The Manhunt for African Cult Killer Joseph Kony

Marcus Bleasdale / VII

Shortly after dawn last Dec. 14, four Ugandan Mi-24 helicopters banked low over the thick forest canopy of Congo's Garamba National Park. A dense fog had rolled in overnight, and the weather had turned nasty. Earlier that morning at a forward staging area in Uganda, a team of American military advisers equipped with large-scale U.S. government maps and Google Earth technology had shown the helicopter pilots what to look for—four distinct "fishhook shape" camps spread out in cleared areas of the park. In one of these camps, they believed, was Joseph Kony, the professed mystic who leads Africa's longest-lived insurgent group, the Lord's Resistance Army. Find Kony, the pilots' commander had said, and kill him.

Descending through the fog bank and hovering just above the tree line, the pilots spotted what looked like a rebel council meeting in the largest cluster of shelters, code-named Camp K. The gunships immediately unleashed a barrage of rockets and chain-gun fire. Reports from the helicopter crews later stated that several dozen people, including women and children, had been caught in the open. "I saw the helicopters come—they were black, and they were bombing us," recalls George Komagun, 16, one of the hundreds of child soldiers in the Lord's Resistance Army. "I ran. We tried to fight the helicopters, but could not."

Two days after Operation Lightning Thunder began, Ugandan commandos finally reached Camp K. They found bloody trails heading into the jungle in all directions. Hastily dug graves dotted the site's periphery. Kony had been on the run for more than two decades, but this place had the look of a settled homestead. Acres had been cultivated with sorghum, cassava and maize. Stashes of sugar, rice and water in large plastic containers were buried all around.

Washington would love to get a look at the trove of evidence, which Ugandan investigators are still studying, including Thuraya satellite and cell phones, walkie-talkies and three Acer laptops. Soldiers even found a printer, a CD-ROM drive and an English-language dictionary. What they didn't find was Joseph Kony. "We have some hints where he might be now, but nothing like we had before the strike," says a senior U.S. military-intelligence official who was intimately involved with the operation's planning and execution, but is not authorized to speak on the record about it. "Kony has virtually disappeared from the face of the earth."

Kony is arguably the most-wanted man in Africa. Uganda's government has been chasing him for 23 years, ever since he donned a woman's dress, claimed to be channeling the spirit world and vowed to topple the country's president, Yoweri Museveni. Kony is a law unto himself. He claims to run the LRA according to the Ten Commandments, but he and the hundreds of forcibly conscripted children who serve as his killing squads are feared throughout the region for their horrific levels of brutality and the butchery of tens of thousands of defenseless civilians. Their swath of destruction has displaced well over 2 million people. Kony has forced new male recruits to rape their mothers and kill their parents. Former LRA members say the rebels sometimes cook and eat their victims.

Years of peace talks have consistently failed to deliver Kony. Dictators have fallen in many countries, and war criminals in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast have been brought to justice. Even Kony's longtime patron, Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, has been charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for his policy of ethnic cleansing in Darfur. But Kony remains free to raid, plunder and kidnap. The ICC issued arrest warrants for Kony and three of his top commanders in 2005, but the papers sit untouched in a dusty office in Kampala, useless until Kony is captured. "Normally these kinds of conflicts in Africa are various shades of gray," says Julia Spiegel, a California native who documents the LRA's atrocities for the Enough Project, an independent group formed to stop crimes against humanity in Africa. "But this is very clear-cut. Going after Kony is just not disputable."

george w. bush set his sights on Kony almost as soon as he was sworn in as president. Early on in his first term, Bush told his new assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, that he wanted to "do something" about southern Sudan, a breakaway Christian and animist region of the Muslim-dominated country. Bush's interest gave Ugandan President Museveni the opening he craved. Museveni had transformed his country into a relatively peaceful and prosperous place since fighting his way to power 15 years earlier, and he believed it would be a model nation if not for Kony, whose murderous raids extended into southern Sudan. In a 2001 meeting with Bush, Museveni appealed for help. "Can you give us some helicopters?" Frazer recalls the Ugandan leader asking. "We've got this terrorist." Bush lobbied hard for the military aid and got Kony placed on a "terror exclusion list" that gave the United States much broader powers to intervene. "Museveni was happy," says Frazer. "We did it partly because we felt it was appropriate, but also to give ourselves some leverage on how to deal with [Kony]."

