GULU, Uganda—Inside the small, darkened house, Moses Rubanga Kene is careful not to be overheard. There are people just outside. Through a gap in the front door, left ajar so as not to arouse suspicion in a small village in northern Uganda, we hear the clang of cooking pots and a baby crying.
Until now, 26-year-old Moses has never spoken publicly about his father. If the neighbors knew, he probably couldn’t stay here. For Moses Rubanga Kene is the first-born son of the man who terrorized this region for decades: the infamous warlord Joseph Kony.
The brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader entered the world’s consciousness in 2012, with the #Kony2012 video campaign. Produced by the U.S.-based group Invisible Children, its viral impact was stunning as it garnered more than 100 million views and raised nearly $20 million so that Kony might be brought to justice.
But Kony’s barbarity began long before most of the world knew him. Beginning in the late 1980s, he preached a blend of mysticism, tribal identity, and Christianity—his professed goal was to rule by the Ten Commandments and turn Uganda into a theocratic state. And in that cause, the Lord’s Resistance Army maimed and murdered innumerable victims. It also kidnapped tens of thousands of children to be used as soldiers, sex slaves, and porters.
In northern Uganda, few people here today did not lose something—or everything—during Kony’s crusade of violence.
For the sins of his father, Moses has endured years of torment, stigma, and death threats.
“Since the war hurt so many people,” Moses told The Daily Beast, “they look at Joseph Kony’s family as a family of murderers, as a family that don’t deserve to live.”
It’s hard not to see the warlord in his son: Their faces are shaped much alike, with the same wide-set eyes.
“I say: ‘God, I didn’t ask to be like this, it was all your plan.’ So I just ask God to give me the strength to keep going on and keep progressing in life.”
For the warlord’s Christian son, Christmas is a time to celebrate new beginnings and the chance to forge his own way. “What my father was or what my father is does not define who I am,” Moses says. “I am a different person and my life has a different path. There are so many good things I will be able to do.”
Moses says his father gave him the family name Rubanga Kene, meaning “God alone” in their Acholi language, to spare him undue suffering. But the community soon learned that was the name of Kony’s first born. Today he goes by a different name.
“The best thing I can do nowadays is try to keep my identity discreet,” Moses says. “Because people will start pointing fingers, start discriminating.”
Moses’ mother was abducted by the LRA as a teenager, early on in the rebellion in the late ’80s. She was forced to be the warlord’s “wife” and in 1990 gave birth to Moses in the bush in modern-day South Sudan. But with an infant to carry, she could not keep up with the guerrillas. Kony allowed her to return to northern Uganda to raise Moses. He escaped the suffering all others swept up in Kony’s violence endured. Although he knows of the horrors perpetrated by the man—by the fanatic—yet he yearns to know the father.
For Moses, the suffering came at home, where he and his mother faced their own battle as targets of the Ugandan military.
“She was being arrested here and there. You know, accusations of being a collaborator with the rebels,” Moses says. “And they said, being the first born, I’m going to grow up just like my father.”
Moses says that one time soldiers came looking for him, wanting to burn him alive, but through the “grace of God” someone in the military intervened and he was spared.
His mother was not so fortunate. Soldiers allegedly raped her on repeated occasions, and she died from AIDS when Moses was about 8 years old.
“My mum was really happy and she loved people,” Moses says. “She loved bringing people together, sharing stories, laughing. Those are the memories I have of her.”
Since leaving the bush, Moses says he has met with his father twice. The last time was during peace talks with the LRA in modern-day South Sudan between 2006 and 2008, when he was 15 or 16 and in secondary school. Kony had sent one of his confidantes to find Moses in Uganda and bring him to him.
“He wanted to see me and know I was being treated well and I was alive,” Moses says. “He was asking about studies, he was advising me that my future lies in education, that I need to study hard,” Moses says, describing a conversation most any father might have with his son, not the ravings of a man who’d scourged a country.
Moses is not Kony’s only child. The warlord has had many “wives,” but exactly how many children he’s produced is not known. The United States last year imposed sanctions on two of Kony’s sons in the LRA, which is still operating. It accused them of being commanders and carrying out extreme violence in Central Africa.
Moses has met with some of Kony’s other children in northern Uganda to try to support them in dealing with persecution. “[I tell them] because people are acting aggressively to you because of who your father is or what he has done, then we don’t have to react back the same way,” Moses says. “We just have to ignore, because anger cannot solve anything.”
Now that he’s older, Moses has many questions for his father. Chief among them is why Joseph Kony orchestrated so much suffering over so many years.
“I don’t agree with his actions, the things he did,” says Moses, who seems baffled by the hell his father created. “The only person who can really explain it is him.”
The rebels were forced out of Uganda more than 10 years ago, scattering across South Sudan, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo, where they continued attacking civilians to this day.
The Lord’s Resistance Army is a shadow of what it once was, but it is still dangerous. Kony’s fighters have dwindled to fewer than 100 from a peak of 2,000 during the conflict in northern Uganda, according to United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) estimates.
The rebels are now clinging to survival, continuing smaller-scale attacks in Central Africa. They are meddling in the illicit ivory trade as well.
And Kony remains a free man.
Hope of catching him and crushing the LRA once and for all faded this year when U.S and Ugandan troops ended the decades-long hunt for Kony.
Moses does not know where his father is now or how to contact him. But he hopes to see him again.
“Your father can do things that are not good, but still he remains your father. And I love him like other people love their fathers,” Moses says.
“I believe he will come out of the bush. I have hope.”
But what Moses does not grasp is that his father will never come home. Not in the way he’d like. For the only thing certain in the life of Africa’s most evasive war criminal is an end. Perhaps as a desperate man in the jungles of Central Africa, or as a convicted war criminal behind a prison wall. But not at home.