Midnight's children: Could the Lord’s Resistance Army's horrific practices in Africa soon end?

For the past 25 years, children in central Africa have fled their homes in the twilight hours to avoid capture (and worse) by the marauding Lord's Resistance Army.

Children in Rafai don't like getting up early. It's not that they want a lie in or to avoid chores or going to school. In this small town in the south of the Central African Republic (CAR), there is just one thing children really worry about: a visit from the Tongo Tongo. The literal translation from the local Zande dialect is "those who come early" – a reference to the guerillas' terrifying dawn attacks – but the Tongo Tongo are better known elsewhere by another name, one that strike fear into tens of thousands of terrorised civilians across Africa: the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a movement which this year marks a milestone that few will celebrate – 25 years since leader Joseph Kony first started the group's bloody campaign to establish a theocracy that would rule Uganda according to the 10 Commandments.

Media coverage of this brutal military movement has waned over the years, but their reign of terror has not. Far from disappearing, it has spread across the continent, leaving behind a bloody trail of death, kidnap and destruction, displacing entire communities from their homes – and many have begun to despair of anyone coming to their aid.

Yet there is reason to believe 2012 could be the year that changes. In the past month American troops have arrived in bases across the region on a mission to help Ugandan forces in their war against the LRA. The world is watching to see whether this will be enough to flush out the notoriously elusive Kony and his followers.

For the past quarter of a century, children have borne the brunt of this violent cult's misdeeds: seized to be sex slaves, trained up as soldiers or simply used like human cart horses. As the sun rises in Rafai, the town is gripped by an eerie silence which stays unbroken until around 8am, when children first tentatively, and soon raucously, make their way to school. But there are some children here who will never add their voices to the playground hubbub, even when the dangerous early hours have passed.

Kevin Ndibanga rarely speaks; the 15-year-old's childhood ended abruptly in 2010 and in repose his face settles into a murderous frown. Early one morning two years ago, when his father and stepmother heard that the LRA were coming, they took the fatal decision of attempting to hide at home. "They found us in the house and they killed my father by hitting him on the back of his head with a plank of wood until he died," Kevin recalls, his stare fixed on the middle distance. "My stepmother fled and left me alone."

Kevin was tied up and taken at gunpoint into the forest with seven others to join a group of 65 LRA fighters and prisoners. They were forced to walk barefoot for a month, carrying heavy loads, before arriving at a camp in a clearing. "They killed two people on the way. They hit me with machetes on my back and it still hurts there," he says, gesturing towards his slumped shoulders.

After more than nine months in captivity at the camp, he was accused of stealing meat and sent into the bush to find yams as a punishment. Despite being weeks' walk from anywhere and having no idea of his location he took the opportunity to escape. "I was in the bush for three weeks before coming out on to the road. I was alone and I was eating yams and fruits to survive." A group of LRA fighters were sent to find him, but failed. They returned to the camp and told his friends he was dead. When Kevin finally emerged, he bumped into strangers who helped him get back to Rafai, where he now lives with his uncle.

On 12 October last year, President Barack Obama announced that he would send around 100 troops to central Africa. The move has caused many to hope that the guerillas' grip on the region can be undone. The American soldiers – mostly Special Forces – will act as advisers and intelligence gatherers to the Ugandan military already in the area. In his announcement, Obama said the troops had been set the specific goal of "removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA".

Human Rights Watch, which has documented abuses at the hands of the LRA, welcomed the news, saying it "could be critical in strengthening regional efforts to arrest the LRA's ruthless leader, Joseph Kony, and other top leaders – all wanted by the International Criminal Court [ICC]".

In 2005, Kony and four of his fellow LRA leaders became the first people to be indicted by the ICC. The warrant for their arrest said the group had "established a pattern of brutalisation of civilians by acts including murder, abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation, as well as mass burnings of houses and looting of camp settlements".

Despite this record, the small militia can barely be called an army. Its military core is not believed to be much more than a few hundred men and women, many of whom do not stay in one group, but are rather scattered in smaller numbers across central Africa. The army's puny size is not proportionate to its impact in the region, however. Over the past quarter of a century it has been responsible for around 1.5 million people fleeing their homes, as well as the abduction of 20,000 children as soldiers and sex slaves. Though the LRA hasn't been seen in Rafai since last year, it continues to cast a long shadow over the town: the population has more than doubled over the past 12 months, with the arrival of thousands of people from surrounding villages whose homes have been destroyed by the group.

