There is a fair chance you might not be all that familiar with the name Joseph Kony, but this snippet of information just might prick your interest. Kony, the leader of the mysteriously named, Lord's Resistance Army was the first person to be indicted by the International Criminal Court after he literally raped and pillaged his way through central Africa he became a wanted war criminal. For years somehow, he's managed to evade capture, but now the pressure is on to bring Kony in from his vast equatorial hide-out to face justice. Aaron Lewis, no stranger to that exotic part of the globe, joined the man-hunt and a warning, too, this story contained some disturbing images.
REPORTER: Aaron Lewis
Somewhere in the jungles of central Africa, there is a band of ruthless killers on the move. They are known as the Lord's Resistance Army and their brutal leader, Joseph Kony, has evaded capture for more than 20 years.
HELLEN LANYON (Translation): He continues to commit atrocities in the countries of Zaire and the Central African Republic, after committing them in Uganda and Sudan. The only thing to do is arrest him, if possible.
I'm travelling with the Ugandan Army on route to join a patrol, hunting Joseph Kony. Kony's Lord's Resistance Army or LRA has been fighting to turn Uganda into a theocratic State and in the process, they've killed almost 3,000 villagers in this region in just the last two years.
Hellen Lanyon cares for her grandchildren in a small village near the town of Gulu. Her only son was a government soldier and one day the LRA came looking for him.
HELLEN LANYON (Translation): They came and wanted to arrest and kill him but they didn't find him. So they came to my home and arrested me and cut off my lips.
Her maiming was carried out by child soldiers.
This is Kony's native land where he first built the LRA by kidnapping children from the region of Gulu and giving them guns. At the height of the conflict, this hospital courtyard was the only safe place in Gulu - 10,000 children slept here every night for years.
DR MARTIN OGWANG, LACOR HOSPITAL DIRECTOR: Because the rebels would come at night, surround our village, and take the children of a certain age that they would need to fill in their rank to recruit them by force or to abduct them.
I leave Uganda and after a long, hard drive, I finally reach the shared border of southern Sudan and the Central African Republic. This region is now the staging ground for the hunt for Kony's LRA. Getting this far is a rare opportunity - I'm the first journalist to be allowed to follow this Ugandan Army unit on their difficult mission.
COLONEL PETER ELWELU, UGANDAN ARMY: There's a lot of forests, a lot of rivers and it is really challenging terrain. We're getting - you find at times the soldiers have to cut their way through, through a forest. It is not easy.
The operations map shows the LRA's recent attacks and the suspected path of Kony's men. With it, Colonel Elwelu attempts to make sense out of 1,000 square kilometre game of hide-and-seek.
COLONEL PETER ELWELU: For 22 years, he's been in the bush, so he has some experience on how to elude forces, how to disperse, disappear, hide. He knows all of these tactics and it is not easy to get him. When you get him, then you are very lucky.
The helicopter ready, I set off for the front line to join the hunt. The forest below is the most uninterrupted stretch of bush that I have ever seen, vaster than even the rainforests of Borneo or the Amazon. There is not a human path, cooking fire or hut for hundreds of kilometres. The helicopter could be heard for great distances in the quiet of the bush, which is one reason why the LRA must be tracked on foot.
MAJOR PATRICK: You endanger the forces more when you put them to follow the same track as the enemy.
The commander in charge, Major Patrick explains to me how we will be moving.
MAJOR PATRICK: What you should do to avoid being trapped by the enemy, maybe when you are near him he can set ambush, so the best you can do is to criss-cross like this
REPORTER: But doesn't than mean you have to move twice as fast as them?
MAJOR PATRICK: Exactly. Exactly.
Along with the men, I meet this gaunt, but feisty dog. He's followed this unit all the way from the Congo, over 1,000kms.
TRACKER (Translation): It's good having the dog with us. We found him in an abandoned camp.
The trackers quickly pick up Kony's trail.
MAJOR PATRICK: Everybody passes through the same grass. Tends to turn it. When it is hit by sun, it begins destroying. - it begins drying.
