Oct 7, 2015

Joseph Kony and Mutiny in the Lord’s Resistance

October 3, 2015
New Yorker

One of the many child soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army.
One of the many child soldiers in the
 Lord’s Resistance Army.
Vincent Okumu Binansio, nicknamed Binany, was one of the many children who have been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. Captured in the mid-nineties, when the group was rapidly growing in power, Binany was taken to live in the compound of the L.R.A. leader, Joseph Kony, in Sudan. In Binany’s late teens, he became one of Kony’s bodyguards, and he eventually rose to the position of his chief aide, managing the welfare of Kony and his several families. This close proximity made Binany and other boys blindly loyal to Kony.

“Binany was so naïve, so sincere,” said A., who was Binany’s wife for a few years, before she escaped, in 2004. “He believed what Kony said and did everything he ordered.” (A., who was kidnapped from her boarding school, in 1996, is now living in northern Uganda.) This devotion meant that, by 2009, when Binany was still in his early thirties, he was one of the most senior L.R.A. commanders. Kony entrusted him with the leadership of all groups operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, nearly three hundred armed men, or almost half of the L.R.A.’s troops, according to my estimates. Binany allegedly was one of the leaders of an assault on the Congolese region of Makombo that killed three hundred and twenty people. In 2010, Kony tasked Binany with a mission that he said could “determine the future of my government,” according to former L.R.A. fighters.

Kony ordered Binany to lead his group of thirty-four people (the L.R.A. has operated since 2009 in groups of thirty to fifty) to kill elephants in Congo’s vast Garamba National Park, collect as many tusks as the group could carry, and transport them back to Kony in Kafia Kingi, a disputed sliver of land between Sudan and South Sudan, under the partial control of the Sudanese Armed Forces. Kony intended to barter the tusks for food, uniforms, and ammunition. This would be a lifeline for his fighters, who were attacking and often killing civilians to steal their food and clothing.

The journey from Garamba National Park was long and hazardous. Binany’s group, which included eleven women and children, walked more than three hundred miles, through some of the world’s densest vegetation, to avoid major roads in the Central African Republic. On the way north to Kafia Kingi, they carried thirty-eight tusks, some as long as six feet and shoulder-saggingly heavy. In November, 2012, after more than four months of walking, the group finally made it back to Kafia Kingi, where a proud Binany delivered the load to his mentor.

But the L.R.A. leader quickly turned from jubilant to furious. Three fighters in Binany’s group had brought back three teen-age Congolese girls. From interrogating the girls, Kony learned that his three lieutenants had disobeyed his strict constraints regarding sexual intercourse. Kony ordered the lieutenants’ immediate execution, and he released the women. “It was so cruel,” a former fighter, who called himself Mugabe, later said. “They walked for so long to bring the tusks and were so tired. Kony did not even let them recover; they were all skin and bones. And he killed them for what? Because of these women.”

Kony founded the Lord’s Resistance Army in 1987, at first to combat Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who had seized power a year earlier. Claiming to have been possessed by spirits, Kony at first enjoyed a following of a few hundred and garnered a few minor victories in skirmishes with Museveni’s soldiers. His standing changed dramatically in 1994, when Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir agreed to provide Kony with guns and ammunition in exchange for L.R.A. attacks on the South Sudanese rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and the Ugandan Army. To create his army, Kony ordered the abduction of thousands of young men and women throughout northern Uganda. Groups of L.R.A. fighters descended on villages, usually late at night, kicking in doors and grabbing terrified young men and women. The youngsters were often forced to kill their family members or friends, as a way to seal their entry into the rebel force and prevent them from ever leaving.

By the late nineties, an estimated three thousand people were fighting in the L.R.A., which was based in southern Sudan and northern Uganda. Kony was the supreme commander, exercising complete control over all his groups through a combination of martial discipline, spiritual guidance, and brainwashing. Although he is often portrayed as messianic or even crazy, Kony has been a shrewd, if extremely predatory, operator, and has proven adaptable and resilient under extremely harsh conditions. His stay in the middle of bush camps insures that he is the last to be attacked (and the first to escape). Similarly, his insistence on not allowing fighters to sleep with young women is an attempt to control the spread of H.I.V., and to remain free of the infection.

The three lieutenants who brought Congolese girls to Kony’s camp had done more than flaunt the rules; they had reminded Kony of his worsening loss of control over his troops. In December, 2008, a Ugandan-led offensive drove the L.R.A. out of Garamba National Park and forced them to scatter throughout northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Ongoing conflict with the Ugandan Army decimated the ranks and eventually pushed Kony to Kafia Kingi. With his groups operating far from one another, Kony was no longer able to exercise any meaningful supervision. For a man accustomed to knowing everything from when women menstruated to the contents of his commanders’ dreams, the three youngsters’ sexual laxity perhaps suggested his own unraveling.

