OBO, Central African Republic — Hunched over desks in cramped rooms, local radio operators charged with protecting rural communities listen closely for news of attacks by rebels from Joseph Kony’s infamous Lord’s Resistance Army. The reports come in jumbled and fast: five hunters ambushed by LRA fighters 28 miles from Obo in the village of Kadjemah, a 15-year-old girl abducted by seven LRA combatants in nearby Louete, five people taken and food looted in a bush camp just three miles away in Ngouli.
“It’s not unusual,” said one local radio operator. “We hear about events like this all of the time.”
After three decades of armed rebellion against the Ugandan government, and a viral video campaign quickly forgotten, rebels from Kony’s notorious LRA are badly weakened but continue to attack and abduct civilians across a vast swath of Central Africa. According to the LRA Crisis Tracker, 2016 was the group’s most violent campaign in years, with 500 abducted in 104 attacks in Central African Republic alone.
As U.S. and Ugandan military operations draw to a close, fear is mounting that the rebel group will return with vengeance.
The Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), which leads a counter-LRA, African Union Regional Task Force, recently announced plans to withdraw from the mission. The first batch of troops left their base in Obo for Uganda last month, with the remaining soldiers expected to clear out by June, a UPDF source told VICE News. The United States, which has around 150 special forces in Obo supporting the UPDF, has also announced plans to withdraw from military operations.
“What’s left is just the remnants.”
The U.S. campaign to capture Kony was first authorized by Barack Obama in 2011 following domestic pressure from the U.S. nonprofit Invisible Children and other anti-LRA advocacy groups. A year later Kony and the LRA were propelled to international attention when Invisible Children’s film “Kony 2012” was viewed over 100 million times. The film was widely criticized for overstating the LRA’s relevance in a region facing far bigger problems, including a deteriorating four-year conflict in Central African Republic.
For those involved in the fight against the LRA, the time for a withdrawal is obvious. Kony, the man who founded the group in 1987, has been on the run for years (though recent reports have placed him in Central African Republic’s Chinko nature reserve). And an amnesty program coupled with a sustained military campaign have reduced the LRA from its height of 3,000 fighters in 1999 to an estimated 150 fighters today.
“They are in survival mode,” said UPDF spokesperson Captain Draga Lawrence. “What’s left is just the remnants. I can say our mission has been accomplished.”
But in Obo, residents and officials interviewed by VICE News were worried all the same. The small town, close to the border with South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo, was the first place in Central African Republic attacked by LRA combatants when the LRA moved into the country in 2008. Since the UPDF arrived a year later, it has been relatively safe, but LRA elements remain close by.
“Now people are afraid.”
Standing by the side of a narrow dirt track leading to the nearby village of Ngouli, Vincent Molandguessa said his mother was one of five people recently kidnapped by LRA fighters in an ambush. She was collecting peanuts from a bush camp when the rebels jumped out.
“Now people are afraid,” Molandguessa said. “They can’t go back to the bush to even look for food.”
After a day carrying looted goods to an LRA camp, Molandguessa’s mother was released. Others have been less fortunate. At a nearby transit center for LRA defectors, 20-year-old Crispin, who asked that his name be changed for safety concerns, said he spent a year in captivity after being abducted hundreds of kilometres away near the town of Ippy.
He was taken to Garamba National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo and given military training. He saw his own cousin — one of eight kidnapped from Ippy — killed by the fighters.
“He had a problem with his leg and couldn’t continue to walk,” Crispin said. “The LRA beat him over the head and killed him. It was a very difficult life. If you got sick, they would beat you. They would say, ‘Soldiers don’t get sick’.”
Just six weeks after his escape, Crispin looks forward to returning home. But the trauma will be hard to overcome. During an interview with VICE News, his eyes were fixed on the ground as he used a long wooden stick to sketch the outline of a machine gun in the red dust.
“I used to see them holding [the guns] in the bush,” he said.
U.N. peacekeepers are active in LRA-affected areas, but staff interviewed by VICE News in Central African Republic said they lack the capacity to fight the LRA. And the other countries (South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo) expected to contribute troops to the regional task force have been absent, distracted by their own crises.
“The others armies are nowhere,” said one disgruntled UPDF soldier who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak. “This is a regional problem, but we are shouldering the burden.”
Yet not everyone is sad to see the soldiers go. Support for the UPDF — the force behind the brutal counterinsurgency campaign against ethnic Acholi in northern Uganda in the late 1980s that ultimately spawned the LRA — has proved particularly controversial over the years.
UPDF soldiers have been accused of sexually assaulting minors, with 26 cases documented since 2009, according to Emmanuel Daba, head of a local LRA victims association. The UPDF have denied the allegations.
In the absence of a military force, analysts say nonviolent, defection messaging could be the best way to lure the remaining LRA fighters out of the bush and put an end to the group once and for all. U.S. helicopters regularly drop personalised “come home” leaflets and broadcast familial messages to combatants in an effort to encourage defection.
“As LRA troops get smaller and harder to pursue from a military perspective, it has been the most effective tool in reducing their fighting capacity over the last three to four years,” said Paul Ronan, researcher for Invisible Children.
Constant infighting has contributed to the LRA’s demise. The group has experienced a series of symbolic defections, starting in 2014, when commander Achaye Doctor escaped from Kony with nine fighters and formed a splinter group, which still operates in Central African Republic’s eastern region. The following year, in spring 2015, seven members of Kony’s inner circle defected, attempting to kill him in the process.
These recent events show Kony’s “grip on the LRA is loosening,” said Ronan.
Any remaining aspiration “to topple the Ugandan government is only discourse,” said Kristof Titeca, lecturer at the University of Antwerp. “Instead, Kony relies on violence as a primary means of keeping fighters within the group.”
In Obo, the local population is all too aware of what that violence can mean for them. Moke Paterne and three other hunters, who had been ambushed by the LRA a few days earlier, said they would take matters into their own hands if no one else is around to protect them.
“We have to protect our communities,” said Paterne.