Two new helicopters were delivered to Museveni, and within 18 months the United States had deployed a three-man intelligence cell to the jungles of northern Uganda specifically to monitor the situation. Their reports were sent up the chain of command in Washington, where they landed on the desk of Stephen Hadley, then the deputy national-security adviser. Bush was watching closely, too. "He'd go off very passionately about the LRA," says Frazer. "How can this guy call himself a soldier of the Lord?" Bush would rage. "He's just a murderer."

Kony was certainly no ordinary rebel. Born in 1962 in a small village called Odek, he was by all accounts a quiet boy, more partial to dancing than sports. His deepset eyes earned him the nickname "Black Monkey." According to a recent biography, Matthew Green's The Wizard of the Nile, Kony didn't enjoy boxing like other kids his age. "I just don't see the point of fighting," he told a friend. His father was a catechist in the Roman Catholic Church.

But the quiet young man came of age in tumultuous times. The end of Idi Amin's notorious dictatorship in 1979 quickly gave way to more years of chaos and violence under the equally ruthless, but less colorful, leader Milton Obote. Deep in the countryside, Museveni gathered a band of guerrillas—many of them children. Uganda was swarming with orphans by then, and every militia filled its armed ranks with kids. Unlike other underage combatants, Museveni's forces at least had a reputation for discipline; looting, rape and other abuses against civilians were forbidden. Many people cheered Museveni's child soldiers as liberators when they fought their way to Kampala in late 1985. But Museveni was a southerner, and after taking power he set about systematically weeding out enemies who hailed from the northern Acholi tribe. Some fled the country, while others, like Kony, took to the bush.

Kony wasn't the only member of the tribe to mount an uprising against Museveni. Several other self-proclaimed spiritual healers and mystics had vowed to oust the new president. The most famous was Alice Lakwena, a wildly popular healer who established the Holy Spirit Movement and rallied thousands of Acholis against Museveni. Lakwena told her followers that enemy bullets would turn to water. Museveni eventually crushed Lakwena's movement and sent her into exile in Kenya. But Kony took on her mantle. In April 1987, after three days of nonstop praying on a grassy spot called Awere Hill, he advised his followers to bring him a dove, some white plates and a Muslim robe. From there, he led his people into the hills. The Lord's Resistance Army was born.

Like Lakwena, Kony claimed a personal connection to the spirit world, using water as a medium. He declared himself a prophet and a seer. But he also got considerable worldly (but covert) assistance from men who bore grudges against Museveni. The Acholi tribe was once the core of Uganda's military, and Acholi generals who had been sacked by Museveni gladly helped Kony with technical advice and military strategy. Sudan's Muslim leaders also wanted to punish Museveni for supporting Christian-led rebels in southern Sudan, and in 1994 they began helping Kony build a full-blown insurgency.

Over drinks in Gulu, a town in northern Uganda that has endured some of the LRA's worst depredations, Patrick Makassa recalled his years as Kony's director of operations. A short, weathered man who finally quit the LRA in 2007, Makassa has a long, quiet stare born of years in the bush. "Between '94 and '98 Khartoum gave us a lot of ammunition and we buried it all around," he told me. "Even now, they're using it." In later years, Makassa said, Khartoum also provided "intelligence training," and injured LRA fighters were flown to Khartoum for treatment "in big Russian planes."