The executions frayed the nerves of many fighters in the Kafia Kingi camps. Then in January, 2013, Binany, who had been sent on another elephant-hunting expedition in the Congo, was killed by Ugandan soldiers in the Central African Republic. The surviving members of his security escort returned and reported the news to Kony. In a rage, Kony demoted the entire group and had them beaten. He also ordered the immediate execution of the chief security escort, Otto Agweng. This was another extremely harsh decision, even by the L.R.A.’s standards, given the military superiority of the Ugandan Army.

After Agweng’s execution, Kony called a group meeting, where he explained that the security chief had actually been killed for having sex with one of the widows of the three murdered lieutenants. A former L.R.A. fighter named Walter, who went by the nickname Arec (which means fish in his native dialect, Acholi), told me that he believed Kony made up this claim in order to justify his decision. Agweng was a feared and respected commander, who often provided protection to Kony and his family members. So if Kony had killed one of his bravest commanders for failing to stand up to the Ugandan Army, then there was no one he was likely to spare.

A few weeks after Agweng’s execution, a dozen fighters from Kony’s group, including Walter, escaped. More followed during the next two years, and one senior commander, Dominic Ongwen, surrendered to the Ugandan Army. “Agweng was not a nice man,” one young Congolese man said. “He beat people over the smallest mistakes and always did what Kony said. But he did not deserve to die like that.” Soon after the second anniversary of Agweng’s execution, the Congolese fighter and eight other members of Kony’s group in Kafia Kingi made a plan to kill Kony. The former fighters and L.R.A. experts I spoke to believed it was the first assassination plot in the group’s history. “We were beaten or even killed as if it meant nothing,” the lead plotter, Alex Aligiri, told me. “We had enough of that life.”

The nine men hid food and water in preparation for a late-night attempt to assassinate Kony, followed by an escape to Obo, in the Central African Republic, the nearest base of the Ugandan Army, at least a month’s walk away. They agreed to make their attempt when Kony’s eldest son, Salim, and his escorts left to fetch ivory in the Democratic Republic of Congo that another group had collected over the previous six months, and there would be fewer guards around the camp.

For many former L.R.A. members, it seems unfathomable that anyone on the inside could conceive of killing Kony. In fact, one of the nine was convinced that his gun stopped working whenever he was near Kony. Two others escaped on their own before the agreed-upon moment for the assassination attempt, taking with them some of the group’s provisions.

The desertion spurred the remaining seven to attack earlier than they had intended. After everyone else was asleep, six men left the camp and joined a seventh, who was on duty as a camp guard about five hundred yards away from Kony’s hut. The four Ugandans in the group told me they shot hurriedly at Kony and his bodyguard Odek’s huts and ran away. But one of the men, Jackson, gave a detailed description of how he shot straight at Odek’s hut, and at Kony’s, but both men managed to storm out of the mud-walled huts and run in the opposite direction. “Had we followed them, we could have killed them,” Jackson said, staring at the ground. “But we were scared.”

The seven grabbed their hidden food and water and started running southeast, toward Obo. Kony’s guards chased after them, and in a fire exchange, the seven killed one guard and injured another. The seven reached Obo and surrendered to the Ugandan Army in June, about a month after leaving Kafia Kingi. When I met them, at the military base in Obo, they had just returned from leading the Ugandan Army to the site of the Kafia Kingi camps. There was no trace of Kony, but they dug out a cache of thirty AK-47s that the group, which likely left in a hurry, had abandoned. All four have since been repatriated to Uganda.

Their defections reduced the number of fighters in Kony’s personal group to a historic low of sixteen, according to the defectors I interviewed. Outside the relative safety of Kafia Kingi, L.R.A. numbers are dwindling further—estimates suggest that only about one hundred and twenty armed men remain —despite Kony’s orders to abduct and train new recruits from the Central African Republic. Many of these young Central Africans leave the first chance they get.

“It is hard to defeat the L.R.A.,” Michael Kabango, the Ugandan Army officer in charge of anti-L.R.A. operations, told me over drinks one June night in Yambio, South Sudan. “Kony does not trust anyone outside of his groups, and he does not like to be controlled, which is why he stays away from Sudanese soldiers,” Kabango said. “No outside connections mean no weaknesses. Since we can’t reach him there and the Sudanese leave him alone, his end has to come from within.” I have interviewed dozens of former L.R.A. fighters and soldiers who say much the same.

Belle, Teo, and Esther, who are sixteen, fourteen, and twelve years old, respectively, were for a short time part of an L.R.A. group. I met them in Obo, where they had spent more than two months, but their homes were far away, deep in the heart of the Central African Republic. Hunched over a large map of his country, Teo pointed at all the territory the three were forced to walk while they were in the group, more than five hundred miles over a period of six months. They escaped as soon as they could. “We were not staying, no matter how many times they threatened to kill us,” Belle said.


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