When Jeanne Boliza looks at her 3-year-old child, she remembers.
He is the product of her ordeal as a sex slave for a soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal militia led by a self-proclaimed prophet, Joseph Kony. Boliza, who was a child when she was raped, named her son Dieu Donné, “God Given.” But her neighbors refer to him by a different name.
“They call him ‘Son of Tonga Tonga,’ ” said Boliza, now 17. It means “Son of the LRA.”
In the jungles of this vast region of central Africa, villagers are grappling with the emotional and psychological scars left by Kony’s militia. The LRA has abducted tens of thousands of children over nearly three decades, forcing them to become sex slaves or soldiers, mutilate victims and even kill family members.
The LRA today is thought to be greatly diminished, with no more than a few hundred fighters. But it remains a threat, and villagers live in constant fear, even as Ugandan and U.S. troops pursue Kony for his alleged crimes. The LRA carried out 11 attacks this year in this country and 13 in neighboring Congo, according to the United Nations and local military officials.
“People will literally pick up their belongings and go sleep in the bush if they believe the LRA are close,” said Lucie Koboura Morgode, a social worker with Mercy Corps, a Portland, Ore.-based aid agency that assists victims. “The trauma can remain with them their entire lives.”
In Obo, a quiet hamlet in southeastern Central African Republic, the fear can be heard in the voice of Germaine Guinikpara, who says she was repeatedly raped by Kony and forced to club adults and children to death. It can be seen in the scars of Guy Roger Mongozimbale, who says he was abducted at 14 and ordered to fight after being given “magic” potions.
The trauma is also apparent in Emmanuel Dada’s bouts of anger and loneliness. He says an LRA soldier forced him to bash a baby against a wall and then stomp the child to death. But the memory of that incident is not the one that wakes him up some nights, the one he can still see “like a film.”
“It was burning the church down on Christmas Day,” Dada said, his voice lowering to a whisper. “So many Christians died that day.”
Despite being mostly quiet for the past year, Kony has gained fresh attention through videos recently released by the advocacy group Invisible Children, the first of which focused primarily on the LRA’s attacks in neighboring Uganda, where the militia was founded.
But Kony and the LRA left Uganda years ago. Since then, they have targeted villagers in a triangle of forests straddling the Central African Republic, Congo and South Sudan.
Since 2008, when the militia arrived in this region, it has killed more than 2,400 people and kidnapped at least 3,400, according to the United Nations. Last year alone, the LRA displaced 466,000 people.
The victims’ accounts could not be independently verified, but human rights groups have widely documented the LRA’s violence.
Around Obo, entire villages, many burned to the ground by the militia, remain empty.
The United States has designated the LRA a terrorist organization, and the International Criminal Court wants to put Kony on trial on charges of crimes against humanity. In October, President Obama dispatched 100 U.S. troops to the region to bolster efforts to find Kony.
But the fear continues to spread. In the town of Zemio, west of Obo, villagers recently fled their huts when they saw fighters emerge from the forests. But they turned out to be Ugandan troops. Elsewhere, other attacks have been falsely blamed on the LRA.
For local leaders, these are signs of a society on perpetual edge. “Our whole community is impacted psychologically,” said Martin Modove, a Catholic priest in Obo. “Every time there’s violence, we think it’s the LRA.”
These days, Germaine Guinikpara thinks a lot about Kony.
She was abducted in March 2008, taken to Congo, forced to carry loot and whipped along the way. She was handed over to Kony, entering his harem of 40 or more “wives.” The first time she met him, she said, he told her not to be afraid. “But if you try to escape, I will kill you,” she recalled him saying.
During the day, she worked in the fields or cooked. At night, she stayed in a house with the other “wives.” Kony carried a spear that he said was imbued with mystical powers to protect him, Guinikpara recalled. Every day, he would go to a nearby mountain clutching a Bible to speak to God.
Guinikpara also learned how to kill. She was first ordered to kill a 20-year-old man from Obo, a relative by marriage, who tried to escape. She and others from Obo were handed clubs and told to “strike him in the head.”
“We had to kill him, or else we would be killed,” she said. “Even if we shed one tear, we would be killed. Nobody cried.”
She escaped last year during the chaos of an attack. But in Obo today, her neighbors avoid her. They know she has killed their own. At the same time, she’s afraid to leave. “Kony’s soldiers know me well,” she said. “I will be the first to be killed if they arrive here someday.”
Guy Roger Mongozimbale has nightmares about the first time he killed. It was after Kony had warned him, “Don’t think about your parents, or else we will kill you,” he recalled. The man to be killed was a neighbor of Mongozimbale’s who had tried to escape. The LRA ordered Mongozimbale and 60 others to batter the man to death.
A few days later, he attacked his first village and killed dozens more, Mongozimbale said. He was about 15, but not the youngest child soldier. “There was a 9-year-old fighter,” he said.
During an attack in 2010, Mongozimbale said, he was wounded in the leg and arm and left to die. But a villager carried him to safety. A few weeks later, he was back in Obo.
Before her capture, Jeanne Boliza had been engaged. When she returned, her fiance — who was also abducted by the LRA — kept his promise, but only because of tribal tradition.
“There was the problem of the baby, but the real problem was that I hate the LRA, and they had already made her their wife,” Faustin Tanga said when Boliza walked away. “If I hadn’t made the promise to her parents, I would never have married her.”
Boliza has left her son with her parents. She knows he will grow up fatherless, taunted by others. When asked whether she still loves the child, she softly replied: “Yes.”