Now some 10,000 people live in the remote town that can be reached only by crossing the Chinko River using a decrepit 1940s ferry that constantly breaks down and does not operate at night. If the LRA attacks, everyone is trapped. In December, Kony and his fighters hid and regrouped in the forests of Vovodo, just north of the town. Some of his troops have now scattered to the Congo, but Kony himself is still understood to be lying low in CAR.

Most people would struggle to find the Central African Republic on a map, though the clue is in its name. It is k

not just a cliché to say that Rafai lies at the heart of Africa – its co-ordinates are at the exact centre of the continent. Which makes its people uniquely vulnerable to attack: the republic is bordered by some of Africa's most notorious trouble spots, including Darfur, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad. Outside the capital, Bangui, its own scattered population survives in remote towns and villages, as most of the land is taken up by dense, unpoliced forests that have become a home for disaffected rebel groups from across the region. The UN estimates that at least 10 armed groups operate in the country.

The national army offers scant protection; its 6,000-strong force, including cooks and cleaners, reserves half its strength to protect President François Bozizé (who also happens to be Minister of Defence) in Bangui. Bozizé seized power in 2003 in a coup, and is paranoid – not without reason – that rebels will oust him. The remaining 3,000 troops are unable to exert any control on the vast forests.

There were no soldiers on hand to protect Fabrice Mongui, 15, when the LRA suddenly appeared out of the bush in August 2010 while he was at his family's vegetable patch near Rafai with his father, stepmother, younger brother and seven-year-old half-sister Florida. It was early in the morning and nobody had seen them coming.

"My stepmother wanted to run away but it was too late. When they found us they had already kidnapped some people, so they had guns as well as shotguns they had stolen. They made us harvest our food and pound the rice. Then they tied us together with the other people they'd kidnapped with ropes around the waist. There were 24 of us tied in a line. If we didn't walk with the rice fast enough they beat us with machetes. They beat me twice.

"The next day we arrived at the farm of my mother and stepfather – it was just a coincidence – and they ran away, abandoning Florida. The LRA gave her a knife and told her to get home. [These "farms" – not unlike our allotments – tend to be miles from the villages.] She spent two days alone in the bush and didn't know where she was. Two days later people from the village found her and brought her home."

Today, as Florida sits next to Fabrice, she mirrors the way he twists the skin on his fingers out of nervousness and speaks in a barely audible whisper. The two of them are seated in an outdoor chapel beneath a whitewashed Virgin Mary, in the heart of Rafai. Behind them is a church, behind that a monastery and to their left, a nunnery. This preponderance of prayer houses hasn't escaped the attention of the LRA, which, as its name denotes, still has pretensions to religious sensitivity. On two previous occasions when they have attacked Rafai, it has been after they got word that the priests and sisters were on retreat.

The priests were away when Fabrice was taken. After seeing Florida abandoned on the farm, he was marched into the jungle along with the other prisoners. "We were divided into groups. The older group ran away but the younger ones were stuck. My dad was with 10 people who ran away in the night but I was with the younger group.

"In the morning they went and looked for the people who had run and told us they had killed everyone who fled. After another two days walking they said my little brother wasn't walking fast enough, so they killed him. They told me to go and sit on my brother's dead body. I said I wouldn't do it, even if they killed me. They said, 'We've killed your father and brother and we'll kill you.'

"After another five days we arrived at the LRA camp. There were lots of people there. Women, children, so many people. We found Kevin [Ndibanga] there, too, and we were there together for three months. I also met my aunt at the camp and the three of us made a plan to escape. When we were about to escape they discovered some meat had been stolen and sent Kevin to look for yams. They said if he didn't come back with yams he'd be killed, so he ran away. They went to look for him and said they killed him. They said if I tried to escape they'd kill me too."

Fabrice eventually managed to run away with his aunt as they were marched through the forest. It took them nine days to find a road, another three to find help. When he arrived home, Fabrice discovered his father was still alive.

According to Human Rights Watch, the LRA killed more than 2,400 civilians across central Africa between January 2008 and May 2011, abducted more than 3,400 – mostly children – and displaced 400,000 from their homes. A recent report said: "Far too often United Nations peacekeepers have left terrified citizens to face the LRA threat on their own. The lack of effective protection has meant that some areas have been attacked repeatedly, such as Doruma town in northern Congo [DRC]." In April last year, the town was attacked five times in a single month.

Kony's LRA bears more relation to a messianic cult than a movement of political freedom fighters. They started out in opposition to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's regime, which seized power in 1986 and moved to abolish all political parties. But since they have been driven out of Uganda, they have all but forgotten their original desire to protect the interests of northern Uganda's marginalised Acholi tribe, from whom their first fighters were drawn. Now, their members are drawn from across the region and their aims have morphed into a cycle of self-preservation and mindless killing.

