What It Was Like to Be Joseph Kony's Bodyguard

An excerpt from 'When the Walking Defeats You', a book about a young man who became one the bodyguard to one of the 21st century's most notorious warlords before making his escape.

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Nov 28 2016, 4:00pm
In 2006, George Omona was expelled from one of Uganda's best schools, just weeks before he was due to graduate with exemplary grades, destroying his dreams of becoming a teacher. In desperation—and believing a peace deal was imminent—his uncle found him a role in Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which at that time was waging a guerrilla war against the Ugandan government. George's education and fluent command of English allowed him to rapidly rise through the ranks, eventually becoming one of Kony's bodyguards, before he finally made his escape from the group in 2010.

George's story—based on many hours of interviews with LRA expert Ledio Cakaj—is told in Cakaj's new book When the Walking Defeats You: One Man's Journey as Joseph Kony's Bodyguard, published by ZED on November 15. What follows is a pair of excerpts from the book: the first an account of how George survived after being separated from his comrades, the second a story about what Kony was like when he was drunk.

It had been almost two years since George joined the LRA. At this point an experienced fighter, he was frequently deployed as a personal bodyguard to Joseph Kony, an honor afforded to few. At the end of that March, George was part of a group led by Lieutenant Colonel Opiyo Sam, one of the many commanders leading numerous LRA groups trying to evade the Ugandan soldiers and helicopters that had pursued them since the middle of December 2008.

Alongside his friend Ochan and a third man they jokingly called Ladit ("sir"), George formed a blocking unit—a small group of fighters whose job was to slow down or halt the Ugandans. A large force of soldiers had chasing Sam's group for days, so he ordered the three men to fall back and attack. In the aftermath of ambushing the soldiers, however, Ladit was killed, and Ochan went missing.

As George wandered alone in the bush, Kony's group started walking from Congo's Haut Uélé district toward the adjacent Central African Republic, heading northwest with the help of compasses and GPS devices. It meant a journey of about 300 miles, through some of the world's densest forests.

Though alone, George obeyed LRA protocols, setting off early in the morning, stopping for lunch at around 1 or 2 PM and going to sleep around 8 PM, times he had learned to estimate by the position of the sun or the moon. "It is the sign of a disciplined solider to always behave as if his commander is watching," he told himself, unsure whether it was a saying he had heard or made up. "It sounded like something that Kony would say," he thought, smiling as he tried to imitate Kony's slight, high-pitched voice.

As the days passed, his initial fear of failing to survive gave way to the elation of self-confidence followed by eventual boredom. All the days were the same: the hunt for food and water, the walking, and then sleeping by some river, stream or marsh, hoping to find a sign of his people, any people, only to return to the lonely walking each day.


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One day as the sun set he came to an abandoned hut where someone had recently uprooted a few cassava plants. Minutes later he saw two men jump to the side of the path, guns at their sides ready to fire. George crouched into a defensive position, his AK by his side.

The two men must have had a hunch George was no enemy; otherwise they would have shot him. The rule was to always confirm the intruder was not an enemy in disguise.

"Who are you?" they shouted in Luo.

"Omel," George yelled back, meaning "mudfish."

The two men relaxed their stance and asked George to approach. Staying put, George asked them who they were. They both yelled " rec," meaning "fish" in Luo. These were passwords that George had learned during his time in the LRA.

George quickly recognized the two, Patrick and Okello from Opiyo Sam's group, the very people he had been searching for throughout the week. They were quick to embrace him.

"Yankee!" Patrick yelled, calling George by his nickname. "What a lucky man you are! We thought you were shot in battle. How did you survive?"

George gave a short account of what had happened, fully aware he would have to provide a detailed report to Opiyo Sam later. "Well done," they said when he finished.

Those who separated and came back were often suspected of attempting to escape. Sam could have George shot if he harbored such suspicions.

Patrick and Okello, who were rearguards, directed him to where the main group rested. George walked the one mile to the base, making sure his clothes and hair were tidy in anticipation of being brought before LRA commanders. When he arrived, the guards immediately brought him to the commander's tent. Sam, a tall, broad-shouldered man with a shaved head and a square jaw, was intimidating. He questioned George thoroughly. George replied carefully, making sure his answers were not contradictory. He knew that commanders were paranoid about Ugandan army infiltration. Also, those who separated and came back were often suspected of attempting to escape. Sam could have George shot if he harbored such suspicions.

When George finished recounting the story, Sam congratulated him for being brave enough to survive the bush alone and for rejoining the group. "You are free," Sam said. "Join your coy" (the small unit of about a dozen fighters).

