The notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) wields a brutal recruitment tactic for replenishing its rebel forces in the jungles of central Africa: kidnapping. LRA soldiers-under the maniacal leadership of the elusive Joseph Kony-have kidnapped thousands in waves of civil war in northern Uganda and the surrounding region for two decades. Many of the kidnapped are children: Young boys become killing machines and young girls become sex slaves for soldiers in a war with few discernible objectives.
Despite African intervention, the horror continues: Kony refuses to sign a peace agreement with the Ugandan government, and African leaders believe he remains hidden in the dense forests of neighboring Congo. In December, military forces from Uganda, South Sudan, and Congo launched an offensive against LRA bases in Congo. Kony's group responded severely: A Christmas Day massacre at a Catholic church marked the beginning of vicious LRA attacks that have driven at least 100,000 Congolese from their homes.
Meanwhile, a separate conflict in the same region has driven tens of thousands more from their villages in Congo since October. Rebel forces comprising the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) took large swaths of eastern Congo in fighting with Congolese forces late last year. But this conflict may ease: Neighboring Rwanda captured CNDP leader Laurent Nkundu and promised to extradite him to Congo. In return, the Congolese government allowed Rwandan troops to enter Congo and hunt Hutu rebels still fighting Rwanda's Tutsi-led forces.
Nkundu's arrest came two weeks after the International Criminal Court (ICC) began its trial of Thomas Lubanga, another Congolese warlord accused of heinous war crimes, including using child soldiers to kill, pillage, and rape during a five-year war. Nkundu's arrest and Lubanga's trial leave some hopeful that Kony may be next.
But somewhere in the jungles of Congo, Kony seems unlikely to surrender: The ICC has pushed for Kony's arrest, and the rebel leader refuses to sign a peace deal with Uganda unless the court drops its indictment. Meanwhile, Kony has perfected terror tactics that allow his diminishing forces to evade the armies of three countries, and leave thousands suffering the consequences of a war without end.
African leaders believe Kony's LRA forces may include less than a thousand trained soldiers, yet the sparse force has staved off the combined military offense of Uganda, South Sudan, and Congo since December. Tactics like kidnapping allow Kony to bolster his ranks, but they also serve another purpose: dividing and confusing the enemy. Creating chaos by kidnapping civilians allows the LRA to drain the resources and attention of armies trying to protect their people.
Sometimes reporters get a firsthand glimpse of this tactic: During a reporting trip to a remote region of South Sudan last summer, the group I traveled with encountered a scare. Villagers less than two miles away from our compound reported the late-night kidnapping of a young man by a small band of men. Local leaders believed the LRA was responsible.
Our group sought protection from Sudanese soldiers stationed in the area, and a local village chief led efforts to track the kidnappers' point of entry into the area. Two soldiers guarded our compound for one night but moved on, saying their forces were stretched too thin. The kidnappers weren't found during our stay, but one dynamic was clear: The kidnapping of one man absorbed the resources of an entire region. Soldiers across South Sudan, Uganda, and Congo report similar LRA ploys that allow Kony to draw the attention away from his own movements.
LRA attacks aren't always isolated. Since Christmas, the group has systematically targeted whole villages and towns, forcing thousands to flee. The UN estimates the rebel forces have slaughtered at least 900 people since December, though the number may be much higher. Those who survive LRA attacks tell harrowing stories: Villagers reported LRA soldiers tying groups of women together before smashing their skulls. Others reported the rebels slaying babies with machetes.
Thousands of survivors fill overcrowded displacement camps in Uganda, South Sudan, and Congo, and aid groups clamor to provide services and medical attention to traumatized victims. UN humanitarian chief John Holmes called the humanitarian disaster of the last two months "catastrophic."
The disaster is particularly catastrophic for children: The LRA continues to kidnap children for its forces. Other children elude the rebels, only to lose their parents. Aid groups report children arriving at displacement camps alone. Anna Ridout, a World Vision worker based in Congo, says the Christian relief agency registered nearly a thousand unaccompanied children in refugee camps between October and January. Children separated from their parents or orphaned by violence remain especially vulnerable to physical abuse and sexual violence.
Ridout says displaced families struggling to find food and clean water for themselves often take in children they find traveling alone. "I met a 22-year-old man and his young wife who found two children alone as they fled their home at the end of last year," said Ridout. "They carried the children through the forest to a camp and now look after them in their banana leaf hut."
For children without caregivers, groups like World Vision offer food, water, health care, and protection. Ridout says World Vision also provides child-friendly spaces in refugee camps for children to play sports, learn skills, and retreat from the chaos of camp life.
But any retreat from chaos is short-lived. Dozens more refugees arrive daily and LRA attacks on nearby villages continue. Ridout and other World Vision staffers worry that the military offense against the LRA will continue to worsen a miserable humanitarian situation as the LRA retaliates. Still, Holmes of the UN says Uganda, South Sudan, and Congo should finish the operation to destabilize the rebel force: "I don't know how long that will take, but I think there is no point in putting a premature end to it."
In the meantime, Kony remains free, and some local leaders believe the rebel leader intends to drag out the war as long as possible. Joseph Ngere, deputy governor of the South Sudanese state of Western Equatoria, served on a South Sudanese team that attempted to negotiate with Kony for the last two years. Ngere told the BBC that Kony has a "destabilized" mind, and that the rebel embraces violence as a negotiation tactic: "Kony thinks that the strategy of killing civilians will put pressure on the government of South Sudan to reopen the peace talks."
Never-ending peace talks may be just what Kony wants, according to Ngere: "He has much to gain from this strategy. During the talks Kony gets free food and money. His wives and children are transported from Uganda to come and see him. He gets recognition. That is what he wants."