In 2006 I met Joseph Kony in a jungle clearing in South Sudan. It was one of two sites where members of his Lord’s Resistance Army were allowed to gather in safety for peace talks. I was with Jan Egeland, the then UN’s emergency humanitarian co-ordinator, who was taking a huge risk in meeting Kony. He secured no concessions, no prisoners were freed nor children released in return for the meeting. On the other hand, Kony got a badge saying he was respectable enough to hobnob with UN officials.
Two years later a peace deal was close. Kony was expected to emerge from the bush to sign. Only he never showed. His aides said he was suffering from diarrhoea. A little later I travelled to Doruma in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo with photographer Kate Holt. It was clear that Kony had cynically used talks to rebuild his fighting force, collecting food and satphones to continue his bizarre struggle.
I read again today that Kony is in peace talks…. Excuse me if I don’t hold my breath. This is the story I wrote in 2008:
DORUMA, DRC: FOR eight days Raymond Kpiolebeyo was marched at gunpoint through the steaming Congolese jungle, not knowing whether he would live or die. For six nights he slept with eight other prisoners pinned under a plastic sheet weighted down with bags and stones to prevent escape. Their sweat condensed on the sheeting inches above their faces before dripping back and turning their plastic prison into a stinking, choking sauna.
He was a prisoner of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a cult-like band of brutal commanders and their brutalised child soldiers.
“They told us that if one of use tried to escape we would all be shot,” said Raymond, a 28-year-old teacher from the town of Doruma, close to the border with South Sudan.
He had been captured by a raiding party looking for porters, sex slaves and soldiers to continue the LRA’s 20-year struggle to overthrow the Ugandan government.
Yet the war is supposed to be over. After two years of negotiations, the LRA’s reclusive leader, Joseph Kony, was expected to sign a final peace deal in April. He failed to show up and his aides first said he was suffering from diarrhoea before announcing that he would be not be signing at all.
Negotiators still hold out hope that a war that forced two million people into squalid aid camps is close to an end. Many of the war’s victims in northern Uganda have slowly begun leaving the sprawling shack cities where one generation was born and another died.
But in the border towns of the Democratic Republic of Congo a different picture emerges, one where slaving parties slog through the dense jungle snatching children barely big enough to carry AK-47 rifles. Mothers keep children close to their simple homes of mud and thatch.
And defectors held in the Ugandan capital Kampala say Kony – who claims to receive his instructions directly from God – had no real intention of laying down his weapons. Instead he used the ceasefire to rearm, recruit and stockpile food donated by well-meaning charities and supporters abroad.
For the first time they have given an insight into a well-ordered fighting force, whose senior officers have been trained by Sudan, Iran and Iraq.
This year his fighters have roamed through Southern Sudan, the Central African Republic and the DRC kidnapping more than 300 children, and turning a Ugandan war into a regional conflict.
After walking 10 hours a day for six days with a sack on his back and another balanced on his head, Raymond arrived at a well-ordered camp filled with children – some the offspring of women kept by commanders while others were being trained with guns.
“They were mobile. All the time they were organising,” he said, sitting in the office of Doruma school where he teaches primary age children. “Some were leaving for other villages and others were arriving.”
Kony is thought to have settled in the DRC two years ago, disappearing deep into Garamba National Park far in the north-east of the country. It was part of a gentlemen’s agreement with the Congolese government: he was offered a safe haven from which to begin seeking peace; in return his troops would steer clear of locals.
Raymond said the camp was a bustling town. Thatched huts stood in neat rows, while labourers farmed sweet potato, maize and beans.
At night a solar-powered television set would be brought out and the young soldiers would cheer as they watched noisy American war films. Anything starring Chuck Norris was a big hit.
After six nights living in Kony’s jungle headquarters Raymond had the chance of escape.
He was woken by a tap on the head from another prisoner. It was the signal to leave. The two tiptoed over sleeping soldiers before breaking for the thick bush around the camp.
He was one of the lucky ones. Five families in Doruma have had children snatched this year with little hope of seeing them returned.
Sitting on a low bamboo bench in the shade of a mango tree Christine Kutiote described how her 13-year-old niece, Marie, was taken as she tried to cross the river for a visit.
Now, she keeps her own four children close to home.
“I’m a Christian and I pray for them and that security will get better,” she said in the local Zande language, as a priest translated her words into French.
Her low, simple home told a different story. Its mud walls bore a pattern of white spots used by witchdoctors to ward off evil
They have little else to protect them. There is no army, the handful of police officers is unarmed and help can only arrive by plane or motorcycle, bumping for six hours along swampy tracks from Dungu, where the United Nations has a base.
Villagers are trickling in from the surrounding region seeking security but even Dungu offers little protection.
Burned-out buildings bear the scars of previous attacks by Kony’s followers. A hospital has few drugs and no anaesthetic.
This is a region well used to conflict. Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola all sent soldiers and support for a five-year civil war that claimed at least three million lives by the time it ended in 2002. Once again the tropical jungle here is being used for someone else’s war.
Governments in the region are slowly waking up the problem. Later this month the Congolese army will deploy 1000 soldiers to Dungu.
