Let them come out

Colonel Joseph Balikuddembe is not a man to be envied.

But for a man charged with hunting down one of Africa’s most wanted, the Lord Resistance Army’s Joseph Kony, the Ugandan colonel seems disconcertingly at ease. He sits under a small canopy in the middle of the South Sudan bush reading an old Ugandan newspaper, with a reality show blaring on the TV in the corner of the tent.

These are the Nzara headquarters of Balikuddembe’s armed unit in southwestern South Sudan.

Balikuddembe says he knows Kony is hiding in Central African Republic (CAR).

“The LRA no longer has the capacity to stand and fight the mighty UPDF [Ugandan military heading the manhunt],” he says. “With only 500 members left, they are almost totally finished.”

He tells me that 47 soldiers have given themselves up since January 2011, further weakening the rebel group.

But why then haven’t you caught him yet, I ask the colonel.

I ask why, despite having some of the 100 military advisers sent to central Africa last fall by President Obama to assist in efforts to neutralize the LRA, haven’t you caught him yet?

I ask why, despite the 5,000 additional troops sent by the African Union in March, haven’t you caught him yet?

Balikuddembe gets defensive and criticizes what he calls “armchair researchers”.

“Those who criticize us need to come out here and see the terrain of CAR,” says the colonel. “And they will see why the powerful UPDF has yet to flush Kony out.”

To be fair, he does have a point. Flying into southwestern South Sudan, you see what looks like a never-ending field of giant broccoli that extends to the horizon. Only the occasional mud-brown river carves a narrow path through the dense, viridian bush.

Although the recent re-drafting of UNAMID’s mandate in Darfur would have us believe Kony is there.

“And remember these are human beings looking for survival,” adds the colonel. “They know that by breaking into smaller groups they can overstretch our forces.”

As I said – Balikuddembe is not a man to be envied.

But I am also here to talk to the colonel about an initiative that is underway to dismantle the LRA without resorting to further bloodshed.

US advisors have hatched a plan to set up a number of “safe reporting zones” to encourage LRA members to defect, thus weakening the rebel group.

In the wake of LRA commander Caesar Acellam’s defection in March 2011, the advisors were surprised defections didn’t increase.

The Nzara team deduced that “the largest cause for the lack of defections is the fear of retaliation and harsh treatment, including the possibility of execution, should an LRA defector approach the wrong people.”

Balikuddembe tells me the reporting zones in towns like Sakure and Ezo along the borders of CAR and Congo, will be set up with the input from local communities.

He adds that messages will be broadcast via Radio Miraya to ensure the defectors that they will come to no harm should they give themselves up at one of these reporting posts.

“These people who are defecting are human beings,” he says. “They will be fed, they will be counseled, they will be welcomed home.”

But I ask the colonel how these safe zones and broadcast messages will combat the stories of UPDF atrocities towards LRA defectors in northern Uganda.

I tell him I have heard stories first hand from female abductees who were beaten or gang-raped once they were “rescued” by UPDF soldiers.

Balikuddembe calls such stories “efforts to tarnish the image of the UPDF.”

And what happens to these defectors when they return to Uganda?

Uganda’s Amnesty Law, introduced in 2000 to offer former LRA combatants an ask-no-questions pardon, expired in May 2012.

Why would those soldiers considering defection, do so if a return to Uganda meant probable conviction for crimes others were pardoned for?

Balikuddembe says he’s a soldier, not a politician. That’s for President Museveni to answer, he says.

Finally I ask the colonel what people living in the towns surrounding the proposed safe zones think about LRA defectors coming to their communities.

These are towns that have long been the targets of LRA attacks. Their inhabitants have lost sons and daughters to the group, had their homes and lands razed to the ground.

The colonel tells me the idea has been welcomed by the local leaders and communities, that they see the bigger picture and see the reporting zones as a means to an end.

Bullshit, I think.

But, I am to be proved wrong.

The next day I travel to Ezo, a small town on the border of CAR and Congo. Here I find people who have fled the LRA and settled in IDP and refugee camps within the town.

I interview one young man who was abducted by the LRA and later escaped. He says he has heard rumours his children were killed by the rebels to avenge his defection.

I talk to Molly, an albino who fled her Congolese village when the LRA came storming through. She bathes her young child in a plastic tub. Molly says she hasn’t seen her husband since.

But when I ask them how they feel about these proposed safe zones, they welcome the idea.

“Let them come out,” Molly says. “I feel secure here, and I want this war to end.”