The LRA's continued survival owes a lot to the government of Sudan in Khartoum, which has offered arms, medical treatment and a hiding place, partly in retaliation for the support the Ugandan government extended to South Sudan separatists. Yet being bankrolled from Khartoum may not protect them now that the US has stepped up the military presence in the region.

In addition to the $17m a year it spends transporting Ugandan forces to the conflict zone, the US government has established two joint intelligence centres in Congo and CAR, and is working with the Ugandan army at two bases across the affected countries, in Obo and Nzara. The new troop influx will provide training and advice in intelligence-gathering, and diplomatic sources understand they will bring in advanced surveillance technology for tracking.

"This is building up into the most comprehensive strategy yet against the LRA and the Americans seem confident," says Philippe Maughan, political adviser to the European Union on the LRA. "That said, you always have in the back of your mind that they've evaded capture for 25 years."

The US is determined to have the operation completed swiftly – according to Maughan, US defence officials have "consistently told us [ in security meetings] that politically in the States this won't be able to last more than a year" – but the deadline also reflects US confidence that Kony and other LRA top brass can be caught or killed before 2012 is out.

As well as military intervention, radio broadcasts are being used to encourage fighters to give themselves up in exchange for amnesty. But the effectiveness of promising immunity from prosecution is likely to be undermined by what is proving to be a shaky guarantee. Thomas Kwoyelo, one of the group's leaders who was captured in 2009 during a military raid in the DRC, is likely to be tried for war crimes this year, including 53 counts of murder. The trial has already been cancelled once because it clashes with amnesty law, but anger over the severity of his crimes has caused it to be pushed through to a new court.

Betty Atuku Bigombe is one local politician who believes the arrival of US troops has "sent a very strong message" to Kony that it is no longer the Ugandan government alone that is fighting him. While few statespeople have stood up to the LRA over the past 25 years, Bigombe, now a minister in the Ugandan government, has consistently gone straight to the source of the problem. A member of the Acholi tribe herself, she has met with Kony six times and led three major attempts to broker peace since 1993. The

most recent of these was the Juba Peace Talks in 2006-2007, overseen by South Sudan. Unfortunately, they ended just as all the others had – with Kony walking away and refusing to agree to the terms of any agreement. But, she says, "When you have a physical presence it makes a lot of difference. Since the Americans arrived, attacks have been dwindling and the LRA has been sending women and children away so they can move more freely."

Bigombe cautiously believes 2012 could be the year Kony is captured, but warns against too much optimism: "I believe it's possible to capture Kony this year but it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. The LRA no longer use satellite phones and rarely use communications that could be detected; Kony uses people to take messages."

Many feel sure that capturing Kony is all it will take to see the movement wither and die. Bigombe asked a criminal profile specialist from Scotland Yard to analyse Kony to try to understand why he commits such disturbed atrocities against women and children – including cutting off the ears and legs of deserters. The specialist diagnosed multiple personality disorder and declared him a psychopath. But his insanity should not be mistaken for stupidity. Kony has a religious hold over his fighters and is adept at manipulating his soldiers. He has declared himself a prophet and tells his followers that he is under instruction from God to "save" the Acholi people: if his soldiers don't cross themselves before going into battle, they can be murdered immediately by their fellow men. What's more, says Bigombe, "Often those abducted come from such impoverished environments that they consider themselves lucky to get a meal a day. Then they're given weapons which are a symbol of power, and they become loyal."

For those such as 66-year-old father Eduard Piki, Kony's end cannot come soon enough. Two of his seven children were taken in an attack in Agoumar, near Rafai, in July 2010. His 14-year-old daughter, Djabinza Nadine, and his 11-year-old son, Bakoumbazanga Benjamin, are still missing. Now he is one of more than 1,000 people living in a refugee camp outside Rafai, after being driven from their homes by LRA attacks. The camp has an exercise book with the names of the dead, missing and injured from the raids in the area. The careful record is clung to in the hope that one day there will be justice. In a single raid a year ago, 17 were kidnapped, eight were killed and nine wounded.

Eduard's face is corrugated with worry and every day he hopes will be the one when he sees his children again. "I think my children are both still with the rebels in the forest," he says. "I'm very worried about them because I've never heard any news from them."

All he can do now is sit, wait and hope they are still alive. As military plans against the LRA intensify, Eduard can hold on to a sliver of hope that one day his family may be reunited. But with an enemy as inventive and wily as Kony, there is always a chance that this fanatical leader will evade capture for another quarter of a century.

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