Some people say Sudan's support for Kony dried up around 2003, when the Bush administration focused on his atrocities, but the leaders of Uganda and southern Sudan insist the covert support has continued. Either way, Bashir's recent indictment at the ICC places him in the same legal predicament as his former proxy warrior. As a result, says Steven Browning, the American ambassador in Kampala, "this whole region is going to get a lot more unstable."

the hunt for joseph kony has been marked by one spectacular failure after another. In 2006, in an unprecedented move, the United Nations mounted a covert operation to capture or kill him. A squad of U.S.-trained Guatemalan Special Ops soldiers set out into Congo's Garamba National Park, a longtime LRA refuge and the scene of last year's Operation Lightning Thunder. Trained in jungle warfare and accustomed to surviving in the bush for long stretches, the Guatemalans were equipped with M-16s and the latest special-operations technology. But they were no match for Kony and his child warriors. Makassa recalls the day the Guatemalans appeared. He had left Garamba park briefly to pick up food and supplies in southern Sudan, just across the border. On his way back he got a call: "The situation is bad. Unknown soldiers came to fight us. Hurry up and help us." The caller described the unknown soldiers as muzungu—a Swahili word meaning "white man."

By the time Makassa reached the scene, the battle was over. Five LRA soldiers had been killed. But not one of the Guatemalans had survived. The LRA fighters slaughtered them all and, according to one account, beheaded the commander. Some reports put the U.N. dead at eight; others say as many as 40 counterinsurgency troops may have died that morning. The LRA left the corpses in the jungle but took the weapons—including heavy machine guns and grenade launchers.

Kony was in southern Sudan at the time, far from the battle. Makassa called him with the news. "Kony was very happy," Makassa recalls. "Kony likes fighting, he likes war." The episode is remembered in Kampala as "the Guatemalan disaster." "They got their asses whipped," says a senior U.S. official who declined to go on the record discussing the event. "It was a huge shock," remembers U.S. Ambassador Browning. "It was demoralizing to the United Nations, and it was a tremendous boost to the aura of Joseph Kony."

Kony is an enigma even to the throngs of children and young adults who grew up at his side, butchering, kidnapping and plundering together. Former soldiers say they're not sure whether he's a psychopath or a true seer. Kony keeps everyone guessing, taking a decision and completely reversing it minutes later. Among his followers he often holds a drinking gourd up against the sun, so the light filters through the water inside. "Look," he once whispered to David Opige, a 35-year-old former soldier who spent six years in the bush with the LRA before escaping, "Look inside and I'll tell you what is happening in Uganda right now." Makassa says Kony often disappeared into the jungle for long stretches, accompanied only by his 10-man security detail. Upon his return, Kony would make a prediction—and as often as not, Makassa recalls, it would come true. "I don't know what he is or who he is, but he has something special about him, that's for sure."

Just three months after the massacre of the Guatemalans, Kony agreed to join international peace talks. It wasn't the first time. Previous negotiations—in 1994, and again in 2002—ended in failure, and the LRA resumed its campaign of wanton violence in the heart of Africa. Over the years the group is estimated to have killed upward of 65,000 civilians; abducted as many as 40,000 children; and destroyed hundreds of villages in Uganda and southern Sudan and, most recently, across a swath of eastern Congo.

The 2006 talks opened in a climate of abject terror. Years of relentless LRA raids led by Kony against his own tribes people had turned northern Uganda into a vast area of fetid camps where hundreds of thousands of refugees had sought safety. Rampant HIV, malaria, hunger and violence were worsened by occasional night visits from LRA marauders out to kill or abduct new victims. At one point, thousands of children began making nightly trips to nearby towns to seek shelter; relief workers called them "the night commuters." By 2004 nearly every aid organization in the world had set up an office in the downtrodden northern refugee town of Gulu. "It was just an absolute hell here," Spiegel told me as we toured the site of a former camp that once held nearly a quarter of a million Ugandans, all driven from their homes by the LRA's war against the government.