A secret intelligence document compiled by the United Nations mission to the DRC, known as Monuc, spells out the scale of the threat. It says the LRA cynically used the peace talks to organise itself into a more effective fighting force. The 670-strong band of fighters now has more than 150 satellite telephones, many bought with cash meant to aid communications during the talks.
“Simply put, Kony now has the ability to divide his forces into very simple groups and to reassemble them at will. When put together with his proven mastery of bush warfare, this gives him new potency within his area of operations,” says the report.
They were given tons of food by a charity, Caritas Uganda, to discourage the looting of villages, and sacks of dollars by Southern Sudan’s new leaders, whom they once fought.
Kony is stronger than ever, concludes the report: “Recent abduction patterns suggest that he is now in the process of perfecting the new skill of recruiting and controlling an international force of his own.”
Kony has long been something of an enigma. His use of child soldiers, tight control over his lieutenants and frequent movement meant few details of his life leaked out of the jungle. Commentators had to join the dots between a handful of disputed facts to form a fuller impression.
He was the altar boy who grew up to be a guerrilla leader. He was the wizard who used magic to protect his brainwashed adherents. And he was the deluded man from the bush who wanted to rule Uganda according to the 10 Commandments.
When he emerged blinking into the media glare two years ago for a meeting with the United Nations most senior humanitarian official, Jan Egeland, his wild, staring eyes and rambling words suggested a man with little grasp on reality.
Yet those who know him best say the simple picture of a crazed, self-proclaimed prophet is far from the mark.
“To describe him is very difficult for me. He is not mad,” said Patrick Opiyo Makasi, who was Kony’s director of operations until last year when he simply walked out of the jungle. “But he is a religious man. All the time he is talking about God. Every time he keeps calling many people to teach them about the legends and about God. Mostly it is what he is talking about and that is how he leads people.”
Colonel Makasi tells his story in soft, polite tones stumbling over the English language which he stopped learning when he was snatched from his home in Gulu, northern Uganda, at the age of 12. He was handed a Kalashnikov rifle and his school lessons were replaced by in by instruction in anti-tank mines, surface-to-air missiles and machine guns.
During the next 20 years he rose to become one of Kony’s must trusted confidantes.
Back then he was only a frightened little boy, missing his father and mother. His fellow child soldiers became his family and the process of brainwashing began.
“We stayed together and became like family. Even those who were in the bush were like your brothers,” he said in a non-descript café in a Kampala suburb, his words monitored by a government minder. “Because you are young you see some commanders like fathers. Things are happening fast and you need the others to help you. You follow what the commander says because there is no-one else to listen to.”
He impressed his superiors, eventually being given the nickname Makasi. He only learned later that the word means “difficult to break” in the Congolese language Lingala.
He insisted civilians were not his target. He waged war on the Ugandan People’s Defence Force, he said.
Yet the LRA has always needed civilians, stealing food, children and women at will.
Captured children were forced to beat escapees until they died. Once their hands were stained with blood they were told they could never leave – they would be killed by the UPDF.
Anyone suspected of badmouthing Kony had their lips sliced from their face; anyone caught riding a bicycle was liable to have their legs cut off for fear cyclists would raise the alarm as the LRA approached.
The abuses earned Kony the title of Africa’s most wanted man. The International Criminal Court in the Hague issued arrest warrants against Kony and four senior commanders in 2005.
A year ago Makasi simply strolled out of Kony’s camp, knowing that no-one would suspect the LRA’s director of operations of defecting. A day earlier Kony had murdered Vincent Otti, the LRA’s second-in-command, and Makasi knew the death of a key negotiator meant peace talks hosted by South Sudan were doomed.
Kony would never emerge from the bush he told senior commanders, and was becoming increasingly paranoid that he would face the death penalty for his crimes.
“He said the ICC was a very bad thing and if he went to the Hague he would die,” said Makasi.
For five days he struggled through the thick bush, skirting around lions, elephants and buffalo before arriving in Dungu.
He brought with him details of a staggering array of weaponry supplied by the Sudanese government in Khartoum, who once used the LRA as a proxy army in a doomed attempt to put down southern rebels.
Makasi said the LRA was given crates of AK-47s, mines, heavy machine guns and even surface-to-air missiles by the Sudanese armed forces.
“I know that because we were staying with them around their camp and we were the ones who would collect them from their lorry,” he said.
It took Makasi’s comrades eight months to bury the booty in caches dotted across Southern Sudan. They are now being excavated as Kony returns to war.
Makasi said senior officers also used to visit Khartoum for instruction. Some were flown on to Iran and Iraq to learn leadership skills, tactics and training on new weapons.
For all his bizarre beliefs and brutish tactics, analysts now believe Kony is acting with the rational behaviour of a cornered man.
“Political theorists have an expression ‘gambling for resurrection’ and that seems to be what he is doing,” said a military source. “He still thinks he can become president of Uganda, running the country as some sort of theocracy so it seems as if he is digging in.”
For Makasi though the war is over. Today he is part-prisoner, part-guest of the Ugandan government which he fought for two decades.
He said he wanted to continue his education and find work helping people. Something normal after a life lived in Kony’s alternative reality. He knows the LRA conducted staggering acts of brutality yet cannot quite bring himself to admit responsibility.
“I cannot say sorry because it was not my hope that my life was like this,” he said. “I was taken and forced to fight. It was not my will.”