REPORTER: How many people pass this way?
CAPTAIN MOHAMMED, SQUAD LEADER: About 80 we think.
Eighty is the number of just this one unit of the Lord's Resistance Army. At its peak, the LRA may have reached 3,000, but currently it's weak. The soldiers tracking them march in silence from dawn till dusk - Rarely drinking any water, resting a few minutes every two hours for months or even years. Squad leader Captain Mohammed hasn't left the bush or seen his family for the last 18 months.
TRANSLATOR (Translation): Captain, how long have you been after Joseph Kony?
CAPTAIN MOHAMMED (Translation): I've always been after him, since 1986, when Kony's offensive began.
After a few hours hard march, the trackers notice a spot where Kony's rear flank waited in ambush before moving on.
MAJOR PATRICK: This was where they were resting here as the rear protection. The rear protection was actually setting an ambush for any eventuality from behind in case forces are tracking them.
REPORTER: And so this food on the ground is an indication...
MAJOR PATRICK: This is an indication. You know, peanuts begin germination after two days and this is an indicator that these people passed here most probably after two days.
There are also signs that children are still with Kony on the march. We continue tracking until we come upon the camp where Kony slept two nights ago.
MAJOR PATRICK: When you see them preparing a dish like this, chicken, that means they have a commander. This is for commander, and the commander slept around here.
After only a few moments rest, we head off again. I begin to have some understanding how gruelling this life must be, both for the soldiers and the men they are tracking.
OMONY JOSEPH (Translation): If soldiers are pursuing you, you might not eat for a day or two. So I found that life difficult.
Over the years, some members of Kony's Army have defected from his cause and some of the abducted child soldiers like this man, Omony Joseph, have managed to escape. Omony now lives at a rehabilitation centre for ex-LRA soldiers.
OMONY JOSEPH (Translation): This is my room, I sleep well here, with the mattress, all, even the small bed. When I joined these people they told us we should be like them. When we reached their HQ, we saw their weapons. They taught us their politics so that we'd keep on being fighters like them.
REPORTER (Translation): Did they become your new 'family'?
PATRICK OPIYO MAKASI (Translation): Yes, after a while I did accept them as my family.
Patrick Opiyo Makasi is also a returnee, a former child soldier who has now joined the Ugandan Army to assist the tracking effort and share his unique insights.
PATRICK OPIYO MAKASI (Translation): The main thing is that by being here we bring in additional skills when looking for these people. Because we've been there with them, we know how they think and can predict what they want to do. And that's what will make the job easier.
TRANSLATOR (Translation): Many of your soldiers have served in the LRA, can you trust them in your squad?
SOLDIER (Translation): I'm happy because they're fellow human beings and I know they were captured by force and they didn't choose to join the LRA.
Kony's ability to constantly stay one step ahead is combined with his own peculiar Christian mysticism to fuel a widespread belief that Kony possesses magical powers.
HELLEN LANYON (Translation): Before the army gets there he knows, and he leaves. They get there and don't find him. He must have powers.
OMONY JOSEPH (Translation): I think that Commander Kony has a spiritual power because things happen exactly the way he says they will. Also, he gives you things like ash or oily things that you drink which change your mind about going back home. This has convinced me that Kony has spiritual powers.
The soldiers tell me that Kony is able to hear conversations 500kms away. He can make his men invulnerable to bullets by smearing oil on a soldier's chest and can even control nature itself. It doesn't take long to get some idea how the rumours of these powers get started.
So this is hard for even me to believe, but after being told a number of times that Joseph Kony can control swarms of bees, the entire camp, as soon as we made camp, was set upon by an incalculable amount of bees. So I don't know if they're Kony's bees or not, but no matter whose they are, they're deeply unpleasant.
But not all the soldiers are under Kony's spell.
LT MWESIGYE (Translation): Joseph Kony doesn't have any powers. The only power he has left is the ability to escape. On many occasions we've received information concerning groups that he's moving in but he's always the first one to escape.
