Escaping from a cult-like army

 

From the moment he was snatched from his home at the age of 12, Patrick Opiyo Makasi's life was moulded by the LRA - until the day he chose to walk away.

JOSEPH KONY, the reclusive Ugandan rebel leader who heads a cult-like band of child soldiers and brutal commanders, has no intention of signing up to peace, according to one of his senior officers who deserted last year.

For two decades Patrick Opiyo Makasi rose through the ranks of the shadowy Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) to become a colonel and Kony's director of operations.

Then, as peace talks foundered, he simply walked out of the bush.

Now he says Kony was always reluctant to sign a deal while wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

"He was not serious about the peace talks," says Makasi, as he sips milky tea in a cafe in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

"Mostly he said that about these peace talks, they wanted to arrest him. That's what he said.

"He said the ICC was a very bad thing and if he went to The Hague he would die."

Hopes had been growing that Kony was about to lay down his arms.

In 2006 his fighters began assembling in two jungle clearings in Southern Sudan as a prelude to demobilisation. At the same time an informal deal with the Democratic Republic of Congo gave him safe haven so long as he left locals alone and was committed to peace.

It was a gamble.

Little is known of Kony, his bizarre system of beliefs and his mental state. But with as many as two million people displaced by the conflict, and thousands of children abducted to become soldiers or sex slaves, it seemed a risk worth taking.

There was rapid progress at first. The LRA signed up to a series of accords and villagers began leaving aid camps to return home as a final deal edged closer.

Then, this year, Kony's aides began stalling, claiming their leader had diarrhoea or inventing other excuses for his failure to appear.

Time ran out just over a week ago. Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Southern Sudan joined forces in an operation to clear out the jungle bases used by the LRA.

Makasi, speaking before the fighting resumed, says he always believed Kony was preparing for a return to war.

"If peace talks collapse then he fights again," he says.

"When I was there we were not capturing young soldiers, but it is happening again now."

Kony has long been something of an enigma. His use of child soldiers, tight control over his lieutenants and frequent movement meant few details of his life leaked out of the jungle. Commentators had to join the dots between a handful of disputed facts to form a fuller impression.

He was the altar boy who grew up to be a guerrilla leader. He was the wizard who used magic to protect his brainwashed adherents. And he was the deluded man from the bush who wanted to rule Uganda according to the Ten Commandments.

Makasi is one of the few people who know what goes on inside Kony's head. "To describe him is very difficult for me. He is not mad," he says, stumbling over his words. "But he is a religious man. All the time he is talking about God. Every time he keeps calling many people to teach them about the legends and about God. Mostly it is what he is talking about and that is how he leads people."

The English language is unfamiliar ground for Makasi, whose schooling ended when he was snatched from his home in Gulu, northern Uganda, at the age of 12. He was handed a Kalashnikov rifle and his school lessons were replaced by instruction in anti-tank mines, surface-to-air missiles and machine guns.

Makasi would eventually become one of Kony's most trusted confidants - the man he turned to when he needed something done. But back then he was nothing more than a frightened little boy. His fellow child soldiers became his family and the process of brainwashing began.

"We stayed together and became like family. Even those who were in the bush were like your brothers," he says.

"Because you are young, you see some commanders like fathers. Things are happening fast and you need the others to help you. You follow what the commander says because there is no one else to listen to."

He impressed his superiors, eventually being given the nickname Makasi. He only learned later that the word means "difficult to break" in the Congolese language Lingala.

He insists civilians were not his target. He waged war on the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF), he says. Yet the LRA has always needed civilians, stealing food, children and women at will.

Captured children were forced to beat escapees until they died. Once their hands were stained with blood they were told they could never leave - they would be killed by the UPDF.

The abuses earned Kony the title of Africa's most wanted man.

The ICC in The Hague issued arrest warrants against Kony and four senior commanders in 2005.

A year ago Makasi simply strolled out of Kony's camp, knowing no one would suspect the LRA's director of operations of defecting.

A day earlier Kony had murdered Vincent Otti, the LRA's second-in-command, and Makasi knew the death of a key negotiator meant peace talks hosted by Southern Sudan were doomed.

For five days he struggled through the thick bush, skirting around lions, elephants and buffalo before arriving in Dungu.

He brought with him details of a staggering array of weaponry supplied by the Sudanese government in Khartoum, which once used the LRA as a proxy army in a doomed attempt to put down southern rebels.

Makasi says the LRA was given crates of AK-47s, mines, heavy machine guns and even surface-to-air missiles by the Sudanese armed forces.

"I know that because we were staying with them around their camp and we were the ones who would collect them from their lorry," he says.

It took Makasi's comrades eight months to bury the booty in caches dotted across Southern Sudan. They are now being excavated as Kony returns to war.

For Makasi, though, the war is over. Today he is part-prisoner, part-guest of the Ugandan government, which he fought for two decades.

He says he wants to continue his education and find work helping people - something normal after a life lived in Kony's alternative reality.

He knows the LRA conducted staggering acts of brutality yet cannot quite bring himself to admit responsibility.

"I cannot say sorry because it was not my hope that my life was like this," he says. "I was taken and forced to fight. It was not my will."

Reuters adds:Uganda's fugitive rebel leader Joseph Kony escaped an attack by regional armies and is hiding in the Central African Republic but still holds out the possibility of a peace deal, a rebel spokesman said yesterday.

"Kony is somewhere in the Central African Republic," LRA spokesman David Matsanga told a news conference in Nairobi, declining to be more precise.

"The entire LRA command is intact and was not destroyed by the operation," added Matsanga, who said he had spoken to Kony a few days earlier.

Matsanga said Kony had instructed him to tell the world that he was ready to resume talks, but at a neutral venue such as Tanzania or South Africa and under a new mediator to replace Southern Sudan's vice-president, Riek Machar.