In final push to vanquish Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army, the U.S. is waging a psychological battle to draw the last rebels from the Central African bush
OBO, Central African Republic—Obira Julius was stretched out on the ground, taking a breather on a slog from one jungle hideout to another, when he heard the voice in the sky. It was disembodied but familiar, a voice from his lost childhood, suddenly floating down to him from a loudspeaker on a passing American helicopter.
At first Mr. Obira wasn’t sure. After all, he had last heard that voice 13 years earlier, when he was just 5, on the day the rebels snatched him and two brothers on the way to their grandfather’s house. The day they forcibly inducted him into the Lord’s Resistance Army, a cultlike group notorious for hacking innocents to death.
Mr. Obira strained to pick out the words as the helicopter flew by. It made a second pass, and this time he had no doubt. It was his mother, calling him home.
“I am asking you to be strong and not to worry about anything,” she said. “Please come home.”
Mr. Obira imagined his village in Uganda, two countries away. He imagined his family welcoming him back, despite everything. One afternoon not long afterward, he slipped away from the other rebels and ran for it.
Mr. Obira’s defection marked another no-shots-fired victory in one of the most unusual U.S. special-operations missions anywhere in the world.
In the twilight of the Lord’s Resistance Army, American commandos are relying less on kill-capture operations and more on psychological operations to lure die-hard militants out of the bush one by one, using their families as messengers.
American helicopters roam the skies deep in the center of Africa, blaring recorded come-home messages from mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles. U.S. Army psyop specialists create personalized leaflets with photos of fighters’ families, and U.S. planes drop them into the bush by the hundreds of thousands. American soldiers produce individualized family pleas to broadcast on jungle radio stations.
The American and Ugandan soldiers “are not there to harm you,” Mr. Obira’s mother said in her helicopter message. “They will bring you home safe.”
Mr. Obira, now 19 years old and back in Uganda under the protection of the nation’s amnesty program, recalled the moment he realized his family wanted him back, no matter what he might have done as a rebel: “I cried on the inside, because I didn’t want anybody to see me cry.”
Once a force that inspired terror through a huge swath of Central Africa, the Lord’s Resistance Army is now reduced from some 8,000 fighters to perhaps 150, most of them believed to be on the move in small groups along the border between Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to the U.S. and Ugandan militaries. They are expert at surviving in a landscape that alternates between thickly canopied forest and exposed clearings of brush and red dirt, and they raid mud-brick hut villages for supplies and captives.
Even though they are less lethal than in the past, they have still carried out more than 160 attacks in the past year, killing 14 and kidnapping 539, according to the LRA Crisis Tracker, a database maintained by a U.S. charity, Invisible Children.
“They’re basically in survival mode,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Maybouer, commander of U.S. special-operations forces in Central Africa. “The only way you’re going to get this type of individual to come out is with a personalized message.”
The tactic, U.S. officers hope, will create a cascade of defections that will eliminate the rebel group before its infamous leader, Joseph Kony, has a chance to rebuild. The region remains beset by a toxic combination of armed groups, extreme poverty and governments that often barely control their own territory. U.S. military commanders want to promote stability where they can, and eliminating the threat from Mr. Kony is at the top of their list.
The rebel group has its roots in decades of ethnic conflict in Uganda. In the mid-1980s, Ugandan army soldiers, many from the Acholi ethnic group, massacred supporters of then-rebel Yoweri Museveni. The slaughter was particularly intense in an area called the Luwero Triangle northwest of Kampala, with the International Committee for the Red Cross putting the death toll at 300,000. In 1986, crews found thousands upon thousands of human skulls in the bush, cracked by machete blows and perforated by bullets.
After Mr. Museveni seized power—30 years on he remains Uganda’s president—he used the Luwero killings to rally support for his rule. The Acholi began to worry the winners of the civil war would exact revenge on the losers.
Mr. Kony, an Acholi who claimed spiritual powers, took up arms to try to oust Mr. Museveni and, he vowed, to rule the country according to the Ten Commandments. His brutality, however, quickly overshadowed his political and religious objectives. The Lord’s Resistance Army marauded through villages, stealing children from their beds and dragging them back to the forest to serve as porters and fighters. Girls were forced into so-called bush marriages with senior rebels. Fighters cut the noses and lips off civilians; they lined others up for roadside executions.
Over 30 years, the group has killed some 17,000 people, and frightened millions into fleeing their homes, according to the U.S. military. In 2005, Mr. Kony and four lieutenants were indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Invisible Children helped generate a groundswell of public and congressional outrage over the rebels’ predations. In 2011, then-President Barack Obama dispatched commandos from the Special Forces to help local armies kill or capture Mr. Kony.
