Michael Gerson
Opinion writer January 26, 2012

Francoise, age 16, talks quietly, revealing a shy smile only after praise for her tight cornrows. While walking to school four years ago, she and some classmates were captured by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The girls were distributed to soldiers as “wives.” In the mornings, Francoise cooked. In the afternoons, she carried packs on the march. When she tried to escape, the soldiers melted a water container and poured the plastic on her shoulders. Once, when the fighters saw two infants along the path, they crushed them with a pestle. “I witnessed that,” she says.

Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. View Archive

She recalls seeing Joseph Kony “maybe once a year.” Kony is the leader of the LRA and perhaps the most hated and hunted man on earth. His followers, she explains, think that “he is a supernatural being. He has a power over them.”

Francoise describes a six-week walk to an LRA camp in a remote part of the neighboring Central African Republic (CAR). Then the sounds of an attacking plane and helicopter. In the chaos, she escaped, arriving home just before Christmas.

Her story is eyewitness confirmation of an important event. During the summer, Kony recalled his commanders to the CAR for his first major leadership meeting in two years. On Sept. 12, forces of Uganda’s military (known as the UPDF) scattered the LRA fighters. Kony survived and fled. But the net around him tightens.

The pursuit of the LRA ranges over 240,000 square miles of jungle terrain in three countries. According to officers at the Joint Intelligence and Operations Center in Dungu, there were more than 300 LRA attacks last year. Units operate in small bands both east and west of Dungu. But Kony is still thought to be in the CAR. Experts on the conflict speculate his current location to be somewhere west of the Chinko River, a few hours by helicopter from his pursuers’ nearest military outpost.

During decades of fighting in the bush, Kony has been protected by a bodyguard of myths. His eyes are said to shine bright red. When he runs, his legs are invisible. His soldiers believe that they were created from Kony’s blood. They spill the blood of others without compunction. A few hundred of Kony’s fighters have turned a vast territory into a gathering place of fears.

Organizations such as the Eastern Congo Initiative and Invisible Children are constructing an early-warning radio system to warn villages of impending attacks. United Nations peacekeepers protect civilians in Dungu and other towns.

But for this region to be repaired, the LRA must be broken. Military forces of Congo and the CAR are incapable. So the task has fallen to Ugandan soldiers, advised by the U.S. military. More than 80 U.S. special operations forces have been deployed to forward operating bases in Congo, the CAR and South Sudan. Their mission is to provide intelligence and assistance to the Ugandan military, which has skilled trackers — some of them formerly with the LRA — on Kony’s trail.

Over the past few months, the pressure has begun to tell. Small groups of LRA fighters continue attacks on civilians, mainly to secure supplies. But larger gatherings, such as the Sept. 12 meeting, risk disruption. LRA leaders know that mass civilian killings — a traditional Kony tactic — would call attention to their location. LRA forces have recently released some captive women and children. U.S. advisers view this as a sign of stress — an attempt to lighten the load of a harried force.

The Kony manhunt, however, faces complications. For political reasons, Congo’s government recently ordered Ugandan forces out of its territory, leaving the LRA with significant sanctuaries. The UPDF — which is also fighting al-Shabab in Somalia — is stretched thin. Ugandan operations in the CAR and South Sudan involve just a few transport helicopters and a single reconnaissance drone. The whole effort is hampered by a lack of tactical air support, airlift capacity and advanced communications.

An American combat mission in this conflict is not contemplated. But the U.S. government should press Congo to readmit Ugandan troops pursuing the LRA. And the U.S. military could aid the UPDF with more advanced air and communications capabilities. A small, final push might remove the LRA’s most capable leaders from the field.

After a four-year nightmare, Francoise hopes to go back to school. Joseph Kony, the author of nightmares, remains at large in some jungle camp. He is not a supernatural being. He is human, and thus mortal. It is time to prove it.

michaelgerson@washpost.com