OBO, Central African Republic — On the edge of this quiet town in the isolated forests of central Africa sits one of America's newest military outposts, a base made of grass surrounded by razor wire. Outside, a baby chimpanzee plays on a green rope, and three local policemen lounge in a pickup truck. Inside, up to 30 U.S. special forces plot the demise of one of the world's most elusive and sadistic rebels.
The U.S. troops arrived two months ago and by most accounts have yet to undertake any military actions. But their mere presence has transformed this tattered out-of-the-way enclave of Congolese refugees, Ugandan soldiers and traumatized local residents into an upbeat cluster of newfound hope.
At night, energized locals bang homemade 8-foot-long xylophones and straddle voluminous bass drums, crooning new tunes to celebrate their good luck. "The Americans are here/Our saviors are here/Let's dance" goes one such song.
"Americans are favored by God wherever they are in the world," said Bassiri Moke, a local chief. "We asked God to save us and the Americans came. We hope we won't have to die like before."
The American deployment here forms the core of a new plan constructed in Washington to end the violent cross-border marauding of Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony and his band of 200 hundred or so fighters known as the Lord's Resistance Army. Masters of survival, they slink through thick equatorial forests and brush-littered plains in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, preying on the civilian population for food and new conscripts, killing and abducting as they go. Thousands have died in their wake.
That the U.S. has joined the hunt for a group that horrifies millions of Americans but poses no direct threat to the United States is testament to the influence of human rights campaigners, who, together with evangelical Christians, lobbied Congress to pass a law requiring renewed U.S. efforts against the LRA. The Obama administration responded by dispatching 100 special operations troops to help find Kony.
Most of the U.S. troops are based near the Ugandan capital, Kampala. But this outpost in Obo — a town of 15,000 in the far-eastern obscurity of the Central African Republic, an impoverished former French colony of 4 million people — is the true heart of the effort. Kony and his core followers are believed to be living off the surrounding forests, always on the run.
Expectations among those who live in the rebels' vicious shadow are sky high.
"Kony will die now that the Americans have come," bellowed Longbango Jean-Claude, a 38-year-old Congolese refugee who had three family members killed and three more abducted by the LRA in 2009. "Don't put him in prison like a child. Just kill him."
The area where Kony operates gives new meaning to "middle of nowhere." A sequestered and ungoverned land with few roads, the area lies near the intersection of three of the world's most failed states and one of the remotest points on the continent.
There is little here of international economic interest, though the land itself is so fertile that even refugees have no problem growing their own food. There are vast mineral deposits in eastern Congo, and the U.S. government recently has changed sanctions laws to open South Sudan's oil industry to U.S. companies. But those are hardly factors in hunting down Kony.