African villagers embrace U.S. role in hunt for Lord's Resistance Army leader

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 13, 2012 

OBO, Central African Republic — On the edge of this quiet town in the isolated forests of central Africa sits one of America's newest military outposts, a base made of grass surrounded by razor wire. Outside, a baby chimpanzee plays on a green rope, and three local policemen lounge in a pickup truck. Inside, up to 30 U.S. special forces plot the demise of one of the world's most elusive and sadistic rebels.

The U.S. troops arrived two months ago and by most accounts have yet to undertake any military actions. But their mere presence has transformed this tattered out-of-the-way enclave of Congolese refugees, Ugandan soldiers and traumatized local residents into an upbeat cluster of newfound hope.

At night, energized locals bang homemade 8-foot-long xylophones and straddle voluminous bass drums, crooning new tunes to celebrate their good luck. "The Americans are here/Our saviors are here/Let's dance" goes one such song.

"Americans are favored by God wherever they are in the world," said Bassiri Moke, a local chief. "We asked God to save us and the Americans came. We hope we won't have to die like before."

The American deployment here forms the core of a new plan constructed in Washington to end the violent cross-border marauding of Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony and his band of 200 hundred or so fighters known as the Lord's Resistance Army. Masters of survival, they slink through thick equatorial forests and brush-littered plains in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, preying on the civilian population for food and new conscripts, killing and abducting as they go. Thousands have died in their wake.

That the U.S. has joined the hunt for a group that horrifies millions of Americans but poses no direct threat to the United States is testament to the influence of human rights campaigners, who, together with evangelical Christians, lobbied Congress to pass a law requiring renewed U.S. efforts against the LRA. The Obama administration responded by dispatching 100 special operations troops to help find Kony.

Most of the U.S. troops are based near the Ugandan capital, Kampala. But this outpost in Obo — a town of 15,000 in the far-eastern obscurity of the Central African Republic, an impoverished former French colony of 4 million people — is the true heart of the effort. Kony and his core followers are believed to be living off the surrounding forests, always on the run.

Expectations among those who live in the rebels' vicious shadow are sky high.

"Kony will die now that the Americans have come," bellowed Longbango Jean-Claude, a 38-year-old Congolese refugee who had three family members killed and three more abducted by the LRA in 2009. "Don't put him in prison like a child. Just kill him."

The area where Kony operates gives new meaning to "middle of nowhere." A sequestered and ungoverned land with few roads, the area lies near the intersection of three of the world's most failed states and one of the remotest points on the continent.

There is little here of international economic interest, though the land itself is so fertile that even refugees have no problem growing their own food. There are vast mineral deposits in eastern Congo, and the U.S. government recently has changed sanctions laws to open South Sudan's oil industry to U.S. companies. But those are hardly factors in hunting down Kony.

The most direct U.S. interest may in fact be tighter cooperation with the Ugandan military, which also has become a channel for U.S. efforts in Somalia, where Uganda shoulders the fight against Islamist rebels with links to al Qaida.

A McClatchy correspondent, joined by a writer and a photographer from Time magazine, were the first journalists to visit the site of the new American deployment. The U.S. military's Africa command, known as Africom, was informed of the visit in advance but said the mission was not ready to accommodate journalists.

Twice in emails, a spokesman for the military said there was no U.S. base in Obo and that U.S. troops deployed here were staying at a Ugandan base. But the Ugandan base is at an abandoned church on one side of town, while the newly constructed outpost where the Americans stay is near a police station on the opposite side. Locals say the American compound has its own helicopter pad.

When reporters approached the American outpost, two close-cropped white heads poked briefly above the wall. One yelled, "You are not allowed in here." A white pickup truck carrying what appeared to be four Americans pulled up to the compound as the reporters were preparing to leave.

Not long ago, life here slogged away as it had for centuries. But in early 2008, as peace talks over South Sudan collapsed, Kony's men, who had been operating largely within the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, began venturing further north and west.

On March 6, 2008, they struck here.

Moke was the town mayor at the time. There was a huge funeral party. He warned everyone not to stay out late. He went to bed at 8 p.m.

