U.S. to Rebels: Listen to Mom
In final push to vanquish Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army, the U.S. is waging a psychological battle to draw the last rebels from the Central African bush.
Obira Julius was stretched out on the ground, taking a breather on a slog from one jungle hideout to another, when he heard the voice in the sky. It was disembodied but familiar, a voice from his lost childhood, suddenly floating down to him from a loudspeaker on a passing American helicopter. At first Mr. Obira wasn’t sure. After all, he had last heard that voice 13 years earlier, when he was just 5, on the day the rebels snatched him and two brothers on the way to their grandfather’s house. The day they forcibly inducted him into the Lord’s Resistance Army, a cult-like group notorious for hacking innocents to death. Mr. Obira strained to pick out the words as the helicopter flew by. It made a second pass, and this time he had no doubt. It was his mother, calling him home.
Mr. Obira imagined his village in Uganda, two countries away. He imagined his family welcoming him back, despite everything. One afternoon not long afterward, he slipped away from the other rebels and ran for it. Mr. Obira’s defection marked another no-shots-fired victory in one of the most unusual U.S. special-operations missions anywhere in the world. In the twilight of the Lord’s Resistance Army, American commandos are relying less on kill-capture operations and more on psychological operations to lure die-hard militants out of the bush one by one, using their families as messengers.
American helicopters roam the skies deep in the center of Africa, blaring recorded come-home messages from mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles. U.S. Army psyop specialists create personalized leaflets with photos of fighters’ families, and U.S. planes drop them into the bush by the hundreds of thousands. American soldiers produce individualized family pleas to broadcast on jungle radio stations. The American and Ugandan soldiers “are not there to harm you,” Mr. Obira’s mother said in her helicopter message. “They will bring you home safe.”
The tactic, U.S. officers hope, will create a cascade of defections that will eliminate the rebel group before its infamous leader, Joseph Kony, has a chance to rebuild.
The rebel group has its roots in decades of ethnic conflict in Uganda. In the mid-1980s, Ugandan army soldiers, many from the Acholi ethnic group, massacred supporters of then-rebel Yoweri Museveni.
After Mr. Museveni seized power—30 years on he remains Uganda’s president—he used the Luwero killings to rally support for his rule. The Acholi began to worry the winners of the civil war would exact revenge on the losers. Mr. Kony, an Acholi who claimed spiritual powers, took up arms to try to oust Mr. Museveni and, he vowed, to rule the country according to the Ten Commandments. His brutality, however, quickly overshadowed his political and religious objectives. The Lord’s Resistance Army marauded through villages, stealing children from their beds and dragging them back to the forest to serve as porters and fighters. Girls were forced into so-called bush marriages with senior rebels. Fighters cut the noses and lips off civilians; they lined others up for roadside executions. Over 30 years, the group has killed some 17,000 people, and frightened millions into fleeing their homes, according to the U.S. military. In 2005, Mr. Kony and four lieutenants were indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Three of the five indicted rebel leaders have been killed, according to the U.S. military. One, brigade commander Dominic Ongwen, surrendered and is on trial in The Hague, charged with 70 offenses including rape, pillage, torture and enslavement. Mr. Kony himself, however, is still at large, hiding along the border between Sudan and South Sudan, according to the Ugandan military.
American commandos continue to advise an African Union task force as they hunt for Mr. Kony.
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