OBO, Central African Republic — Pascal was on guard duty when he got word it was time to leave.
He and six other fighters were all bodyguards to the accused war criminal Joseph Kony or his inner circle. After almost a decade in the Central African bush, they were going to ambush the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in his camp in the Kafia Kingi area of South Sudan and make a run for it.
The boys—four Ugandans and three others from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo—wanted to return to their families after being abducted as children. Their plan was simple. Open fire on Kony’s hut and then flee into the jungle where they’d cached enough food to sustain them for their 500-mile trek to Obo, the closest U.S. military base in eastern Central African Republic.
Pascal readied his AK-47.
“If I hear gunfire I’ll start mine,” Pascal told Roland, one of the Ugandans.
The boys leveled their AK-47s and opened fire at Kony’s hut and the huts of his lieutenants. After a long burst, Pascal grabbed the cache of supplies and followed the others into the bush.
The May 2015 defection of seven of Kony’s bodyguards was unprecedented. It was a clear indicator that the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, is in its death throes and of Kony’s diminishing hold on the rank and file, military and advocacy groups said.
“No one would have dared to do it before,” said Paul Ronan, director of The Resolve, a nonprofit that tracks the LRA. “Big picture is the LRA is at its weakest point.”
The Daily Beast spoke to four of the Kony 7 in March in Obo and Dungu in Congo. The base in Obo sat to the end of a road that ran down the middle of the village. The villagers waved to the soldiers as they drove between the American and the Ugandan bases. The Special Forces camp was small by the standards of other conflicts—only a dozen tents and none of the guard towers and heavy weapons. Ringed by shipping containers and concertina wire, the American’s tan tents were built on wood foundations. An American flag flew on a pole near the center of the camp.
The sounds of helicopters coming and going provided the camp’s soundtrack. A small detachment of helicopters were based across a runway made of crushed red volcanic rock. Flown by contractors, the helicopters ferried joint American-Ugandan patrols into the bush. Both camps sat on top of a plateau that overlooked miles of jungle, a reminder of just how remote Obo was.
The men were living on the remote military bases used by an African Union task force hunting Kony. They are working closely with the soldiers providing intelligence and greeting defectors fresh from the bush. Once on opposite sides, they now live, work, and eat side-by-side with their former pursuers. It wasn’t uncommon to see the defectors sitting elbow-to-elbow with the American Special Forces soldiers in the dining hall.
All four of the former bodyguards were reluctant to speak in detail about their actions while in the LRA as we sat in camp chairs near the base’s gym, but did acknowledge how a successful propaganda campaign waged by the U.S. Army helped them defect, and why they are still working with the American military hunting Kony.
The LRA was declared a terrorist group in 2001 by the United States. For decades, LRA fighters looted villages and kidnapped children. The boys were trained to use AK-47s and forced to fight and murder, cutting off the lips and ears of their victims. The girls were forced into sexual enslavement. The International Criminal Court in The Hague indicted Kony in 2005 for crimes against humanity.
In 2010, President Barack Obama made it U.S. policy to support in the hunt for Kony. A year later, Obama sent 100 U.S. special operations troops to Central Africa to help an African Union task force hunting Kony in sparsely populated safe havens in Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic.
While the only measure of ultimate success is Kony’s capture, the steady uptick in defections over the last five years is one indicator that the American military backed leaflet and radio programs is taking a toll.
Bronwyn Bruton, the deputy director of the Africa Center at the Washington, D.C.-based Atlantic Council, said the Kony 7’s group defection suggests a real weakness in the LRA command structure.
“If these guys feel that Special Forces and (Ugandan soldiers) are closing in on them, they have an incentive to leave,” she said. “Kony himself has gotten older and sick. Fighters might be wondering what their future looks like. It is only a matter of time before they make a mistake and get caught.”
The Kony 7 weren’t the first members of the LRA to switch sides. In 2011, 11 LRA fighters turned. But by 2012, three times as many defected as the American soldiers with nonprofit groups like Invisible Children created leaflets and radio broadcasts aimed at coaxing LRA fighters out of the bush. By 2014, 53 fighters defected with almost half that already defecting in 2016 already. In all, 168 fighters have defected since 2011, some walking for weeks alone in the bush carrying nothing but a leaflet.
Ronan said defections like the Kony 7 is “clear sign that the American-supported defection campaigns are having a positive impact” by breaking Kony’s hold over his army of child soldiers.
The U.S. military has been dropping hundreds of thousands of leaflets over the Central African Republic and neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. The leaflets showcase former LRA members who deserted from the rebel group and provide directions for defectors, urging them to look for an opportunity to leave, and to come with friends. It instructs them to drop their arms before they came into the village. Despite being told not to pick up leaflets, U.S. soldiers said defectors will often fold up the leaflets they find in the jungle and hide them until it is safe to leave.
“This is the most successful [information operation] I’ve ever seen,” said a soldier involved in the campaign said. They requested anonymity because they are part of the ongoing mission. “You get to see a measure of your effectiveness.”
One of highest profile defectors was LRA commander Dominic Ongwen. He surrendered in January 2015. He was one of five high-ranking LRA officers indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. After Ongwen’s defection, military officials had him record a message urging his fighters to defect. The U.S. soldiers said many of the defectors said hearing Ongwen or other defectors on the radio convinced them it was safe to leave Kony.
“We try and let them know what is available to them,” the soldier said.
Bruton said there is some indication that LRA fighters listen to the radio and get the leaflets. The promise of amnesty is tempting.
“The people who go get amnesty, that is not a small thing,” she said. “To be able to wipe the slate clean, that is a very tempting offer.”
The Kony 7 grabbed their hidden food and water and started running southeast, toward Obo. Kony, who survived the ambush, ordered a small group of guards to chase them. The boys could hear LRA fighters searching for them when Pascal dropped the food, Roland said. They couldn’t make it without supplies, so they circled back and set an ambush.
As the LRA fighters got close, Roland, Pascal, and the others opened fire. The attack startled the LRA fighters, who quickly retreated leaving their own cookware and supplies behind. Roland said the men waited for more fighters to come. After an hour, they grabbed the supplies and headed south. For the next month, they worked their way toward Obo. They’d seen a leaflet with a map showing the town with an American flag next to it. At the outskirts of Obo, they stopped a villager and asked him to get the Americans. They didn’t want to turn themselves into the Ugandan army because Kony has told his fighters Ugandan soldiers will kill them on sight.
“So when they defected they decided to walk all the way to Obo because that’s the only place they knew the Americans were,” Ronan said.
The former bodyguards, all abducted as children, left the LRA because they wanted to see their families again. They had grown tired of living in the bush.
“We didn’t have a home in the bush,” Roland said. “We needed to be home.”
Roland is now over 18 years old, as are his fellow Kony 7 members, Alex and Simon. All three were lean and wiry with short hair and dark eyes. They spoke in measured tones, letting each question hang in the humid air before uttering a word. They were reluctant to speak about their pasts, and wanted instead to focus on the future. The former bodyguards already completed reintegration training in Gulu, a town in Northern Uganda, and were looking forward to starting a new life. But first they wanted to help the Americans free their comrades.
“Those are our brothers out there,” Simon said.
He, Roland, and Alex were living with other defectors and working in Obo with the Americans, providing them with insight in the inner workings of the LRA.
They hope their presence in Obo will show them it is safe to come home.
It appears from the defections and intelligence provided by the Kony 7 and others that the LRA is down to its last holdouts. The total number of fighters at Kony’s disposal has dropped from approximately 400 in 2010 to about 200, according to activist groups and U.S. military officials.
“They are in survival mode,” said Lt. Col. Cecil Marson, the commander of U.S. troops in Central Africa. “Defectors are a game changer.”
The uptick in defections has caused the LRA to search for replacements. Over the past three months, almost 300 children have been abducted in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a report by an American nonprofit.
“This most recent surge would indicate while they are weak, they still have the capacity to multi-week, coordinated attacks,” Ronan said.
But there is hope Kony will be caught soon. Marson said the intelligence picture is the best it has been in years.
“We’re going after a guy who destroyed a generation,” Marson said. “We’re going after the devil. We’re pretty close to putting a nail in the coffin.”