The talks were beset with problems from the start. Kony's chief negotiator was a man named David Matsanga, a Ugandan exile who had also done public-relations work for Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. According to several people who worked with him, Matsanga was more "conflict entrepreneur" than credible negotiator. Insiders say he was paranoid and unstable, too. They say he tested his food with a "poison detector" before meals, and if he happened to look away while eating he would demand a fresh plate of food, which also had to be tested before he resumed his meal.

But Kony seemed eager for the talks. He and his fighters showed up for repeated meetings in the southern Sudanese capital of Juba and on the border between Congo and Sudan. Kony's interest rose visibly when the Bush administration sent a young American, Tim Shortley, to push for a comprehensive agreement. Frazer—who says she never thought Kony was serious about peace, especially not after the ICC issued its arrest warrant for him in 2005—nevertheless urged Shortley to "go out there and do more, do everything you can to get this guy to sign." The United States contributed more than $10 million to underwrite the process. The United Nations had passed a resolution conveying "deep concern" about the LRA, and was pushing hard for an end to the conflict. Museveni even sent Kony's own mother to meet with her son in the bush and beg him to surrender. But behind the scenes, Frazer was getting frustrated. At one point she quietly asked Museveni, "Why don't you just ambush Kony when he's in one of these meetings?" "We don't ambush people," Museveni told her. "If we're in the bush and somebody's back is turned, before we strike, we'll cough."

Still, it became clear that Kony had no intention of signing any agreement that didn't guarantee his immunity from prosecution. (The international community now faces similar difficulties with Sudan's Bashir.) Before every meeting, Kony would insist on receiving a shipment of food for his "5,000 fighters"—although he's believed to have no more than 800 at any given time. Makassa says the LRA stashed the provisions for future operations.

Meanwhile, Kony's chief negotiator was going to pieces. Unable to convince the Americans that he had any real sway, Matsanga often drank himself into a stupor or burst into tears on the shoulders of other negotiators. "Going through a process like that is very emotional," says Matsanga. "The thousands of people who have died in these 23 years, it is something that gives you grief, it doesn't give you joy, but we have to push forward to find a settlement … It was very, very frightening to go meet him. [But] we had to." A Western official who was deeply involved in the talks takes a skeptical view. "When you met with him secretly, he was always interested in letting you understand that he was in contact with Kony," says the official, who is not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations. "In the end, none of that seemed to be true. Kony played everyone, and everyone played everyone else."

From 2006 through late 2008, the LRA continued its raids unabated while the talks went nowhere. "Kony just kept putting it off," recalls Ambassador Browning. "There was one excuse after another, a new translator, a new lawyer, more food—it was clearly a delaying tactic." Kony would often agree to a time and place for a meeting, and then not show up. Matsanga still insists that Kony genuinely wants peace. But while the negotiators tried to keep the talks alive, the militaries of Uganda, southern Sudan and Congo began planning another military operation to stop him once and for all.

By July 2008 Congolese troops had begun forming an L-shaped perimeter south of Kony's largest camps in Garamba National Park. Late that year a delegation of religious and Acholi leaders made an arduous two-day journey into Garamba in a final effort to persuade Kony to surrender. Archbishop John Odama, the ranking Anglican cleric in Gulu, had spent most of his professional life struggling to lure Kony out of the bush, meeting with the rebel leader seven times over the years. Entering Garamba on Nov. 28, he realized this might be his last chance. The next morning, in a small jungle clearing, Kony emerged from behind a throng of bodyguards and faced the archbishop. Kony was tall and slender, fit from his years in the jungle. He wore a crisp uniform adorned with red epaulets, and he was cleanshaven.

