The Guerrilla Movement That Won't Die

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Peter Martell / AFP / Getty Images

Southern Sudanese wait for food, shelter, security and medicine at the village of Nzara, along Sudan's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, on Aug. 18, 2010. Thousands have fled their nearby villages since a recent series of attacks by guerrilla fighters believed to be from the Lord's Resistance Army

The night began like any other. Sarah John was busy preparing the evening fire at her village, when suddenly, seven armed men appeared from among the shadows. "They were dirty and smelly, had ragged clothes and hair unlike any normal human being," she says now, three weeks after the incident. The uninivited visitors began ransacking her place, destroying whatever they could not carry away. When the intruder assigned to guard her stepped away to relieve himself, she escaped.

Her story may sound like the stock opening to a bad western movie — but this version is horribly true, and no cowboy arrives to save the day. The camp for displaced people that the elderly woman now calls home, in Southern Sudan's Western Equatoria state, is swarming with survivors of recent attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a guerrilla movement that arose in Uganda in the late 1980s under mystic warlord Joseph Kony. Kony's guerrillas thrive in what this area has best — a rich, magical soil, in which almost anything grows, and grows tall. Wandering amid the dense grass and makeshift huts here are displaced fathers now without sons, daughters with lost grandmothers. Their lives have been turned upside down, and to make matters worse, most cannot even explain why: their attackers speak a foreign tongue, fighting a war outside their control, and they are pursued chiefly by an Ugandan — not a Sudanese — army. The confusion of the South Sudanese is not unique, and it's certainly not new — the LRA has spent more than two decades baffling a world shocked by its brutality. But since the end of 2008, when the LRA dispersed from its forested Congolese base after a failed U.S.-backed Ugandan military strike, the rebels have begun a new chapter few pretend to fully understand.

The LRA's trademark tactics remain the same — the sadistic killings, the child abductions, the ghostlike movements — but the old rebel group itself is changing. Kony is believed to be turning 50 next year. Almost none of his original guard remain, and the movement is now believed to be composed mostly of former abducted boys or the children of abducted girls. Always elusive, now the guerrillas are truly on the run, scattered over the remote borders where the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Southern Sudan collide. Some believe the LRA's fighting force has shrunk to as few as 200 men — which, if true, is likely the reason for the recent rise in civilian abductions, according to separate August reports issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Center for American Progress's "Enough" project. Both groups document hundreds of cases of civilians who have been captured since the group went on the move in December 2008. Adults are used as forced labor and are then either killed or released, often after being barbarically tortured for amusement first. The children, though, are a different story. The boys are expected to replenish the LRA's front lines, the girls to serve as wives. The initiation process is ghastly: of 45 children interviewed by HRW in July and August who had been held captive for more than a month, most had been forced to kill other children who refused to respond to their new marching orders.

Although this new transnational LRA could give the appearance of a dying, scattered rebellion in its final throes, some fear that Kony is neither desperate nor without a plan. Authorities in Southern Sudan — a self-governed region awaiting a January referendum in which it is expected to declare independence — believe Kony is not operating on his own. During Sudan's 21-year civil war that ended in 2005, President Omar Bashir's Khartoum regime actively encouraged Kony to terrorize the rebellious south and punish a hostile Ugandan government. Southern Sudan's military and political leaders believe that the old links between Khartoum and Kony remain active. Out here, such claims are difficult to prove. "That's always the rumor, but I have not really seen any concrete evidence to support it," says Jehanne Henry, HRW's Sudan researcher. But few would be surprised if it were true. "It's certainly a possibility," she says.

Reports suggest that the rebels' senior ranks could be getting homesick. Interviews with former abductees by both "Enough" project workers and HRW indicated a belief on the part of Kony's men that they will someday soon move their campaign back to Uganda. World leaders hope the movement doesn't live to see that day. In May, President Obama signed a bill that gave his Administration 180 days to produce a new strategy to defeat the LRA and protect civilians in the territory where it is active. Advocacy groups see the bill as an opportunity to focus political energy on ending one of the world's most horrific wars and amping up humanitarian assistance to the victims. But easy permanent solutions appear as elusive as the rebel leader himself. Even if Kony is eliminated, the headless monster he leaves behind could splinter even further, leaving a scattered trail of parasitic cells to continue his bloody reign.

"We don't know why they are here. We have done nothing to bring them to destroy us," says Sarah John. At some point, she and the others who fled here will likely be able to return to the burnt villages they once called home. As for answers, those she will likely never have.