NAPOPO: Perched at this hilltop lookout, surveying the thick jungle below where Lord’s Resistance Army rebels roam, a Ugandan colonel tersely explained the task for his men – catching Joseph Kony.
"We are here for Kony," Colonel Stefano Mugerwa said, referring to Africa’s most wanted war criminal.
Kony, whose LRA is notorious for abducting children and forcing them to commit atrocities, is among the world’s most elusive rebel chiefs and Ugandan troops have been looking for him, with varying zeal, for more than two decades. This latest effort to eliminate him and his top two deputies has pulled Ugandan forces onto the harsh terrain of south Sudan, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Kony and his men move among the three countries, terrorizing and butchering civilians as they go. With the agreement of the respective governments, Ugandan troops try to follow.
Their campaign has been criticized since its inception, but recent documents released by US President Barack Obama indicate it provides the best hope of finding Kony.
With the sun setting on a remote patch of Congolese jungle, Ugandan Lieutenant Fred Okuruku, 30, described how good the rebels, estimated to number fewer than 300 fighters, are at throwing off their pursuers.
The rebels generally move in groups of fewer than 10 and often use decoy tactics where two men noisily divert attention while a larger group slips past undetected.
"We think we have found a big group, when it was just two people dragging a jerrycan," Okuruku said during an evening rest on this arduous trek across the Sudan – DR Congo border.
In this terrain, where shoulder-high grass gives way to waist-high swamp and dense forest, a six-kilometer (four-mile) hike can take nearly six hours as the group waits for the lead soldiers to hack a path through a solid wall of jungle.
When they depart from their base, squads are given coordinates and assigned a role as either a blocking force or as pursuers, but both the destination and the assignment can change instantly.
"When you tell your commanders you have arrived, they can tell you another place, maybe 12 kilometers away. So, you move," he said over an evening meal of corned beef at the squad’s makeshift campsite.
Mugerwa, who commands the LRA hunt in south Sudan and DR Congo, said those frustrated by Uganda’s inability to capture Kony do not appreciate the difficulty of pursuing a scattered rebel force across a massive, nearly impenetrable stretch of land.
Officially, this is a joint operation, with Uganda operating alongside south Sudanese, Congolese and soldiers from the Central African Republic, where many believe Kony is often based.
Ugandan officials did not publicly comment on their partners’ efforts, but several sources say that while the Sudanese and Central Africans are nominally helpful, the Congolese are downright hostile to the anti-LRA effort, due partly to massive looting by Ugandan officers on a previous incursion into DRC.
And questions have also surfaced about the continuing commitment of even the Ugandan troops.
In his LRA policy document released in November, Obama stressed the importance of supporting Uganda’s effort, but noted "there is no guarantee that Ugandan operations against the LRA will continue at the same pace."
Ledio Cakaj, a researcher with the ENOUGH Project specializing in the LRA conflict, told AFP that Kampala’s fading interest is already evident, with Ugandan troops gradually withdrawn from the LRA theatre "to deal with more pressing concerns at home."
"At least two battalions (1300 soldiers) were redeployed this summer from Central Africa to Karamoja," he added, referring to the troubled region of northeast Uganda.
President Yoweri Museveni also wants to boost Uganda’s presence in the African Union force in Somalia.
With an estimated overall force strength of 50,000, some expect Uganda to withdraw more troops from the LRA operation to meet other commitments.
An International Crisis Group Report from April last year said that as of February 2010, there were likely between 5,000 and 7,000 Uganadan army troops involved in the LRA operation.
But for south Sudanese leaders in Western Equatoria State, where the LRA resumed abducting civilians near the DR Congo border in December after a two-month lull, a Ugandan withdrawal would be premature.
Wilson Hassan Peni, paramount chief of south Sudan’s Zande tribe, periodically brutalized by the LRA over the last two years, argued that Uganda must stay because their flawed operation led to the current crisis.
"The LRA started killing our people after (the operation started)," Peni told AFP.
Convinced by December 2008 that Kony had no intention of signing a peace deal, Uganda bombed his bases in northeastern DR Congo.
This botched attempt to kill Kony scattered the rebels, igniting a grotesque series of atrocities around central Africa.
Uganda’s failure to contain the fleeing rebels was inexcusable and claims that other regional armies could handle civilian protection were disingenuous, Peni argued.
But, despite his criticisms and frustration, Peni insisted his Zande people do not want the Ugandans to go.
And Okuruku, who has spent 14 straight days patrolling this punishing terrain, said he was prepared to stay until Kony, whose inhuman criminality has affected more than two million people, was captured or killed.
Commenting on intelligence that the LRA leader may be heading south from Central African Republic to DR Congo with his large contingent of bodyguards, slaves and "wives", Okukuru said: "When we hear that big group has come through, you watch, that’s when we’ll really move."