Deep in the jungle, the small, remote Central African village of Obo is farther from the coast than any point on the continent. It is also where three international armies have zeroed in on Joseph Kony, one of the world’s most wanted warlords.
Obo was the first place in the Central African Republic that Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attacked in 2008; today, it is one of four forward operating locations where US special forces have paired up with local troops and Ugandan soldiers to seek out Kony, who is believed likely to be hiding out in the rugged terrain northwest of the town.
For seven years, he has been wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity after his forces cut a wide and bloody swath across several central African nations with rapes, abductions and killings.
Part of the LRA’s success in eluding government forces has been its ability to slip back and forth over the porous borders of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo. However, since late last year, US forces have been providing intelligence, looking at patterns of movement and setting up better communications to link the countries’ forces together so that they can better track the guerrilla force.
Sent by US President Barack Obama at the end of last year, the 100 US soldiers are split up, with about 15 to 30 per base, bringing in US technology and experience to assist local forces.
Exact details on specific improvements that the US forces have brought to the table are classified, to avoid giving Kony the ability to take countermeasures.
“We don’t necessarily go and track into the bush, but what we do is we incorporate our experiences with the partner nation’s experiences to come up with the right solution to go out and hopefully solve this LRA problem,” said Gregory, a 29-year-old captain from Texas, who would only give his first name in accordance with security guidelines.
The US troops also receive reports from local hunters and others that they help analyze together with surveillance information.
“It’s very easy to blame everything on the LRA, but there are other players in the region — there are poachers, there are bandits, and we have to sift that to filter what is LRA,” Gregory said.
Central African Republic soldiers largely conduct security operations in and around the town, while Ugandan soldiers, who have been in the country since 2010, conduct longer-range patrols looking for Kony and his men.
Since January, they have killed seven LRA fighters in the area and captured one, while rescuing 15 people abducted by the group including five children, said their local commander, Colonel Joseph Balikuddembe.
There has been no contact with the LRA since March, however, according to Ugandan Army spokesman Colonel Felix Kulayigye, who said the LRA was now in survival mode. The LRA is thought to today number only about 150 to 300 die-hard fighters.
“They’re hiding,” he said. “They are not capable of doing.”
However, with Kony still around, there are wide ranging-fears that the LRA will be able to rebuild.
“There’s periods of time when the LRA will lie low when the military pressure is too high or where there’s a threat that they don’t understand, such as the American intervention,” said Matthew Brubacher, a political affairs officer with the UN’s mission in Congo, who was also an International Criminal Court investigator on the Kony case for five years. “But then after a while, after they figure it out, if they have the opportunity they’ll try to come back, so it’s just a matter of time they’ll try to come back. Kony always said: ‘If I have only 10 men, I can always rebuild the force.”