American soldiers believe that once Kony and his soldiers use one location for food, water, or shelter, they are likely to return there. But Kidega doesn’t want to give them the luxury of settling. So he and his men keep on the prowl.
Kidega has studied Kony and his men for a long time. As a boy growing up in the northern Ugandan town of Gulu, Kidega was captured by the LRA four times. They released him three times, and once he escaped on his own. His father and his uncle weren’t so lucky. Kony’s soldiers killed both men. “After all that has happened, I wanted to serve and fight him,” Kidega said. “I wanted to defend my people.” He joined the army in 1989 and has fought Kony ever since.
In 2002 on the border of South Sudan, he and his men fought hundreds of LRA troops for two days in one of the bloodiest battles Kidega had seen. Seven Ugandans and countless LRA soldiers died. Last year they battled again, and Kidega’s men killed two LRA fighters. And just two months ago, Kidega helped evacuate a comrade wounded in a fight with a small band of roaming rebels. He and the other senior Ugandan commanders believe the LRA has splintered. Kony, he is convinced, is at his weakest. “Kony of those days is not like the Kony of these days,” he said. “His forces are broken. He is on the defensive.”
Colonel Balikuddembe believes that small, fast-moving tracking teams like Kidega’s hold the best chance of finding Kony, and on a recent morning, a dozen soldiers boarded a Ugandan air force Mi-17 from a base they share with the Americans in South Sudan and headed toward the Central African Republic. They flew on to a series of ever-more-remote bases, stopping finally in a makeshift landing zone carved out of the jungle 50 miles from the nearest settlement. From here, Kidega led his men on a two-day trek heading east for eight miles between the banks of the Vovodo and Chinko rivers—some of the densest jungle in Africa.
Kidega and Balikuddembe picked this area for a reason. Two weeks earlier, another squad operating in the vicinity had killed one LRA soldier and gravely wounded another, a 12-year veteran and high-ranking LRA warrant officer named Patrick Ochan. Over the last two weeks, the Ugandans had been nursing Ochan back to health and then interrogating him for information on LRA movements and, with any luck, Kony’s whereabouts. Minor engagements like these could yield valuable information. Now, armed with that intelligence, the squad returned. For several hours in the midday heat the men moved carefully through forest canopy. Silent for the most part, they communicated with hand gestures and the occasional brief radio command.
As evening fell on the first day, Kidega’s men approached a dry riverbed. The forest was dense, filled with towering mango trees and swinging vines. Large-beaked tropical birds floated between branches, squalling loud warnings. The soldiers stopped as scouts secured the area. Kidega, sweating profusely in the muggy heat, paused at the bottom of the gorge to inspect a fire pit on the jungle floor. It was about a month old. “This is LRA,” he said, brushing the charcoal with his boot. “They make camp here under the canopy, so the planes can’t see them.”
The squad camped that evening on a small plateau east of the riverbed. The soldiers set up a perimeter, taking turns guarding while the rest pitched small tents on beds of fresh leaves. They boiled water from a muddy pond and prepared rice and meat and tea. As a full moon rose in the sky, the jungle began to hum with the sounds of crickets and the occasional mournful wailing of a bird. A few small fires burned down to embers as the men drifted off to sleep.
These soldiers aren’t the only ones tracking Kony. In South Sudan, groups of homegrown defenders called “arrow boys” have begun retaliating against incursions by Kony’s men. Last June LRA soldiers laid an ambush in the town of Kidi, abducting a boy and girl. As soon as Alison Tunga Samson, a 30-year-old farmer and father of five, heard about the attack, he mobilized his group of farmer-soldiers. By 9 p.m. that night, they had found tracks, and by 1 a.m., Samson led his men into battle, killing two LRA soldiers, capturing an AK-47, and rescuing the two children. Some, including the father of the abducted children, had carried only a bow and arrow. Four days later, on the 21st, as the arrow boys tracked deeper into the jungle, Samson stumbled across a camp with 35 small huts. Inside they found a computer, a generator, solar panels, batteries, and a Thuraya satellite phone, which they handed over to Ugandan forces.
After a peaceful night, Kidega’s men woke to a clear morning. The sun had burned off the dew, and by 8 a.m. the men were on the move. Two hours later they came to the Vovodo River, a silvery, slow-moving ribbon. One by one, the soldiers began to cross. With water rising to their chests, they carried their weapons, which included AK-47s, a .50-cal, and a rocket-propelled grenade, above their heads.
Earlier this year, on the banks of this river, the Ugandans ambushed a small group of Kony soldiers. Though no one was killed, the soldiers came across an LRA “wife” who had just given birth and was dying. The soldiers in the field called the Americans, who were waiting in Jemma when the airlift arrived. The American medic asked the woman whom he should treat first—her or her child. She said she needed help first. Her breast was hurting, and a wound was filled with pus. Years in the bush had toughened her, but also weakened her for the birth. “Can I carry your child?” the medic asked, and she nodded. The medic managed to save the baby, but the mother did not make it. She died later in the hospital.
There remain huge challenges in the hunt for Kony. The commander of the African Union forces, Col. Dick Prit Olum, 42, says contributing countries from the African Union have yet to confirm how many troops they will end up sending later this month. And if and when other AU countries do come, he says, they will be heavily reliant on funding, equipment, and logistical support from the U.S. “The African Union has to facilitate everything, and it is handicapped,” Olum said at a run-down base on the edge of Nzara, in South Sudan, “I’m so confident, not particularly with the AU, but with the U.S.” On top of the poor logistical setup, some of the armies involved have fought with each other in the past and may not take well to operating under one command. And none has the field experience or jungle savvy that the Ugandans do. “If we fail to do this, the people of Uganda will be so hurt,” says Olum.
There are signs that Kony may be expanding his range. In January an escapee appeared in, of all places, South Darfur, far to the north of Kony’s usual stomping grounds. The abductee told of being led there by Dominique Ongwani, one of Kony’s senior commanders. Other intelligence reports filtering in to Colonel Balikuddembe indicate that some Kony units may be heading as far west as Chad and Cameroon, drawing more countries into the fight and putting more children at risk.
None of that fazes the soldiers under Kidega’s command. They are used to marching miles in the hot sun. They have learned how to find water. And thanks to the Americans and their GPS technology, they are more easily directed toward rivers and water sources. “Personally I have lost relatives. I lost my dad, my uncle. They’re just killing their own people,” said Kidega. “If we leave him here, he’ll get more support and come back. This isn’t just a problem for us, it’s a problem for the whole world now.”
Around midafternoon on the second day of the trek, the Mi-17 touched down in a whorl of dust and flying debris. The soldiers had spent several hours clearing another landing zone in the endless sea of trees where they can land in the future. Several soldiers clambered on board; the rest remained behind to continue the hunt. Another squad had started out from a different location and was set to join this one. As the helicopter took off, the horizon expanded, jungle for as far as the eye could see in every direction. Kidega sat facing backward, staring at the canopy from the top now. Out there, somewhere, Kidega believes, his prey is hiding, looking for a way out.