OBO, Central African Republic — Knives, ropes, tarpaulins, AK-47s, and gun lubricant. These are some of the items handed over to the Ugandan army by three fighters who defected last month from Joseph Kony's rebels, the Lord's Resistance Army, in Central African Republic.
In the bush, where the men had lived for years, these prized possessions were essential for survival and now provide insight into how members of the brutal group are able to evade U.S.-backed African troops chasing them.
Kony and his rebels have terrorized Uganda and other parts of Central Africa for years, carrying out brutal killings and kidnappings. Kony has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, but it was not until 2012 that he shot to international notoriety after the advocacy group Invisible Children highlighted his crimes in a video that was seen by millions online.
Ugandan military commanders, who head an African Union-mandated mission to catch or kill Kony, say the challenge is locating the enemy in sparsely populated, lawless territory where threats range from wild animals to other dangerous militias.
"The biggest problem is not how to fight but finding the rebels," said Ugandan Col. Michael Kabango, the top commander of Ugandan troops in Central African Republic.
Often the rebels remain a step ahead of their pursuers because they never spend many nights in one place. They are also inventive. To cross crocodile-infested rivers, for instance, the rebels make rafts out of rope and plastic scrap.
Lord's Resistance Army fighters have proven themselves highly mobile over the years, exploiting ungoverned spaces in a volatile region to stage abductions and regroup. The insurgency started in Uganda in the 1980s and after the Ugandan military stepped up pressure in 2006 the rebels moved first to South Sudanese territory and then shifted westward to Congo and Central African Republic. Some Ugandan military commanders fear LRA fighters may have fled as far away as Chad, a daunting scenario that underscores the difficulty of keeping up with a rebel group that is highly adaptable to life in the jungle.
"They (LRA) have changed tactics. They are no longer abducting. It's more about survival," said Ugandan Lt. Col. John Kagwisa, intelligence officer for military operations against the Lord's Resistance Army.
The group once was known to mount ambushes against Ugandan troops, offering soldiers opportunities to chase the rebels. Now the rebels only carry out small-scale raids and flee from encounters with their pursuers. Fewer than 500 LRA rebels are still active in parts of Central Africa, where they operate in jungles that cover the size of France, according to the African troops. The rebels are scattered in small groups of between 10 to 20 fighters, making it hard to track them down.
Rebel leader Kony has not been seen in years and whenever his pursuers get close he is believed to flee to a safe haven in Kafia Kingi, a disputed enclave controlled by Sudan.
Although their numbers are said to be in rapid decline, small groups of rebels still attack civilians in parts of Congo and Central African Republic, and they are also said to be building ties with other militia groups in the region, exposing the Ugandans to risky clashes.
In the southeastern region of Central African Republic the mission is promoting a campaign of defections. Some villages have formed defection committees, to encourage rebels to lay down their arms and approach local chiefs peacefully and then be transferred to the custody of Ugandan troops.
One U.S.-based charity, the Bridgeway Foundation, has offered a canine unit to help ground forces in locating abductees. With support from the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, Bridgeway also pays an aviation company to fly aircraft used to transport rebel defectors and injured people and to broadcast anti-Kony messages from loudspeakers.
Some rebel fighters are heeding the call to give up.
On a recent afternoon in Obo, a tactical base in southeastern Central African Republic that is used by both Ugandan and U.S. troops, a military helicopter brought three defecting rebels who had surrendered following a gunfight with Ugandan forces. Their luggage included three AK-47 rifles and several rounds of ammunition, adding to the growing arsenal of weapons seized from rebels over the last few months.
Although the rebels are not fighting back, it is important to keep them running until their leader Kony is captured or confirmed dead, say Ugandan military officials and watchdog groups.
"I am not seeing the LRA as a fighting force," said Kagwisa, the Ugandan military commander. "But the fact that they are here is a problem because they are still destabilizing people."