George's comrades brought him food, and he ate more in a day—maize, cassava and goat meat the group had looted from a Congolese village—than he had had in the entire eight days he had been alone.

Soon after, Kony and his large group appeared. Kony looked skinny and tired. He wore a gray long-sleeve shirt and military-style trousers stuffed inside black gumboots. He was his usual calm self, talking quietly to his guards and playing with his children. Kony's plan, as George understood it, was for Commander Dominic Ongwen to gather the remaining commanders in Congo and bring them to Central African Republic where they would join Kony. In CAR, the weak government couldn't control all of its territory, and the LRA hoped they would be able to live there, farming and hunting wild animals. There, there would be peace.


Things weren't always so difficult for members of the LRA. There were periods in between battles, times when they could even relax. Back in 2007, George was in the middle of one of those times. He was becoming used to life in the LRA, though he was sometimes bullied and mistreated by his immediate superiors despite having Kony's support and patronage.

That October 9—Uganda's Independence Day—George was happy to learn he was assigned to cooking duty. He yearned for the food he ate at home and hoped to celebrate Independence Day with traditional Acholi dishes. He joined the cooking team consisting of two other bodyguards and a young South Sudanese woman from Justine's family. George put himself in charge, deciding to cook two of his favorite dishes, malakwang with wild yams and otwoya. He loved malakwang, boiled leafy greens with peanut sauce. He boiled the yams and served them with malakwang while cooking otwoya, the most popular food in the camps.

Made with smoked meat, otwoya was a perfect way to use the remaining meat from the hippo George shot in a recent hunting trip. He boiled water and instructed the woman to make a paste from sesame seeds, or simsim, that George was permitted to take from Kony's granary. He put the remaining smoked hippo meat in the boiling water so that it would become moist, adding salt and eventually the simsim paste. It gave the meat a nice nutty taste.

Together with malakwang, the otwoya made what George thought was the perfect meal to celebrate Ugandan and Acholi culture. The food brought back memories of home and his mother.

As the food cooked, he was happy to see Dog's Knee sitting at Kony's table. Dog's Knee was Kony's chief bodyguard—a short, smiley man with curly brown hair and honey-colored skin who had been abducted in the Congo at a young age by an armed gang. George had developed a bond with Dog's Knee and was looking forward to talking to his friend, who had brought a large pot of wine for the occasion. He had made it with honey, yeast and what the Arabs called abukamira, a tart fruit that was a cross between an orange and a mango. Dog's Knee called the wine mundo, which he said was an Arabic word. The drink tasted sweet but it was potent. Dog's Knee told George to stay away from it after Kony took a liking to it. The boss claimed he knew about this concoction and discussed with Dog's Knee the exact proportions needed to make the best mundo. George listened in amazement to the LRA leader discussing how to make alcohol.

Feeling happy for the first time in a while, George served the food to his coy mates, who sat down to lunch with only a few men posted as guards. Small dishes were placed in a plastic baskets and brought to the guards, who were fewer in number than usual. Kony joked that the Ugandan soldiers were too busy getting drunk celebrating that day so the LRA could not be safer. Kony was cheerful, joking and talking to many of the people assembled.

He even decided to drink some mundo, the first time George witnessed Kony drinking alcohol.

The food was a success with all the men, who said George was a great cook. A few did not miss the chance to tease him. "Great job, professor," joked one, a reference to George's reputation as a man of books. "You make a poor soldier but someday you will make a man very happy as his wife." George was annoyed at the jokes but was happy to see his coy mates relaxed. In the afternoon, someone produced a tape player with Ugandan music and people started to dance. It seemed as if some normalcy had finally returned to the camp.

Deep into the night, after his wives and small children were sent to sleep, Kony called George to his table where a few commanders, including Dog's Knee, kept the boss company. Kony was cheerful. He spoke slowly and in a low voice, while taking small sips of mundo. He spoke of politics and the way Uganda was ruined by the politician Yoweri Museveni, of how the Acholi were betrayed by the Banyankole, Museveni's tribe, and how Museveni himself was betrayed by his friend Paul Kagame, who worked for the Ugandan president but then abandoned him when Kagame became president of Rwanda.

"Kagame was the first to come to Gulu, with Museveni's rebels, but people said he was different. Kagame behaved better than the rest," Kony said. "But even he, even Kagame could not get close to me." Kony laughed.

"They can't," he continued. "They have tried many times but the Holy Spirit is always with me, always informing me in advance. Only once was I almost caught," said Kony. "I did not pay attention to the warning from the spirit and became careless. It was in the Imatong Mountains of Sudan, one day in the dry season of 2003. I had a bad dream the night before. I dreamt about a big ram losing his horns, they just dropped to the ground. It was a bad omen but I did not pay heed. That same morning we were surprised by soldiers who came out of nowhere. They passed our guards and came straight at me. Min [mother of] Ali was there," Kony said pointing to his young son Ali sitting at his side. "We had just finished breakfast.