Tracking Kony gets even harder in the pouring rain. Footprints get washed away and visibility decreases. The soldiers are on edge and when night falls, the threat of an ambush grows. We hear another tracking unit has rescued two young girls, abandoned by the LRA when they could no longer keep up the march. I think back to a woman I met in Gulu and I am afraid for what these two young girls may have suffered.
MARGARET (Translation): I was abducted in 1991 and came back in January 2005.
Margaret was one of Joseph Kony's wives, a euphemism for the young women abducted and forced into sexual slavery. Since escaping, she spends her days knitting to earn a living, but for almost half of her life she was constantly on the move or embattled, even Kony's wives were expected to fight.
MARGARET (Translation): When we reached Sudan, we were all trained for combat. He used to hand me over to other commanders to fight for them.
When Margaret wasn't at the front line, she was held in a camp for up to 50 concubines. They cooked for the soldiers and cared for the many children fathered by Kony, surviving as best they could.
MARGARET (Translation): If I scarred easily, my body and back would be covered with scars from beatings. I didn't like him but he was the father of my child and I had to obey him. As a soldier I had to do whatever he said. If you disobeyed him he could kill you. I obeyed him but I've never liked him, then or now.
Another dawn, another early start. Kony seems to know that we are gaining on him and has gone to great lengths to confuse the trail in the night. The LRA is now weaving unpredictably, crossing the same river back and forth three times and splintering into smaller groups to throw us off the track.
REPORTER: Have you lost the track?
MAJOR PATRICK: No, no, we didn't. As they were crossing the river, they scattered, but ahead they have communicated they have now got it united all together.
REPORTER: So we keep tracking?
MAJOR PATRICK: So we keep tracking.
That same day we come across the clearest signs yet that Kony himself is up ahead, we find the tattered clothes of one of his abducted girls and a Notebook. This is a speech by Kony to his people?
TRACKER: This is a speech by Kony and one of those who attended the speech, managed to copy it or write it down. And in the document he is trying to encourage his fighters to be courageous. That the period for them dying in the battle has already ended.
This Notebook is a glimpse into Kony's mind and it has a visible impact on the trackers. They feel closer than ever and they want to keep moving. But I have seen enough now to understand how this cat-and-mouse game continues. Kony's real magic being the ability to keep his men believing they will win a war without clear battle lines or objectives and the Ugandan soldiers believing that Kony is just over the horizon and they will soon be home. The men who rescued the two girls have moved through the night to join our force.
CAPTAIN GAGA (Translation): Their condition was very bad. They couldn't walk as they had cuts on their legs and were lying down.
Mary and Tereza Aba were abducted by Kony's men when their village was attacked a week ago. They were sexually assaulted and then forced to begin their long march.
MARY ABA (Translation): We wanted to rest but they said "œNo rest. Keep walking." We were leaving. They said "œDon't leave! If you want to die now, leave, and you'll be killed." I said "œLet's go anyway. We could fall in the water and die today anyway."
The girls have had a lucky escape. The soldiers are keen to make sure that Kony isn't as lucky.
TRANSLATOR (Translation): The soldiers ahead of you think they're one day behind Kony.
CAPTAIN MOHAMMED (Translation): Yes. We're leaving here to team up with them to defeat Kony.
Good luck, captain.
CAPTAIN MOHAMMED: Thank you.
This is my last view of the soldiers before they take up the trail again. As we take off, the last of my confusion about why Kony has not been captured disappears. The jungle seems even more vast than when I first flew over it and I can see now how Kony can disappear under any tree into any river under any rock, leaving his men and the jungle to cover his escape while he lives to fight another day.
GEORGE NEGUS: Baffling, frustrating stuff and not over yet. Aaron Lewis filming and reporting from deep in the jungles of central Africa. If you go online you can find out more about the work of the International Criminal Court and what it can do with Joseph Kony if and when he is captured. That is on the website. There is also a Dateline story there from 2002 about a group of abused children who escaped from Kony's Army.
Original Music composed by
3rd October 2010