Three of the five indicted rebel leaders have been killed, according to the U.S. military. One, brigade commander Dominic Ongwen, surrendered and is on trial in The Hague, charged with 70 offenses including rape, pillage, torture and enslavement.
Mr. Kony himself, however, is still at large, hiding along the border between Sudan and South Sudan, according to the Ugandan military. He is the only remaining Ugandan member of the Lord’s Resistance Army ineligible for Uganda’s amnesty, according to the U.S. and Ugandan militaries.
While some Ugandans question whether rebel fighters should be forgiven their crimes, others support the amnesty program on the grounds that the fighters were often kidnapped as children and forced to carry out atrocities.
American commandos continue to advise an African Union task force as they hunt for Mr. Kony. But in a patch of Central Africa the size of California, finding remaining rebels is getting harder. These days, U.S.-advised troops only get into a firefight with the rebels every month or two.
So the Americans have turned to a more subtle effort to deprive Mr. Kony of his remaining followers, led by Eloise, a 29-year-old psychological-operations officer with a reputation as the U.S. Army’s rebel whisperer.
American intelligence operatives debrief defectors, as they did with Mr. Obira in January, collecting information about the militants who remain. Soldiers believe they can now identify 80% by name.
Eloise—U.S. commanders won’t allow her last name to be published—enlists mothers and fathers to beg their children to come home. “We’re trying to tug at those heartstrings, let them know what they’re missing,” said Eloise.
This month, Eloise completed her second six-month tour of duty. At least 44 rebels defected during her time in the region, according to a military tally. Commanders hope the exodus will accelerate as each rebel concludes he doesn’t want to be the last one fighting by Mr. Kony’s side.
To make this happen, the U.S. psyop team depends heavily on a lanky Ugandan named Ocitti David.
Mr. Ocitti was 15 years old in 2002 when Lord’s Resistance Army rebels descended on his village in northern Uganda. “If you move, we’re going to shoot you,” he remembers the rebels saying.
One rebel instructed him to point out his parents. “Who do you love the most?” the rebel asked him. “My dad,” David answered.
He watched as the rebels beat his dad to death with a log.
The rebels made him a porter and tied to his back heavy sacks of sorghum, peanuts, salt and sugar stolen from villages. He saw children forced to kill other children. Abductees could be executed for merely making eye contact with a friend.
After six months, he decided to risk an escape attempt. At 5 a.m., when the guards were drowsy, he and three other boys bolted into the forest. One was gunned down after a few hundred yards. Another injured himself and gave up. The third boy was shot by Ugandan troops hunting the rebels, Mr. Ocitti recalled.
Mr. Ocitti fled through the bush for four days to reach his village in Uganda. When he got there, his mother was skittish, worrying he had brought Mr. Kony’s men with him. He moved on his own to Gulu, a larger town.
Now 30, Mr. Ocitti has formed a one-man charity, Pathways to Peace, which has located more than 30 families of Lord’s Resistance Army fighters, a feat complicated by the fact that many rebels use noms de guerre.
Early last month, Mr. Ocitti and the psyop team drove 90 minutes out of Gulu in search of relatives of a rebel named Ovoya James. The asphalt narrowed to a dirt road, which narrowed to a trail, wending its way through termite mounds and cassava fields.
They found Mr. Ovoya’s grandmother, Alur Pilimena, under a mango tree in Lamola village, rheumy-eyed and bent. Ms. Alur last saw her grandson in 1995, when rebel fighters grabbed the 15-year-old on his way to work in a vegetable garden. He missed his father’s death in 2002, and his mother’s last year. He missed his sisters’ weddings.
Mr. Ocitti knew his revelation would be hard to absorb and engaged in small talk before getting to the point. “Today I’m here because we have heard from those who defected recently that Ovoya James is still alive,” he said.
Ms. Alur sat a moment in stunned silence. “We prayed and prayed and prayed,” she said. “Finally we gave up praying for him. Now we can hope again.”
“The only way to encourage him to come out is if you send him a message,” Mr. Ocitti told her.
Ms. Alur agreed to round up Mr. Ovoya’s sisters and record a helicopter message on Mr. Ocitti’s next visit.
Eloise “gives me the names,” Mr. Ocitti said. “I give her the voices.”
In one recording, an old man asked his rebel son to come home to dig the father’s grave, a filial duty held sacred by the Acholi. “I want you to come find me, pay your last respects and receive my blessings before I die,” the father said.
The psyop team also aimed messages at two fighters who, intelligence reports suggested, were blocking a mass defection by a rebel band some 30-strong.
