Across Sudan, northern Uganda and eastern Congo, many have lived in the shadow of violence for decades. A brutal few are loyal to the darkness.
Two years ago, I visited a squatter's camp of mud houses and open sewers on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda, where thousands have sought refuge from the Lord's Resistance Army -- a cultish rebel group that has caused perhaps 100,000 deaths and displaced more than 1.5 million people. A young woman I met had been abducted by the LRA along with other members of her village. She calmly described their first night's "welcoming meal," in which one of the villagers was killed and the rest forced to eat him, to instill a proper fear.
Many of the boys in the settlement had been kidnapped by the LRA and trained as soldiers -- forced, I was told, to do "terrible things" such as murdering neighbors in their home villages so the boys could never return. One of the former child soldiers I met was about 16. When the leader of the LRA, a messianic madman named Joseph Kony, visited his prisoners, all were forced to prostrate themselves -- but this young man looked up in curiosity, and one of his eyes was gouged out.
The man he briefly glimpsed is a cunning thug with a touch of insanity -- a man, in Joseph Conrad's phrase, of "gratified and monstrous passions." Kony takes kidnapped sex slaves for wives, is prone to trances and visions, and claims he can turn bullets into water. His proven skill is turning children into killers, who intimidate villagers by cutting off lips, ears and noses.
But Kony's forces, under military pressure, have retreated to the remoteness of the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Northern Uganda has experienced a year of relative peace, and many displaced villagers are returning to their homes. With African mediation, Uganda and the LRA are engaged in peace talks that have reported incremental progress. Kony has a history of sabotaging talks with unreasonable demands, but there is hope that a cornered LRA might eventually take a deal and lay down its arms.
Some in Congress are calling for the appointment of an American special envoy to push for a final agreement. Such appointments have been useful in other cases. Here, African mediators from Mozambique, southern Sudan and the African Union want to take the lead -- and they have more urgent needs than getting an envoy.