Our correspondent ventures deep into the jungle for the first interview with Joseph Kony and challenges the Lord’s Resistance Army leader on the massacres, mutilations and mystical spirits that made him Africa’s most wanted man
As we walk into the dark, airless jungle clearing after 12 days of increasingly arduous travel I understand how Stanley must have felt when he finally tracked down Livingstone.
My quarry is rather less benign. Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is the most wanted man in Africa. He and his followers are accused of slaughtering 10,000 civilians during a 20-year campaign of terror in northern Uganda, abducting 25,000 children and turning them into killers, and driving as many as two million villagers into filthy refugee camps.
For two decades Kony has thwarted every effort to capture him, but now he is in front of me, in green Ugandan army uniform, surrounded by a ragtag group of heavily armed guards who regard him with manifest awe. He wears a blue beret, a sash over his shoulder, and green Wellington boots.
He is tall — perhaps 6ft 1in (1.8m) — and looks younger than his 46 years. He grins, exposing two chipped and blackened front teeth, then shakes my hand. “I’m a freedom fighter who is fighting for freedom in Uganda,” he tells me. “I am not a terrorist.”
This is the first interview Kony has given to a journalist, and the timing is no accident. He has offered the Ugandan Government peace talks. He has a negotiating team waiting in Juba, capital of southern Sudan. But President Museveni of Uganda is sceptical and reluctant to engage. “Peace talks are good for me,” Kony says. “If Museveni can agree to talk with me it is only a very good thing, which I know will bring peace to the people of Uganda.”
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He does not explain why he is suddenly suing for peace. His enemies in Kampala claim the LRA is a broken force; he says he has 3,000 fighters.
But he insists that he is not the monster his reputation suggests, that the atrocities of which he is accused are trumped up by Museveni to blacken his name, and that all he has ever sought to do is to protect the Acholi people of northern Uganda from government repression. He also claims that he is guided by spirits.
I first heard of Joseph Kony and the LRA in 1995 when his forces attacked, looted and killed in the northern refugee camp where I was working. He was a scarcely educated spiritual healer who had launched an uprising after Museveni seized power in 1986. His LRA subsequently received weapons and other support from the Sudanese Government. The LRA later turned on the Acholi villages it was allegedly protecting. Tales of atrocities proliferated: massacres of whole villages; ears, lips and limbs chopped off, children abducted and forced to kill and even eat their victims.
The LRA combined the fanaticism of a cult with ruthless military efficiency, and while its apparent aim was to impose the Ten Commandments on Uganda, its means could scarcely have been more evil. Last year the International Criminal Court indicted Kony and four other LRA leaders for war crimes. I made it my mission to track down Kony, putting out feelers wherever I could. It seemed an impossible task but finally, this month, I received a call from Nairobi: Kony would meet me.
At Nairobi airport I was met by Dennis and Ray, undercover LRA men who certainly did not look like bush fighters. Dennis wore a boy-band denim cap, Ray a tight Ben Sherman shirt.
As we flew on to Juba, Ray explained why he had joined the LRA. “I had no choice,” he said. “They just came and abducted me at 14. Many times I tried to escape but it was not easy — they can punish you badly. If you are unlucky you may lose your life.” Tears welled in his eyes. Ray introduced me to Sunday, a comrade who said he had been abducted at the age of 7 but now regarded the LRA as family. Sunday was constantly on the satellite phone, alternating between Kony’s men and the southern Sudanese government, which is offering to mediate between the Army and the Ugandan Government.
We waited for a week as the LRA men checked me out. They were so suspicious that they had originally proposed buying us new cameras lest ours were fitted with devices that would betray Kony’s location.
Finally Riek Machar, the vice-president of southern Sudan, arrived. Mr Machar is a former warlord with a degree from Bradford University. Over the previous two months he had provided the LRA with $20,000 (?11,000) and ten lorryloads of food. “A hungry man can not talk peace,” he explained.
Mr Machar announced that he would come with me to meet Kony. The next day, accompanied by 40 Sudanese security men, we boarded a charter flight to Maridi, the closest Sudanese airstrip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. There we piled into a convoy and drove into the jungle on a rutted track of deep red mud.
