OBO, Central Africa Republic — One minute, as she told it, she was minding a field outside of a remote rural area in southeastern Central African Republic; the next, she had been captured by gunmen and handed off as a wife to one of Africa's most feared warlords.
Guinikpara Germaine was 14 at the time. For the next three years, she traveled alongside Joseph Kony, the cultish Ugandan rebel leader whose atrocities have sparked a transnational U.S.-backed manhunt in central Africa. They were always on the run, from forest to forest. She was privy to his mood swings, forced to withstand his cruel megalomania, and survived, scarred, to tell the tale.
Emmanuel Daba, in his 30s, was captured alongside Germaine in the same March 2008 raid. They were marched by night from their hometown into the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Kony's fighters, known as the Lord's Resistance Army, were based. Gradually, they began initiating Daba into the LRA's unique art of warfare: hit-and-run raids on unprotected civilians, forced conscriptions, and survival.
When Daba would meet Kony, the old guerrilla leader would pepper Daba with questions, probing, searching for any sign of betrayal: Was he married? What were his ambitions? Did he have kids?
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One day, in December 2008, Kony gathered everyone together and preached.
"The Bible says: 'If you are going to do good, do good all your life. If you are going to do evil, do evil all your life.'"
"I chose evil, and that's what I'm always going to do," said Kony, according to Daba's account.
Later that month, the Ugandan military, with the backing of the Americans, launched a surprise helicopter attack on Kony's Congolese camp. It failed to deliver a fatal blow, instead scattering the LRA into the open bush. And then, for Germaine and Daba — and for the civilians within a cross-border region the size of California — the true horrors started.
Late last year, the Obama administration launched a new strategy aimed at ending Kony's reign of terror in this isolated corner of Africa, deploying 100 special operations forces to advise and assist the Ugandan and other African troops in their hunt for Kony.
Whether they will succeed is an open question, and there are some people who are openly skeptical of the likelihood.
The stories of people like Germaine and Daba — and hundreds of others who have escaped the brutal group's grasp — provide hope that an end can be brought to Kony's rampage. In their insights into Kony's character may lay the seeds to tracking him down and dragging him from the stage, once and for all.
Kony is legendarily elusive. He's been caught on camera only a few times, and he doesn't hold audiences with journalists. His followers appoint no spokesmen, nor do they try to defend their case to the world.
Germaine's sustained up-close view of Kony's personal life is rare. Although Kony had roughly 40 wives, most traveled with Kony on a rotational basis. Only three, the favored ones, stayed permanently in his personal posse. Germaine was one of those.
Kony is often depicted as crazy, nihilistic or senselessly cruel, but Germain describes a more nuanced man obsessed with Captain Ahab-like intensity focused on toppling Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, but resigned that he might never accomplish that goal.
"He laughs a lot and enjoys himself. But when he thinks about what he wants, his ambitions, he's like a man on drugs. He goes to his room and broods," she said.
Kony is very strict and intolerant of dissent. He will kill without hesitation and orders punishment for any kind of suspected disobedience. But, in his better moods, he likes to play movies for the group on a portable DVD player he carries with him.
He routinely leads the group in prayer and spiritual rituals and claims that God speaks with him.
"If you know him, you realize he is not mad. He is extremely intelligent, and he has powers," she said.
After the December 2008 attack, code-named Operation Lightning Thunder, his mood turned more erratic and he grew more introspective, she said.
Several months before the attack, a delegation from Uganda had visited Kony to beg him to sign a peace deal. The discussion ended, recalled Germaine, when the delegation told Kony he would have to turn himself in and face justice for his actions. The International Criminal Court has indicted Kony and two of his top lieutenants for crimes against humanity. Kony, she said, was furious at the suggestion.
After the attack, Kony became bent on revenge, though he also grew aware that his rebellion was floundering, far away from home.
At one point during a leadership meeting he admitted his position was weak. "Look at all the bad things I've already done in all these countries," Kony told them, according to Germaine's account. He urged his followers to fight to the end and predicted that those who persevered would kill Museveni and take power. But he admitted that he might not last that long.
As a reprisal for the surprise assault, he ordered revenge killings against Congolese civilians — whose only transgression was being there. More than 620 civilians were slaughtered over the next month, according to Human Rights Watch.
Daba, too, remembered that time. When the Ugandan air assault began, he was out with others hunting for hippopotamus. They fled, regrouped into a band of about 20, and reconnected with the leadership.
Soon, they came to the village of Sambia, Congo.
"We popped out of the jungle and killed everybody, burning down the village. We killed lots of people who were hiding in a church," Daba recalled.
His group then continued on to South Sudan, where his cell scavenged "like animals" in the bush, pillaging villages for food and captives.
"Before, the plan was to build a big enough army to chase Museveni out of power. After the attack, we just hunted people, trying to hurt them," Daba said.
He escaped shortly after, in February 2009, only to be severely beaten at the first village he came to, and then thrown into prison for seven months by the South Sudanese government. Eventually, he was thrown into the streets, and he found his way home.
Germaine's captivity still continued, however. Kony moved camp every day, bouncing from the Central African Republic north to South Sudan and then into the southern parts of Darfur before back south again into the forests of the Central African Republic.
The pace was exhausting, and not everyone could keep up. Increasingly, the situation became desperate, and even eating became a struggle. Short on men, Germaine and other women were given guns for the first time. She was sent on a mission to Darfur, where they attacked a village but were counterattacked by the Sudanese army and had to flee. Kony ordered Germaine beaten when her team returned to base.
Soon after that, she fled.
Now she is back in school, with hopes of becoming a nurse; Daba counsels and assists other victims of the LRA abductions.
Neither know where Kony is today. That's a mystery, they believe, that the Americans will soon solve.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)
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