RIVER VOVODO, Central African Republic - For Ugandan soldiers tasked with catching Joseph Kony, the real threat is not the elusive Central Africa warlord and his brutal gang. Encounters with the Lord's Resistance Army rebels are so rare that Kony hunters worry more about the threats of the jungle: armed poachers, wild beasts, honey bees, and even a fly that torments their ears.
A soldier crossing the Chinko river in the Central African Republic this month was drowned and mauled by a crocodile, spreading terror among hundreds of soldiers who must camp near streams because they need water to cook food.
"A crocodile has just taken one of my men," said Col. Joseph Balikuddembe, the top Ugandan commander of the anti-Kony force. He contorted his face, walked to a map, and pointed to Chinko, one of several rivers that the Kony hunters have been stalking in hopes that the LRA might be there looking for water. But it is dry season, and the rivers are teeming with hungry crocodiles.
The crocodile attack was the second in two months, highlighting the perils of trying to catch a rebel leader about whom so little is known and who could be anywhere in this vast Central Africa jungle. There have been no signs of Kony in a long time, and the soldiers whose goal is to catch him are in fact more likely to be killed by elephants and snakes whose paths they cross. Even honeybees can be a serious menace when they are migrating.
Soldiers told an Associated Press reporter who traveled with them through the jungles about a tiny black fly that persistently hovers around and even enters their ears, reducing their capacity for concentration. The soldiers can be seen shaking their heads violently, or desperately slapping their ears, but the flies keep coming in huge numbers. The soldiers look forward to night, when the flies go away.
Most Ugandan soldiers here remain hopeful that Kony, who last month became the focus of international attention after a U.S. advocacy group made a successful online video seeking to popularize his crimes, can still be caught despite the challenges. Invisible Children's campaign wants 2012 to be the year Kony is caught, and the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor has said he thinks Kony will be arrested soon.
Foot soldiers involved in the manhunt say much the same thing. They hope. Their optimism hinges on the vast amount of time and energy they have spent looking for Kony; it would be self-defeating to give up now. So every day they patrol the jungle for several hours, even if they have spent months without encountering anyone who remotely resembles the enemy. Sometimes they come across suspicious footprints, but it is impossible to tell if they are the LRA's or those of a cattle-keeping tribe called the Ambororo.
"Who says it is easy to catch Kony? Let me tell you, Kony is not a grasshopper that's there waiting to be caught," a Ugandan soldier said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to a reporter.
On a search through the jungle on Thursday, about 60 Ugandan soldiers walked 10 miles without meeting a single person. The soldiers had hoped to find at least a pond at their final destination, but they found none and had to harvest stagnant water between rocks to prepare food.
Kony, who has waged a decades-long campaign of murder and the abduction of children without espousing any political ideology, in 2005 became the first person to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The warlord then attempted to negotiate peace with the Ugandan government, but in the end refused to sign the final peace agreement over concerns his security would not be guaranteed if he left the bush.
He has since navigated the region's porous borders, moving first to a forested national park in Congo, where in December 2008 an aerial raid backed by U.S. intelligence proved too late, and later to the Central African Republic.
Last year, President Obama sent about 100 U.S. forces to help regional governments eliminate the LRA once and for all. There are American soldiers in the four African countries that have been terrorized by the LRA over the years: Uganda, South Sudan, Congo, and the Central African Republic.
American troops stationed in South Sudan and the Central African Republic declined the opportunity to discuss their experience. Capt. Layne, who spoke for the rest of the group in Nzara, said they were under strict instructions not to talk to reporters, and even politely declined to give his first name.
Ugandan officials said the Americans have been helping with logistics and surveillance. They are not involved in the physical tracking of Kony, leaving some Ugandan soldiers to wonder why the Americans are here at all.
"Victory for us would be when we get Kony himself, [Okot] Odhiambo, Dominic Ongwen, and other senior LRA commanders," Ugandan military commander Balikuddembe said. "Since there is no front line, it is hunting."