Maj. Richard Kidega threaded his way through a thicket of sweet black trees and thorny underbrush when suddenly he drew to a halt. A young Ugandan soldier in front had raised a clenched fist: the sign to stop. With their AK-47s raised, Kidega and his men silently scanned the jungle for any signs of the enemy, such as fresh tracks or trampled brush. Hanging vines clogged the path. Dry leaves masked deep holes. The gully was an attractive place for an ambush. “It’s places just like this where the LRA likes to hide,” Kidega whispered, as the hunt for Joseph Kony, rebel leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, slowly moved ahead.
This inhospitable swath of jungle in the Central African Republic is ground zero in the search for Kony’s LRA. On any given day, Ugandan soldiers, aided by U.S. special forces, comb through the forests, looking for one of the most elusive war criminals in history, a man who has kidnapped thousands of children, turning boys into hardened killers and girls into sex slaves. It is estimated that the LRA has killed upwards of 70,000 civilians, kidnapped some 40,000 children, and displaced hundreds of thousands of people in four countries.
The movement, which has now descended into butchery, rape, and even cannibalism, began in 1986 as a popular insurrection against Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Initially many in northern Uganda supported the rebellion against Museveni, whose army ruthlessly persecuted the Acholi people in the north. Eventually, however, the warlord’s insurgency lost steam, and Kony turned on his own people, accusing them of sinning against God. As punishment, Kony and his commanders have cut off the lips, noses, and ears of victims; he has forced abducted children to murder their own families to ensure loyalty; and he has killed those who disobeyed orders.