"I ran as soon as I heard the shots right near me. The boys fought the soldiers and I just ran. But some soldiers came after me. I ran into a small forest and climbed up a tree. Most of them ran past and did not see me except one.

"He had a PK, the big gun, so he walked slowly behind the others. He saw me and shot at me from a short distance. I jumped down and ran into the bush. The soldier came after me, running slowly and yelling, 'Kony, cung (stop)! Cung Kony, cung!'" Kony laughed and said he hid inside a hollow tree in a dense part of the forest.

"He was afraid to come near. I could hear him telling the other soldiers, who returned after his shooting, he did not want to. So he just bullet-sprayed the whole area. What a noise! One of the bullets hit me on the left calf, here is the mark," Kony said, rolling up his trousers and showing a faded scar. "Then he turned around and just left. I heard him telling the others I had vanished. No one came to check. I stayed hidden for a long time and then came out and dressed the wound, it was just a scratch," he said. "'Kony cung!'" he imitated the soldier, laughing.

The Big Teacher spoke until the early hours of the morning. He was happy, almost affable, George thought. This was the Kony George knew, the Kony of the days before the death of Vincent Otti, one of Kony's deputies. It was nice to see him act normal and happy again.

Eventually Kony's speech became slow. He said he wanted to sleep and told the officers to leave. He asked George to accompany him inside his hut. George was surprised and hesitated for a while. He worried about Justine who stared as the two walked inside Kony's home.

George helped the boss take off his pistol, which he put next to his mattress. He put water in a cup and put it within Kony's reach. He asked if he should call one of the wives.

"No, but stay," Kony said, asking, "How is your uncle?"

"Fine," replied George. "I think. I have not seen him in a while."

"He is well, I know," said Kony. "The other elders have informed me. How are you settling here?"

George did not know what to say. He wanted to tell the Big Boss how badly he had been treated and that he deserved better, but at the last moment he decided against it, whispering a quick " aber" (fine).

"You are a man of books, I know," said Kony. "I see you reading and I know about your good grades at school.

"This is a good thing," he added. "You must be sitting there thinking about how bad this place is, how terrible I must be."

"No, no," George said hastily in a low voice.

Kony continued, "You need to know that if I had a choice I would not be doing this, this life in the forest like animals. I wish I could be a schooled man, like you. I wish my children could go to school, just like you. It pains me that my kids are not going to school, I really want them to, I even spoke to some people in Kenya, some of our people there and they said maybe they can take Ali and Salim to school in Nairobi. Maybe even Candit, he is getting big now. That would be nice. Otherwise, what are they to do with their lives?

"But it is too late for me. I have all the wisdom in the world, thanks to the spirits who tell me everything. You surely know that, don't you? But you also need to know that I am myself a prisoner of the spirits. Yes, they help me and tell me everything but they also keep me hostage.

"I have no choice but to do all these things to keep the Movement going. I have no other way as I am in the service of the spirits and the Holy Spirit first and foremost. I was chosen to carry this burden."

His voice slowed to a slur and then stopped. George stood as if frozen, amazed at what he had witnessed and terrified that everyone outside that tent hated him for the time he was spending with the leader. He walked out slowly and was relieved to find out that not many people had paid attention. Some were asleep while others, including the two bodyguards sitting outside Kony's tent, seemed too drunk to notice.

The next morning, after a long night of eating, drinking and dancing, George woke up to the sight of a distressed Omony kicking the still sleeping bodyguards. Yelling, Omony ordered them to fetch Justine, Otika and Agweng.

They were to come at Kony's hut immediately. There was something wrong with the Chairman. "He is not waking up," Omony said, gesticulating wildly and looking concerned.

George felt a chill down his spine. "Here we go again," he thought. "Maybe someone still loyal to Otti poisoned him yesterday. Maybe they will think I did it when I was in his home last night." But as George started to contemplate ways to escape, one of the bodyguards still inside Kony's hut ran out saying, "Ladit is fine." As the group of bodyguards waited tensely outside, Kony walked out gingerly, looking hungover. He said he had just been a little tired. "Maybe I took too much wine last night," he later conceded, prompting nervous laughter from the mortified escorts.

This is an extract from When the Walking Defeats You: One Man's Journey as Joseph Kony's Bodyguard, written by Ledio Cakaj, with a foreword by Roméo Dallaire, published on November 15 by Zed Books.

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