The hunt for one of Africa’s most brutal rebel leaders began 10 years ago, but there is still no trace of Joseph Kony. On Monday, his deputy will appear before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Joseph Kony, or "the Butcher of Uganda" as he is sometimes called, is said to have kidnapped as many as 70,000 children. Kony's rebel militia uses many of them to carry things as they move from one camp to another. Some of them are released; others are forced to become child soldiers. In order to stop boys from running away or returning to their villages, many are forced to shoot their own mothers. Women and girls are raped or forced to marry soldiers. The members of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have attacked villages, tortured civilians in northern Uganda, and executed some 100,000 people since the rebellion began, according to estimates. More than 2 million people have been displaced by the conflict.
Former child soldier and Kony deputy before court
In 2012, an American organization called Invisible Children drew global attention to the LRA with a film calling for Kony's capture. The video was watched around 100 million times. But three years later, little is heard about Kony in the media. That could change as of Monday. That's when one of Kony's deputies, Dominic Ongwen, will appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Ongwen stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The prosecution hopes to gain further information about the structures of the LRA in the course of the trial.
Ongwen was kidnapped by the LRA at the age of 10 while he was on his way to school. He was forced to become a child soldier. He rose quickly within the ranks of the Christian fundamentalist militia, murdering, stealing and raping in the name of Joseph Kony. In January 2015, Ongwen surrendered to US special forces helping to hunt for Kony in the Central African Republic.
Needle in a haystack
Kony, 55, founded the LRA in 1986 after supposedly receiving a command from the Holy Spirit. The militia wants to create a Christian theocratic state in Uganda based on Kony's interpretation of the Bible and the Ten Commandments. In 2005, the ICC issued an arrest warrant against the self-proclaimed prophet for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
But so far, he has evaded capture. According to Kristof Titeca, an expert on the LRA at the Institute for Development Policy at the University of Antwerp, Kony is most likely in a border region between the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and South Sudan. "It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," he said. The region is covered in dense forest, making it both inaccessible, and the perfect hiding place. A large military force would be needed to hunt Kony down. Titeca says that the roughly 200 warlords operate in separate groups, far away from their commander, and that they likely have very little contact with each other.
How strong is the LRA?
Despite this, the expert says there have been some successes: "The LRA is weaker now than it ever has been in its history." Since 2010, the number of abductions has decreased greatly. More than 100 women and children have fled from the camps, and leading members of the LRA have been killed. "Some say we have magaged to isolate the LRA and reduced the threats to the extent that we can almost say it's a kind of victory. Others say Joseph Kony is still at large and still abducting, so the threat is still there," Titeca said. That's why it has become increasingly difficult to maintain international attention to the fight against the LRA, he says.
Although the manhunt has had international support, especially from the United States, Kony is still on the run. Titeca says he is likely being protected by the Sudanese army. Between 2009 and 2014, the US sent 100 soldiers to the region to act as consultants; the UN Security Council has also thrown its support behind efforts to capture Kony and dismantle his army of followers.
In 2013, the US government offered a bounty of 5 million dollars for Kony and, according to a report in the Washington Post, sent four transporters to Uganda as well as 150 soldiers from a special air force team. But Titeca said that US military equipment did not work properly in the jungle terrain. Following Ongwen's arrest, the African Union deployed an additional 5,000 soldiers and development workers to find Kony.
With the trial against his deputy, the ICC is entering new territory. "He is the first victim of a crime to also be charged with a war crime," said LRA expert Titeca. "The trial is likely to focus on the question of whether he is a victim or a perpetrator." The ICC has decided that children under the age of 18 who have been abducted and committed war crimes themselves ought to be treated as victims. Although Ongwen was just 10 when he was abducted by the LRA, he was 32 when he surrendered. The court must now decide whether, and to what extent, he can be held accountable for the crimes he has committed.