Joseph Kony is one of the most vilified rebel leaders on the planet.
He stands accused of brainwashing countless children across northern Uganda, turning the girls into sex slaves and the boys into prepubescent killers. His so-called Christian movement, the Lord's Resistance Army, has terrorized this corner of Africa for nearly 20 years, killing tens of thousands of people, burning down huts and hacking off lips. The fact that Kony, whose followers believe he is a prophet, rarely appears in public has only added to his brutal mystique.
But on Sunday, he came out of the bush. At a camp deep in the forest on the Congo-Sudan border, Kony materialized to meet Jan Egeland, the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief.
"He looked a lot younger than I expected," Egeland said by telephone from Juba, Sudan. Kony is thought to be around 44.
For weeks now, Egeland had been trying to arrange a tete-a-tete with the elusive Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court to face charges of crimes against humanity.
They began their talks over the issue of child soldiers, and Egeland said he pressed Kony to release them. For the past several years, according to the Ugandan military, Kony has been living in a remote corner of Congo, near the borders of Sudan and Uganda, surrounded by a harem of child brides and protected by a battalion of child soldiers.
"I listed all of our humanitarian concerns and urged him to free women, children, the sick and the wounded," Egeland said. "But Kony insisted he didn't have anyone who fit that description."
The stickiest issue, Egeland said, was the arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court against Kony and four of his commanders. Kony has said he will never surrender as long as he faces the risk of being arrested. The Ugandan government has said that it will support dropping the charges, but that Kony must surrender first.
The impasse frustrates many Ugandans, who are sick of war and say they would rather the charges go away than the war grind on. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and nearly 2 million displaced since the rebellion started in the mid-1980s.
Egeland said he told Kony that he did not wield any influence with the International Criminal Court, which is based in The Hague and is independent of the UN.
"But I did tell him that it would benefit his cause if he made some humanitarian gestures, like releasing the women and children," Egeland said.