After two days my satellite phone showed that we had crossed the border into Congo. We soon stopped and two LRA fighters armed with Kalashnikovs jumped in. Their eyes were blank and bloodshot, their hair in dreadlocks, strings of bullets hung around their necks. We looked at each other and said nothing. Outside another fighter called Knee of a Dog talked on a satellite phone, juggling the meeting place until the last moment. We drove to a clearing where we found ourselves surrounded by camouflaged LRA combatants carrying M16 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. There we waited until Knee of a Dog received another call.
We walked single file along a narrow path hemmed in by impenetrable vegetation. I was just wondering if I would recognise a man of whom there are so few pictures when we entered another clearing, and there he was.
Kony was unarmed. Not so the scores of fighters half concealed in the vines and trees. One was a woman, another a boy in his mid-teens. That evening Kony and Mr Machar talked, seated on two rough bamboo benches. He had the latest copy of Newsweek and two Ugandan newspapers, which had been brought to him through an elaborate system of runners.
After Kony left we spent the night in a Coleman tent. At one point I went outside, but had walked no more than a few yards when three LRA fighters pounced on me. These men never let down their guard, and they clearly lived in constant fear of Kony, to whom they attributed mystical powers. Sunday said that if he tried to escape, Kony’s spirit would seek him out to harm him. When I asked whether the LRA would disintegrate if Kony died, he struggled to comprehend the question. “Kony would never die,” he said. “I’m sure he cannot be killed.”
Early the next morning I was taken to another, smaller clearing where Kony had spent the night on a ‘mattress’ of cut grass. He was wearing a T-shirt, sitting on a brown plastic chair, drinking tea from a pink plastic cup and eating a ‘mandazi’, a sort of doughnut. He greeted me in English: “Come on, Sam. Eat breakfast!”
But the cheeriness vanished when we tried to attach a microphone. He had never seen one before, and feared that it was a tracking device. It was a rambling conversation, with Kony speaking in poor English, but for someone giving his first interview he seemed remarkably media savvy. “I am a human being like you,” he declared. “I have eyes, a brain and wear clothes, but they are saying ‘we don’t talk with people, we eat people. We are killer’. That is not true. Why do you meet me if I am a killer?”
Asked about the killings, abductions and mutilations perpetrated in his name, he replied: “That is not true. It’s just propaganda. Museveni went into the villages and cut off the ears of the people, telling the people that it was the work of the LRA. I cannot cut the ear of my brother, I cannot kill the eye of my brother.” It was Museveni who was oppressing the Acholi people. “Our wealth, our property, was destroyed by Museveni,” he said. “He want to destroy all Acholi so that the land of Acholi will be his land. I did not kill the civilian of Uganda. I kill the soldier of Museveni.”
Youths joined the LRA voluntarily and were never abducted, he claimed. “I don’t have acres of maize, of onion, of cabbages. I don’t have food. If I abducted children like that, here in the bush, what do they eat?” Asked about the ICC charges, he insisted: “I am not guilty.” The prosecutors “just hear from what Museveni stated to them”. They had not talked to him — as if they could have.
Asked what he was fighting for, he replied: “We want the people of Uganda to be free. We are fighting for democracy. We want our leader to be elected — but not a movement like the one of Museveni.”
Was he also fighting for the Ten Commandments? “Yes, we are fighting for Ten Commandments,” he replied. “Is it bad? It is not against human rights. And that commandment was not given by Joseph (Kony). It was not given by LRA. No, that commandment was given by God.”
He was guided by spirits, he said. “They speak to me. They load through me. They will tell us what is going to happen. They say “you, Mr Joseph, tell your people that the enemy is planning to come and attack”. They will come like dreaming, they will tell us everything. You know, we are guerrilla. We are rebel. We don’t have medicine. But with the help of spirit they will tell to us, ‘you Mr Joseph go and take this thing and that thing’.”
Perhaps the spirits are pushing him to the negotiating table. “Through this peace talk I know that we are going to solve all those things, we are going to solve all those problems.”