Kony said he was angry. "You see," he told the archbishop, "I have a spear in my hand and I'm chasing an animal called peace. I want to spear peace so people can eat it. But as I chase peace, there is a lion called the ICC chasing me. So I'm caught between these two. Should I fight the lion, or go on chasing the peace animal?" Then Kony walked away. Later that evening the archbishop was about to give up and leave when several LRA fighters rushed up and grabbed his arm. "Please continue this peace process," they whispered. "Don't give up! Don't give up!"

Even as the rebels begged Odama to keep trying, Ugandan military officers and U.S. military-intelligence advisers were finalizing plans for Operation Lightning Thunder, just two weeks away. The details had been kept secret even from the No. 2 officer in the Ugandan Army. Museveni, a military man and former bush leader himself, occasionally went to great lengths to showcase his martial prowess. (He once convened Parliament and dressed everyone in fatigues for a 4 a.m. calisthenics class.) He was going to direct the operation personally from his office at the presidential State House, and his son-in-law would lead the team of Ugandan commandos who were to find and kill Kony.

It was the first military operation on the continent for AfriCom, the fledgling U.S. military command for Africa. The Americans—16 men and one woman, all specialists in intelligence and logistical support—did their best to make Lightning Thunder a success, even bringing in Makassa, the former LRA operations director, to advise them on where Kony might be hiding and how he might react.

But like the peace talks, the operation went badly from the start. The plan had called for helicopters and MiG fighters to attack Kony's camp simultaneously, followed immediately by a commando assault. But the Ugandans, worried by the rapidly worsening weather, jumped the gun. "They struck early and they didn't get their troops on the ground fast enough," says a senior U.S. official who followed the operation closely. "By the time [the commandos] got there, the LRA had already disappeared." The Americans still aren't sure how Kony escaped. One of his concubines later told investigators that he took off just minutes before the attack, saying he was going hunting. U.S. and Ugandan military officials believe he had a shortwave radio and had picked up pilot chatter from the incoming Mi-24 helicopters. "I just know he was there," says the senior U.S. official. "That's probably the closest anyone has ever gotten to killing him."

Eight days later Kony retaliated, as usual by attacking helpless civilians. Within a few days, LRA fighters had slaughtered more than 1,000 Congolese villagers, beating them to death with clubs, rifle butts and machetes, and burning entire villages to the ground. Hundreds of children were kidnapped, and roughly a quarter of a million people fled their homes in Congo and south Sudan. Somehow Kony managed to maintain at least some operational control over a now atomized force, scattered into small groups and largely on the run. "They whacked the hornets' nest, and now they were angry," says Spiegel of Project Enough. Acholi opposition politician chairman Norbert Mao, a tough critic of Museveni's handling of Kony, put it more harshly: "We had the intel, and if the U.S. had been better involved, it would have been a pinpoint operation. I suspect that sometimes the incompetent management of the military may be deliberate."

Kony has been lying low since then, but U.S. officials believe he's preparing his next move. Ugandan forces have mostly pulled back from their forward operating bases in Congo, leaving their pathetically underequipped, ill-trained Congolese colleagues to continue the hunt. "I'm sure Kony is seeing an opportunity to pull his operation back together," says one AfriCom official who can't speak on the record about the ongoing military situation.

Sometimes a conscript manages to escape Kony's clutches. George Komagun, the 16-year-old who witnessed Operation Lightning Thunder, fled to freedom a few weeks ago. He cried for two days, says the social worker who is treating him for malaria, diarrhea and posttraumatic stress. The boy was 11 when the LRA swarmed into his village, killed his parents and hauled him away. At a run-down shelter for war refugees in downtown Juba, he told me of some of his life in the bush with Kony. "If you kill someone, Kony would say, 'Now you killed them, you must drink their blood and eat their liver.' I ate the livers. Maybe 20 times."

Komagun has trouble sleeping, despite heavy doses of medication. At night he dreams of the people he has killed: "They come to me crying, saying, 'Don't kill me, don't kill me'." He slurped a bowl of pea soup as he spoke. "People should eat Kony," he said tiredly. "He killed so many people."