Brutal rebel commander Joseph Kony has sowed terror across four African nations for three decades, even evading capture by US and Ugandan soldiers who have now given up the chase.
The former Catholic altar boy became one of Africa’s most notorious rebels at the head of his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), combining religious mysticism with an astute guerilla mind and bloodthirsty ruthlessness.
The US passed a law in 2010 to deploy around 100 special forces to work with regional armies in hunting down Kony but is now withdrawing while the rebel leader remains at large, though his power is much diminished.
Kony’s marauding insurgency claimed to be fighting to overthrow the Ugandan government and impose a regime based on the Bible’s Ten Commandments. It has killed more than 100,000 people and abducted 60,000 children who were forced to become sex slaves, soldiers and porters.
While battling the Ugandan government Kony and his dwindling band of bush fighters have earned a grim reputation for kidnapping and mutilation.
The leader’s whereabouts are not known and his forces have been hit by a constant stream of defections, deaths and surrenders of both foot-soldiers and commanders.
Small LRA groups continue to carry out attacks, mostly on civilians in villages, in the border regions of Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Sudan.
– Self-proclaimed prophet –
In 2005, the self-proclaimed prophet — along with four of his deputies — were the first people indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
One commander, Dominic Ongwen, is currently on trial while the three others are believed to have been killed.
A member of Uganda’s northern Acholi ethnic group, Kony attended primary school before taking up arms in around 1987, following in the footsteps of another messianic rebel, Alice Auma Lakwena, a former prostitute who is believed to have been either his cousin or aunt.
Lakwena, who died in exile in Kenya in early 2007, believed she could channel the spirits of the dead, and also told her followers that holy oil she gave them could stop bullets.
Kony claims the Holy Spirit issues orders to him on everything from military tactics to personal hygiene, terrifying his subordinates into obedience.
The rebellion claimed to be defending the Acholi people against President Yoweri Museveni, who seized power from northern military rulers at the head of a rebel army in 1986.
Despite widespread northern resentment against Museveni, Kony’s policy of abductions soon lost him the support of local groups, who suffered in the government’s brutal war against the LRA.
At the height of the conflict, the government had forced some 2 million people into camps.
– Evading capture, justice –
Kony, who is thought to be in his 50s, speaks broken English and Acholi and has only rarely met outsiders, but in an interview with a western journalist in 2006 he insisted that he was “not a terrorist” and had not committed atrocities.
“We want the people of Uganda to be free. We are fighting for democracy,” he claimed.
Nevertheless, ex-LRA abductees say they were forced to maim and kill friends, neighbours and relatives, and participate in gruesome rites such as drinking their victims’ blood.
In the 1990s, the LRA conflict spilt into neighbouring countries after the Sudanese government in Khartoum began backing the group in retaliation for Uganda’s support of southern Sudanese rebels battling for independence.
When Sudan signed a peace deal with the southern rebels in 2005, support for the LRA dried up and, after being forced into neighbouring DR Congo by the Ugandan army, Kony agreed to peace talks.
But negotiations dragged on and, amid mutual distrust and anxiety over the ICC warrant, Kony repeatedly failed to turn up to sign a deal.
In late 2011, following pressure from US campaigners, President Barack Obama deployed US special forces troops to help regional armies track down Kony.
Kony surged to unexpected worldwide prominence in March 2012 on the back of a hugely popular internet video that called for his capture.
Made by US-based advocacy group Invisible Children, the Kony2012 film became one of the fastest-spreading internet videos in history after more than 100 million users across the globe watched it in just a few days.
But popular interest quickly waned and despite the increased pressure, after more than 30 years in the bush Kony remains a master of evasion, ditching satellite telephones in favour of runners to communicate, and living off wild roots and animals.
The US and Ugandan militaries claim the LRA is all but defeated and rendered irrelevant, yet Kony remains free, outsmarting and outlasting all who have sought him.