"They didn't listen," he said. Around 2 a.m., the music suddenly stopped. The villagers realized they were surrounded. "They took them all," Moke recalled.

About half of the abductees were released after a few days, but 30 or so others remained. Boys and young men became LRA fighters; girls and young women, "wives."

Most have since escaped and found their way back, scarred with searing images of brutality and cruelty.

When asked how he is adjusting to life after a year in the hands of the LRA, the eyes of one abductee darkened.

"The images are always flashing in front of my eyes. It's like I'm projecting my own movies," said Emmanuel Daba, who was turned by the LRA into a soldier before he fled in South Sudan. "I doubt I can ever escape it."

Officials in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, say that this country was the weakest link in the Uganda-led regional effort to finish off the guerrilla group. Kony and his men have not set foot in Uganda for years. Most of the attacks take place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan is also seriously affected, but each of those countries have United Nations peacekeeping operations and somewhat functional, if ill-disciplined, national armies.

The Central African Republic, however, has a weak army with a spare presence here. When small groups of Central African Republic troops started arriving in some of the more rural areas in 2008, some teenagers had never seen a soldier before.

Now, they see American special forces drive around in white Toyota Hilux pickups and jogging for fitness along the edge of town.

What exactly the Americans have in mind is unclear.

There are differing opinions among officials about whether killing or capturing Kony would be enough to end his movement, which originated in the marginalized Acholi tribe of northern Uganda and offers an ideology that is a cult-like mish-mash of Christianity and traditional mysticism, held together by the force of Kony's charismatic and cruel leadership. Kony and two of his top lieutenants have been charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court and would theoretically face trial if captured alive.

The U.S. says it is here to provide logistical support, bolster intelligence sharing and improve the coordination among the four nations' armies now fighting the LRA.

"Our intent is to supplement host nation military efforts with advice and assistance that maximizes the flow of information to, and synchronizes the activities of, host nation units in the field," said Maj. James Scott Rawlinson, a spokesman for U.S. special operations forces in Africa. "The end state for this mission is to enable local forces to be able to render the LRA ineffective."

Although local residents are impatiently expecting a major new military operation soon, they say they have seen little American activity, and the troops themselves keep a low profile. Obo's acting mayor said he hasn't met any of the U.S. troops. The one identifiable U.S. project is the construction of a bigger broadcast tower for the local radio station.

Rawlinson did not directly respond to a question about whether U.S. personnel would join the Ugandan military on patrols, but he said that it is the African militaries that "have the responsibility of specifically countering the threat."

Ledio Cakaj, a researcher who has interviewed 200 former LRA fighters, women, and abductees over the past several years, is openly skeptical that the U.S. involvement will make any difference in a battle that has gone on for decades.

"The so-called military solution has not worked for over 25 years," he said, noting that the LRA is far more organized and rational than it is often portrayed in Western media. "It is not practically possible to kill them all."

Locals in Obo have had their hopes raised before. When Ugandan troops arrived in 2009, they were warmly welcomed as protectors. But more than two years later, with Kony still at large and the Ugandan strategy for finding him opaque, that good will has evaporated. Locals say Ugandan soldiers sometimes rampage through town drunk, abusing civilians, and they accuse them of running business schemes instead of finding Kony.

For the time being, the U.S. presence seems to have straightened out their allies' behavior, and once again the people of Obo feel their liberation is near. How long the status quo can remain before that elation craters is impossible to know. Locals seem to anticipate Kony only has a few months, if not weeks, remaining.

Until then, life remains a daily struggle.

In mid-January, Mbolifue Dieudonne and his brother, Danambutigo James, carried peanuts and clothes toward South Sudan for sale. They crossed four rivers, climbed a mountain, and then they saw them: five reeking dreadlocked men, armed with AK-47s.

They dropped their goods and ran for it, but James was captured. He was marched a mile and a half and stripped of his clothes. "We will kill you," said a man on his right. But the commander, to his left, released him.

Just like that, he was free. Once again, the tormentors from another land had left him empty-handed. And once again, he had no explanation for the shadowy force that has turned his life upside down in a conflict he still doesn't understand.

"I don't know why they let me go," he said. "I'm still terrified."

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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