Support from locals seen as key to capturing Kony
Adye Sunday isn't sure about the calls to kill or capture Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony. Though the elusive warlord abducted her when she was 13 and forced her to be one of his dozens of "wives," the 25-year-old says he's also the father of her two children.
"I don't see Kony as a bad person," she said in her native Acholi dialect through a translator, as she mixed batter for vanilla cupcakes to sell in Gulu's market while her 3 1/2-year-old daughter Betty watched. "Everything done in the bush is blamed on Kony, but to me he's not a bad person."
Forces now hunting for Kony in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo are unlikely to find much sympathy for him as they might in Gulu in northern Uganda - 20 kilometers (some 12 miles)from where he was born - but some locals there have other concerns that complicate the military mission.
With more than 3,000 children abducted by the LRA since 2008, according to the U.N. and Human Rights Watch, families worry, for example, that troops hunting Kony will not be able to distinguish between the regular LRA fighters and their abducted children.
"They will tell you they would really like Joseph Kony to be captured and maybe killed, and the LRA disbanded, but our children that are in the bush - how can they be separated from the rebels?" said Tatiana Viviane, who works with a Central African Republic organization focused on helping the country's young people.
They also fear reprisal attacks if they are thought to be helping the authorities find Kony - depriving military leaders of information that could be key to catching him.
"My sense is that in this particular mission, human intelligence is probably going to be the key," said Gen. Carter Ham, who heads the U.S. military's Africa Command, in a briefing in Stuttgart, Germany. "That goes a little bit back to ... how do you get confidence amongst the local populace so that they're first of all willing, and second have the means to report to local authorities?"
Kony inspires conflicted thoughts among some people in northern Uganda who remember the early days of his insurgency, which started as a popular struggle against the southern-dominated government of President Yoweri Museveni.
Angelo Izama, who runs a Kampala-based think tank on regional security called Fanaka Kwawote, said Kony is a sympathetic figure among some Ugandans who see his rebellion as a valid response to the "perceived injustices against the north."
"Some people felt that he was a criminal and yet his criminality was in the service of a different type of justice," he said.
The LRA has been out of northern Uganda since 2006 and is now terrorizing an area the size of California spanning the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo.
Though numbering only between an estimated 150 to 300 fighters - compared to several thousand in years past - LRA attacks in the Central African Republic and Congo have been on the rise in the first quarter of 2012, according to the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, with 53 attacks and 90 abductions of children and adults. None were reported in South Sudan.
The guerrilla group takes boys to force into combat, and girls and young women like Sunday to serve as "wives" to Kony and others.
Kony is known for his brutal tactics, like cutting the lips off women who sound the alarm that his forces are coming, and ordering abducted children to kill their parents or other relatives so that they are afraid to ever try to return home for fear they will be shunned.
Sunday said she was taken from her bed by LRA fighters in the middle of the night, then spirited off to neighboring Congo for 10 years.
She said she had a son with Kony seven years ago. Betty was just a baby in 2010 when authorities in Congo attacked the LRA camp she was in. She was caught in the crossfire and shot in the leg as she went to grab the child.
Left behind by the LRA, she and her two children were picked up by the troops that attacked the camp and brought back to Uganda.
At the time the camp was attacked, Sunday said she thought Kony was in the Darfur region of Sudan but today she doesn't know where he is - and is skeptical that he can be captured or killed.
"He should surrender through peace talks," she said. "He can only come back through peace talks."
But with the atrocities committed by Kony and his fighters, peace talks are not up for discussion - with the focus on killing or capturing him.
"It is in Uganda's interest that the LRA menace is concluded once and for all, because Joseph Kony, as he has done before, has the ability to rejuvenate when he has a chance," said Ugandan Army spokesman Col. Felix Kulayigye.
"If you want permanent peace in this region, you must apprehend Kony or kill him."
A YouTube video released in March by the U.S. advocacy group Invisible Children, which has now had more than 88 million views, focused attention on the abductions and violence, spreading the message that Kony can still be caught despite the challenges.
The video helped raise awareness of the situation, but U.S. President Barack Obama had already late last year sent about 100 U.S. special forces soldiers to help regional governments eliminate the LRA. There are now American advisers in Uganda and the three countries where the LRA is now operating.
Their official role is to help those countries with intelligence and advise them on issues like logistics and communications as they seek to overcome all of the difficulties of the mission.
But the military side is only one part of the strategy, which also calls for better protection for civilians, efforts to increase defections from the LRA, and humanitarian assistance for those displaced by the violence.
Even though Kony's forces are now small in number they still are widely feared for their brutality. One or two fighters can cause panic to a town of thousands, and even rumors of the LRA in the area often causes entire villages to evacuate and flee.
In the southeastern region of the Central African Republic where Kony himself is believed likely to be hiding, the populations of larger towns have doubled in recent years as people have fled the countryside for safety in numbers.
Overall there are currently some 455,000 civilians living either as internally displaced people or refugees in the LRA affected areas, according to the U.N.'s humanitarian coordination office.
"Fear is the common word across the board," said Jean-Sebastien Munie, head of the agency's office in the Central African Republic. "And fears can last for years - while violence can last for only a second."
Helping restore a feeling of safety to those people is critical, said Rear Adm. Brian Losey, the head of the U.S. Special Operations Command Africa.
"Regardless of what we feel, it's a very real thing for them," he said, adding that the hundreds of thousands of displaced people are themselves contributing to "greater levels of instability and insecurity."
"Restoring a sense of protection to civilians and security and stability in the areas is utterly vital."
Authorities are also increasing informational campaigns, trying to convince LRA fighters to come out of the bush and surrender.
Though the violence is now over in northern Uganda, in Gulu, Sunday is still struggling to make a living.
She uses facilities at a European Union and Uganda-funded center set up to help those who have left or fled the LRA for her baking, but said her cupcakes generate enough only to pay for rent and food.
She has a hard time walking to market to sell her baked goods because of her injury, and dreams of earning enough to some day buy a bicycle.
But despite her ambivalence about the efforts to kill or capture Kony, she said she's happy to be free from captivity in the bush.
"My life is better here," she said.
Associated Press writer Rodney Muhumuza contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya.