Gulu, Northern Uganda: I spoke recently with former LRA fighters who had just returned to the northern Ugandan town of Gulu from northeastern Congo. At least 31 former LRA fighters returned to Uganda in the month of September, after surrendering to Ugandan army forcers operating in Congo. This number, while still modest, represents a major increase from the past six months, when on average only a handful of LRA rebels returned each month. According to Ugandan army officials, this increase is a direct result of sustained military pressure by the Ugandan army.
The former rebels themselves attributed their decision to surrender largely to a lack of communication with the LRA leadership. With senior LRA officials on the move in the aftermath of the Ugandan-led (and U.S.-backed) operation Lighting Thunder in December 2008, small groups of LRA fighters have been scattered across the vast area of Congo’s Garamba national forest, out of contact with the LRA’s leaders and with ammunition and other supplies dwindling. It is unclear how many such small groups remain wandering in the region, detached from the LRA leadership and the bulk of the fighting force.
The Decision to Defect
The former fighters I spoke to described how they spent the last seven months completely isolated. Increasingly desperate and hungry, they resorted to fighting Congolese civilians with machetes in order to steal their food. Ultimately, despite having been indoctrinated by their LRA commanders to believe that the Ugandan army would execute them after surrendering, they decided to present themselves and their guns to a Ugandan military unit based in the Congolese town of Aba. These fighters came from the LRA 3rd brigade, formerly led by Major Kalalang, who was killed in action, according to the Ugandan army. They surrendered on September 21, 2009.
Another woman I spoke to surrendered to the Ugandan army in the Congolese town of Faradje in early August 2009. She was in the LRA 1st brigade under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Odek Okot. She also described how, in the aftermath of Lighting Thunder, many LRA fighters, as well as their wives and children, spread across in the Garamba forest, unable to establish contact with Kony and his retinue. (Kony is reported to have fled just minutes before the bombs started falling.) Pregnant and injured, this woman was released by Col. Okot, who was intent upon re-connecting his forces with Kony. The last thing her group knew of Kony’s whereabouts was that he was headed to the Central African Republic.
Former Fighters Face Uncertain Future
Returned former fighters face the daunting task of starting life in circumstances which are entirely alien to them, having spent most of their adult lives in the bush. Many of them will rejoin their families, but others are not so lucky. Former LRA sergeant Charles O. is a case in point. He is not sure how old he is—perhaps 19—but remembers clearly he was kidnapped around 1994. His entire family was killed in the same attack. ‘I have no one to return to’, he said.
The biggest fear for people like Charles is that they might be pressured by the Ugandan army officers to enlist. There have been reported cases where the Ugandan army asked former LRA fighters to serve as guides and fight with them against the LRA. Former LRA fighters were also openly conscripted in the army and were part of the 105th Brigade. The 105th was in existence for about two years and it was exclusively used against the LRA. The army claims that the 105th has now been disbanded and that recent returnees are not pressured to join.
Kony: Destination Unknown
Sources in Uganda’s Chieftancy of the Military Intelligence believe that Kony is moving with a group of around 400 fighters who operate in small units of up to 30 people. Whether Kony’s children are with him remains unclear. His present location is also unknown, partly because it is likely he is constantly on the move. Ugandan army spokespeople claim that Kony and his fighters are in the Central African Republic attempting to escape specially trained army units which have been relentlessly pursuing the LRA for the past few months.
The army of Southern Sudan has maintained that Kony is headed for Western Bahr el Ghazal and eventually Darfur and possibly Chad. Rumors persist in Kampala and Gulu that Kony might still be in Congo after all. Worryingly, an unconfirmed report from an intelligence service claims that Kony recently ordered all of LRA fighters he is in contact with to move to Garamba. While it has been impossible to corroborate any of these claims, it would be unfortunate if the international community is unable to finally apprehend Kony as he is weak and on the run and finally end once and for all the grave threat that the LRA poses to civilians across central Africa.
TAKE ACTION today by calling your Senators and member of Congress (202-224-3121) and ask them to cosponsor Senate Bill 1067 or HR 2478 to help end the 20-year reign of terror by the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa.
Sign the Citizen's Arrest Warrant for Joseph Kony to help bring an end to the Lord's Resistance Army. Take part in Invisible Children's initiative and learn more about their fall campaign at http://www.invisiblechildren.com/obama