US forces join jungle search for Kony
- 30 April 2012
- From the section Africa
In one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth - in what British explorers called Africa's "Zone of Inaccessibility" - Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony is being pursued by four African armies with support from 100 US special forces soldiers. The BBC's Dan Damon is one of the few journalists to have visited the US military mission deep in the forests of Central Africa.
The airstrip at Obo in the Central African Republic is little more than a stretch of dirt track. Our single engine plane takes nearly four hours to reach Obo from the Ugandan capital, Kampala, and "kangaroos" its landing.
As the propeller slows, we are met by the small detachment of US special forces. They are Navy Seals, the same force that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
Here, as far away as you can get from the sea in any direction in Africa, I meet Captain Greg. For security reasons, special forces soldiers are reluctant to give you more than their rank and first name.
"What are you doing here?" I ask. It is a rapid-fire list: "Logistical improvements, medical capabilities, planning operations and also incorporating intelligence into the operations to make them more effective."
So how about using the United States's legendary electronic intelligence to track Mr Kony down?
"That's really not what we're here to bring, we're here to assist and advise the partner nations," says Capt Greg.
However sophisticated the US spy satellites and drones, it is not certain they would help in this terrain anyway.
All around Obo is what the military calls "triple canopy" jungle - thick undergrowth and trees so close and lush, they blot out the sky.
You could hide a fully equipped army in this forest, let alone a few hundred experienced bush fighters like the Lord's Resistance Army.
According to fighters who have dared to escape their sinister leader, the LRA, once 2,000 strong, now totals around 300. They include those abducted in recent raids in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This is where Mr Kony moved after being chased out of Uganda in 2006. The Ugandan army, the UPDF, pursued him but failed to catch him, despite getting close on a number of occasions.
The man in overall charge of the US Africa Command (Africom) is General Carter Ham. He emphasises that US soldiers will not be out on patrol in the jungle tracking Mr Kony, but he acknowledges that that is what a lot of Africans think is going to happen.
"I call it 'Man On The Moon' syndrome - if America can put a man on the Moon, why haven't we caught Joseph Kony? But we are there to work with our partner forces from the countries of Central Africa," says Gen Ham.
However small the LRA, its reputation and the spirit powers that many believe Joseph Kony can call on mean that even one man with a gun entering a village will scare the inhabitants away from their homes and farmland for years.
'Like a ghost'
In Gulu, northern Uganda, which has seen no LRA activity for more than five years, people still live in fear of Mr Kony.
There, we met Mugaga Maiko, who was abducted when he was 15 and spent three years as Mr Kony's escort.
"I saw that guy with my eyes, and the way he is operating I believe that he has the traditional spirits," says Mugaga.
"The reason I say that is you can find he is not among you when he is there. He has disappeared. That is why I say that Kony has the spirit, just like a ghost!"
All too real is the experience of Adye Sunday, captured when she was 13 and taken by Kony to add to his tally of "wives" - he is said to have had more than 80 - and held for 10 years.
I found Adye in a rehabilitation centre in Gulu, making cakes for sale. With her is her three-year-old daughter Betty, fathered by Mr Kony. She has a seven-year-old boy by Mr Kony as well.
Adye talks in a hushed monotone about her life in the bush, even when she tells us about the time Mr Kony's group was fleeing the Ugandan army and she was shot in the leg.
"What are your hopes?" I ask.
"I want a bicycle so I can sell the cakes more widely and make more money to bring up my children," she says.
"With my leg, I can't walk far. A bicycle would help a lot."
Mr Kony has released a large number of women and children like Adye and Betty in the past three years, not out of any compassion, according to the social workers trying to help them, but because they slow him down now he needs to keep on the move to avoid the four armies searching for him.
The men who come out of the bush are more likely to have made their own escape. One reason is Radio Zereda in Obo, which broadcasts advice and information on UN camps to help those trying to flee the LRA.
The main DJ at Radio Zereda - Zereda means "peace" in the local Zande language - is Emmanuel Daba, who was himself abducted in 2008, along with 76 others seized in a series of raids in that year.
"It's time to make an end to your time with the LRA," he chants over dance music, with the signal beamed from a tall transmitter mast funded by the US.
The small US special forces unit in Obo has had an impact disproportionate to its size. Maria Wangechi from the British medical charity Merlin told me that the presence of the US soldiers has allowed people to till their fields within a radius of 25km from the town.
"They were restricted to 5km," she says. But the threat continues.
"The last attack was about seven days ago," she adds.
"The people need security, and they need to know that all the health and other services they are getting now from aid organisations like Merlin will follow them when they go back to their villages in the bush."
That is the only positive potential outcome so far for these communities now blighted by Mr Kony's LRA.
The world knows they are there, at last, because of US pressure group Invisible Children and its 30-minute documentary Kony2012, and because the US has sent troops.
The local betting is that Joseph Kony is more likely to die in the forest than appear in the dock in The Hague as an indicted war criminal.
Whatever brings his reign of terror to an end, the people of these remote communities in Central Africa might eventually find their lives and livelihoods are improved by all the global attention they are now getting.