A Central African was fishing on a riverbank last month when a group of 19 men, women, and children emerged from the bush and called out to him in Swahili. Holding their weapons over their heads, they announced that they were part of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and wanted to defect. At the group’s request, the fisherman took them across the river in his boat, and soon a Ugandan military helicopter arrived.
It was a dramatic moment -- the largest defection in five years and a powerful sign that the international campaign to eliminate the LRA is making major progress. All of us working on the mission were thrilled by the news, which came on the heels of a battlefield victory against an LRA group by African Union forces. Since its founding more than a quarter century ago, the LRA has been a constant source of terror and suffering. The United Nations estimates that 100,000 Africans have died because of its violence, and more than 20,000 young people have been forced to serve as underage soldiers and sex slaves.
I have been in central Africa for a year-and-a-half serving as a field representative for the State Department and assisting with the implementation of the U.S. counter-LRA mission, including the defection campaign. Three others from the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) have served in this role, too.
The 19 who escaped the LRA recently said they had been persuaded to do so by radio broadcasts and fliers dropped from helicopters. The group included Okello Okutti, an LRA officer who had been abducted 24 years ago, and he explained that the messages persuaded them that they would not be harmed by the military. That point is also being made now by Ugandan pop star Chameleone, who has recorded a song in Acholi, Swahili, and English urging LRA members to "come home."
Bishop Samuel Peni, who assists with local LRA defections and community rehabilitation efforts, poses with a State Department CSO officer Jonathan Gandomi in Nzara, Sudan, undated. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
The last two years have been very encouraging for those of us trying to persuade LRA members to come home, and we believe that the LRA is down to just a few hundred members -- including Kony himself. Most LRA members did not choose to join, and they remain only because they fear retribution by Kony. We know from recent defectors that the LRA is at its weakest point in years and morale is at an all-time low. The LRA is truly fighting for survival. The number of people killed by the LRA decreased by 87 percent from 2010 to 2012.
Our work here began in 2011 after President Obama directed the Department of State, Department of Defense, and USAID to develop a strategy to help governments and communities end the LRA's reign of terror. To advance that strategy, U.S. Special Forces were sent to advise and assist the regional militaries pursuing the rebels. My bureau’s predecessor, the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, also deployed.
One reason for the mounting success is outstanding teamwork. The African Union, the countries’ military forces, civil society leaders, the UN, and NGOs like Invisible Children are playing important roles, as are other partners. Each U.S. embassy in the region coordinates closely with U.S. Special Forces to maximize the impact of the U.S. supporting role. Much of my time is devoted to coordinating policy with the embassies and other teammates, promoting defection messages, and troubleshooting -- both from my office and out in the field. A key part of CSO's approach has been developing a strong relationship with AFRICOM over the past five years, including having staff embedded with Command headquarters.
The work that all of us are doing means the world to people here. They see it as a sign that their years of suffering and trauma at the hands of the LRA have finally been recognized by the international community.
We need to reel in the final members and their leader. But even when that job is done, sustained international involvement will be required to ease everyone who was in the LRA back into society. CSO hopes to organize a conference in the coming months to develop such a plan.
About the Author: Jonathan Gandomi is a field representative for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO).