Deep in the jungle, this small, remote Central African village is farther from the coast than any point on the continent. It’s also where three international armies have zeroed in on Joseph Kony, one of the world’s most wanted warlords.
Obo was the first place in the Central African Republic that Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army attacked in 2008; today, it’s one of four forward operating locations where U.S. special forces have paired up with local troops and Ugandan soldiers to seek out Kony, who is believed likely to be hiding out in the rugged terrain northwest of the town. For seven years he has been wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity after his forces cut a wide and bloody swath across several central African nations with rapes, abductions and killings.
Part of the LRA’s success in eluding government forces has been its ability to slip back and forth over the porous borders of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo. But since late last year, U.S. forces have been providing intelligence, looking at patterns of movement, and setting up better communications to link the countries’ forces together so that they can better track the guerrilla force.
Sent by President Barack Obama at the end of 2011, the 100 U.S. soldiers are split up about 15 to 30 per base, bringing in American technology and experience to assist local forces.
Exact details on specific improvements that the American forces have brought to the table, however, are classified, to avoid giving Kony the ability to take countermeasures.
“We don’t necessarily go and track into the bush but what we do is we incorporate our experiences with the partner nation’s experiences to come up with the right solution to go out and hopefully solve this LRA problem,” said Gregory, a 29-year-old captain from Texas, who would only give his first name in accordance with security guidelines.
The U.S. troops also receive reports from local hunters and others that they help analyze together with surveillance information.
“It’s very easy to blame everything on the LRA but there are other players in the region — there are poachers, there are bandits, and we have to sift that to filter what is LRA,” he said.
Central African Republic soldiers largely conduct security operations in and around the town, while Ugandan soldiers, who have been in the country since 2010, conduct longer-range patrols looking for Kony and his men.
Since January, they have killed seven LRA fighters in the area and captured one, while rescuing 15 people abducted by the group including five children, said their local commander, Col. Joseph Balikuddembe.
There has been no contact with the LRA since March, however, according to Ugandan Army spokesman Col. Felix Kulayigye, who said the LRA now is in survival mode. The LRA is thought to today number only around 150 to 300 die-hard fighters.
“They’re hiding,” he said. “They are not capable of doing.”
But with Kony still around, there are wide ranging-fears that the LRA will be able to rebuild.
“There’s periods of time when the LRA will lie low when the military pressure is too high or where there’s a threat that they don’t understand such as the American intervention,” said Matthew Brubacher, a political affairs officer with the U.N.’s mission in Congo, who was also an International Criminal Court investigator on the Kony case for five years.
“But then after a while after they figure it out, if they have the opportunity they’ll try to come back, so it’s just a matter of time they’ll try to come back. Kony always said ‘if I have only 10 men, I can always rebuild the force.”
Right now, expectations are high of the Americans serving in Obo and Djema in the Central African Republic, as well as those in Dungu in Congo and Nzara in South Sudan.
“For all the communities, the U.S. bases in Obo and Djema means one, Kony will be arrested, and two, there will be a lot of money for programs, humanitarian programs,” said Sabine Jiekak of the Italian humanitarian aid agency Coopi.
Central African Republic Deputy Defense Minister Jean Francis Bozize said it’s been difficult for the poor country’s small military to deal with Kony in the southeast as well as several other militant groups in the north.
An African Union mission expected to begin later this year should help expedite the cross-border pursuit of the LRA.
In the meantime, Bozize said the American forces could make a big difference.
“The involvement of U.S. forces with their assistance in providing information and intelligence will allow for all forces to operate from the same base-level of intelligence … (giving) better coordination with better results,” he told reporters in the capital, Bangui.
But the military mission is not a simple one.
How do you find small groups of seasoned fighters hidden deep in the jungle, who have eluded authorities for decades? How do you prevent brutal reprisal attacks on civilians? How can you bring together several countries’ troops to cooperate on cross-border pursuits?
The LRA usually attacks late at night, then melts back away into the jungle. Seasoned bush fighters, they employ many techniques to elude pursuit — walking along rocks or along streams to avoid leaving tracks, for example, and sometimes even marching backward to fool trackers.
Kony has reportedly stopped using radios and satellite phones for communications, instead relying on an elaborate system involving runners and multiple rendezvous points.
Key to his capture is good information from local residents — which they will only give when they can be sure of their own safety, according to American commanders.
“The population have to believe that they are secure and once they believe they are secure from the LRA, you start to deny the LRA the opportunity to attack villages to get people, to get food, to get medicine,” Gen. Carter Ham, the head of U.S. Africa Command, told reporters in Stuttgart.
That may take some time in Obo, a town of some 15,000 where around 3,500 people have sought refuge to escape LRA violence in the area.
Rural farmers and others stick to within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of the village for safety — originally the area that Central African Republic soldiers were able to patrol but now more a rule of thumb followed by the locals.
They’ve started recently to venture out farther, emboldened by the presence of the Ugandans and Americans to help the government forces, but are too nervous to stray too wide from the safety of the village.
“They’re still scared, they’re still wary because Joseph Kony is still out there,” said Mayor Joseph Kpioyssrani, looking at the jungle behind him.
Kony’s LRA sprung up in 1986 as a rebel movement among the Acholi people in northern Uganda to fight against the Kampala government, but has for decades been leading its violent campaign without any clear political ideology.
Emmanuel Daba, 33, was one of 76 people abducted in the first LRA raid on Obo in 2008 and forced to fight for the guerrillas for two years before managing to escape.
“We were trained to kill — forced to kill — otherwise we’d be killed ourselves,” he said outside the tiny radio station where he now works broadcasting messages to try and encourage others with the LRA to defect or escape. “I still have dreams — nightmares.”
This year, the U.S. Defense Department is committing $35 million to efforts to find and fight Kony.
Since 2008, the U.S. State Department has sent some $50 million in funds to support the Ugandan military’s logistics and non-lethal operations against the LRA, including contracting two transport helicopters to ferry troops and supplies. Another $500 million has been given over that time for the broader northern Uganda recovery effort in the aftermath of Kony’s presence there.
In Stuttgart, Ham keeps a “Kony 2012” poster hanging on his office door.
Though he isn’t committing to the goal of the viral YouTube campaign to see Kony neutralized by the end of the year, he does define success as either capturing or killing the LRA leader eventually.
“I’m confident that the mission will be successful, but I can’t give you a timeline when that’s going to occur…” Ham said. “It is one of those organizations that if you remove the senior leader and the small number of those who surround him, I believe this is one of those organizations that will not be able to regenerate.”