Mr. Ocitti tracked down the holdouts’ families. “We would play together, go swimming, go fishing,” Otika Thomas urged his rebel brother in a recorded message. “Please come back and we’ll live happily together like we lived back then.”
Mr. Ocitti also delivers family photos that allow the Americans to produce personally targeted leaflets.
Leaflet campaigns saw widespread use in the Vietnam War, and the psyop team still relies on a 1960s military publication called the “Low, Medium and High Altitude Leaflet Dissemination Guide.” The guide was intended to add science to the art of tossing paper out of a moving plane, and it describes how to fit a message to a particular leaflet size and how to account for wind, air density and aircraft speed in planning a drop.
In Central Africa, the psyop team estimates it has dropped half a million leaflets over the past six months. Mr. Kony, according to defectors, tells his followers the leaflets are poisonous to the touch. He also warns them that the Americans can spy on rebels through the leaflets.
Mr. Ocitti’s family-tracking allows the psyop team to put rebels’ actual family photos on leaflets. Defectors sometimes turn themselves in with U.S.-made leaflets hidden in their pockets.
Recently, special-operations troops were especially keen to draw out Omona Michael, Mr. Kony’s radio operator. Mr. Omona had been abducted in 1994, at 13, and was considered one of the rebels’ old guard.
The Americans dropped thousands of leaflets showing Mr. Omona’s uncle, a respected chief, holding a letter Mr. Omona had sent him during a brief break in the fighting 10 years ago. “Please pray for me—I’m in a tight spot,” Mr. Omona had written at the time.
Another photo showed Mr. Omona’s young daughter posing with a picture of her father; rebels sometimes send their own children out of hiding to safety.
The Americans recorded a message from an aunt, Alanyo Magret, who was a mother-figure to Mr. Omona, and added it to the helicopter playlist. “Look, all of your friends are here,” Ms. Alanyo said. “They’re being well cared for, and others are in school. It’s time for you to come home.”
Ultimately, Mr. Omona heard a message from Ms. Alanyo that U.S. soldiers arranged to have broadcast over the radio. He escaped during a patrol in January by pretending he had forgotten a list of needed supplies and had to return to camp, according to Lt. Col. Maybouer. His former comrades gave chase and shot at him. He made it to safety in Central African Republic after 11 days.
U.S. intelligence operatives spent days pumping him for information about those he left behind.
The former rebels’ stories have been corroborated by the U.S. military and Mr. Ocitti, but it isn’t possible to verify all of the details of their escapes.
Eloise aims for the rebels’ weak spots. During the dry season, when food is scarce in the forest, the Americans carpeted the bush with leaflets showing a well-known defector enjoying a Margherita pizza. “Hungry?” the leaflet read.
While in the bush, Kidega Peter, a Lord’s Resistance Army machine-gunner, picked up a leaflet with the words “We Are Free” written across the top. The photo showed six men laughing together. Four were Mr. Kony’s personal bodyguards, who had escaped in 2015. One man had defected in 2014 and the last one in 2016—Eloise’s effort to show would-be defectors they would be safe back home.
Mr. Kidega glanced quickly at the map on the back, with safe defection sites marked, then dropped the leaflet on the ground to avoid notice by his fellow rebels.
Lord’s Resistance Army fighters had yanked Mr. Kidega from his family compound in 2003. He had risen to the rank of sergeant and led 10 other fighters in the group traveling with Mr. Kony himself.
“When I saw that leaflet, I realized the propaganda Kony had been feeding us—that we’d be killed—was a lie,” Mr. Kidega said later.
One night in November, he waited until the perimeter guards at his camp grew groggy on a local brew of yeast, sesame, honey and peanuts. Then he and five others took off at a run.
The following day, a rebel pursuit party shot and killed two of the escapees. One of the group who successfully made it home was Auma Concy, one of the many women Mr. Kony had kidnapped and taken as a wife. She had been abducted at age 12 and had spent half her life a captive.
During the escape Mr. Kidega found himself separated from the others and walked alone four days to a trading post. The locals there grew suspicious of him, and he walked four more days to another town, where the Ugandan military picked him up and delivered him to the American Special Forces team in Obo, Central African Republic.
Years earlier, Mr. Kidega’s relatives had buried another man in the family compound in Uganda, believing the body to be his.
Last month, Mr. Ocitti escorted Mr. Kidega home, villagers swarming the car and ululating joyously as they approached.
Mr. Kidega stepped on an egg, a traditional Acholi cleansing ceremony. At the door of a hut, a family elder gently washed Mr. Kidega’s face, symbolically wiping away the tears shed over his abduction.