Kevin Doris Ejon is an International Journalism Festival volunteer from Uganda. She attended the 2011 festival as a volunteer and will return to Perugia next month as a 2012 festival volunteer. Kevin met and interviewed Joseph Kony in the jungle of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006. This is her story of that remarkable interview. The International Journalism Festival thanks Kevin for her article.
Meeting the Elusive Joseph Kony
By the year 2002, almost everyone in Uganda had heard about the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army LRA and their cultish leader Joseph Kony. I was a radio presenter in Northern Uganda then. As a journalist, I reported on the LRA quiet often. For most of 2003, my show was dominated by LRA matters. This was when the LRA insurgency was at its height, sending a population of over 2 million people in Northern and Eastern Uganda to Internally Displaced People IDP camp, a kind of concentration camp to keep people safe from LRA attacks.
Life was pathetic in these camps. Contagious and sexually transmitted diseases were rampant. There was no privacy for adults and children alike. Getting food to eat was a problem. It was a living hell to live in these camps. My radio program continued to broadcast LRA issue such as the experiences of returned abductees most of them being children. They told harrowing tales of their lives in captivity in jungles of Northern Uganda and South Sudan. They had been forced to commit unspeakable atrocities to fellow children and the civilian population.
Then one day, a strange call came through on my phone in programme. It registered a satellite phone number. On air, the caller threaten to kidnap me or bomb the Radio Station if i broadcast anything negative about them. He identified himself as Vincent Otti, Joseph Kony’s Deputy and then hung up. I was later summoned to the Police Station for questioning after this broadcast.
The brutality of the LRA was now common knowledge even in the remotest parts of Northern Uganda. How the LRA would massacre whole villages or hack into pieces abductees who were too tired to continue walking. And yet for a journalist, the person of Joseph Kony exuded a strange attraction, a kind of pull that made one want to meet him or talk to someone who knew him well.
Driven by this obsession, I even travelled alongside diplomatic staff and Uganda’s media corps to South Sudan to try and meet LRA fighters who were suppose to assemble in Owiny Kibul in South West Sudan, around this time. The Journey was a flop as the LRA refused to assemble and send word that we were not welcome to meet them.
Afterwards, I went to Gulu, Joseph Kony’s home town to try and get first hand information about him. It was in Gulu where I met Colonel Walter Ochora, a Senior Uganda Army Officer (now deceased). He had kind of taken fancy on me for a reason I could not tell. I remember telling him with childish innocence how I wished very much to meet Joseph Kony, a wish that sent the bulky army officer into thunderous laughter. “That’s impossible Kevin,” he told me curtly.
But he informed me about an impending trip to Juba, South Sudan’s Capital, the City that would host the peace talks between the government of Uganda and the LRA for the several weeks in 2006. Eventually, I was able to travel to Juba with the help of Uganda’s Minister for International Relations, Hon Henry Oryem Okello.
Concerted efforts from the United Nations Organization and Foreign Diplomats to get the LRA to the negotiations table were on. Contacts had been made and the LRA had accepted to receive a delegation from Uganda to his jungle camp in Garamba National Park.
I was lucky to be in the delegation of 18 people, including Joseph Kony’s and some of his commander’s relatives. While vetting the delegation by phone in Juba, Joseph Kony personally cleared me for the trip on learning I was a journalist from Northern Uganda. The flight on a UN plane from Juba to Maridi in South Sudan took close to one hour, then we travelled all day to Nabanga and took a nights rest for the following day’s trip to Garamba National Park. It took a whole days walk in the jungles of Congo to reach the first LRA Camp in Garamba.
It was the most exhaustive walk I had ever taken. I put on a brave face all the time, to hide the pangs of pain in my entire body. The young LRA fighters kept asking if I were tired, to which I replied with an emphatic NO. I knew better than to say I was tired, the LRA remedy for exhausted abductees was well known; upon complaining of exhaustion, abductees are asked if they would like to rest, if they answered yes, they were quickly dispatched to eternal rest, they were hacked into pieces. I shuddered at the thought.
At twilight, we arrived at the first LRA camp and were welcomed by a group of women. The LRA Deputy Commander Vincent Otti, later came to meet us. A steaming meal of assorted foods were served, but I was in no mood to eat.
Worn out by exhaustion, I went to sleep in one of the tents erected nearby. I was woken by excruciating pain in my neck around midnight. Then I realized I was being strangled by a woman. I was literally choking to death, I fought back the assailant by sinking my sharp fingernails in her flesh. She was the first to make an alarm, the LRA fighters on guard came running with torches to investigate the scuffle. I realized my assailant was the woman from Northern Uganda, Vincent Otti’s relative whom I had been asked to share the tent with.
She explained that she had been having a bad dream that someone was attacking her …. I was asked to explain on my part, which I did. The matter was resolved but I did not go back to sleep again, lest the strange woman pounce on me. Instead, I went at the big bonfire that had been lit in the camp and sat beside Vincent Otti himself.
Since evening when we arrived, I had kind of become everyone’s darling, including of youthful rebel fighters, we started to chat with Otti, he told me how strong the LRA is, how brave LRA fighters were, those kind of stuff. I listened for the most part, only interrupting by asking for clarifications on some of his claims.
It was in the morning after breakfast that I went to sleep – the first good sleep I had had in days. It was interrupted by a youthful rebel fighter who shook me hard to wake me up. I momentarily forgot where I was in the world when I woke up, I could not see the familiar four walls of my bedroom and the pictures of Jesus Christ and the Madonna on my wall. As the confusion cleared, I remembered I was in Garamba National Park.
“The Chairman wants to meet you,” the youthful dreadlocked rebel informed me politely. “Get up and follow me,” he ordered. Kind of irritated that I had been woken, I got up tidied myself a little, picked my bag and trudged after him, and we went through another forest path and walked for a while. Then we came upon another camp.
There in the middle of the compound sat four men on wooden chairs. I recognized Joseph Kony immediately, he wore a white Kaunda suit and sat with Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen, all indictees of the International Criminal Court ICC. “You are welcome daughter of Lango,” Joseph Kony said smiling. He was speaking in ethnic Acholi Language which is akin to my own ethnic language Lango. I was still recovering from the shock of seeing Joseph Kony in person.
I smiled nervously and said thank you. “Weren’t you afraid I would kill you,” Joseph Kony teased me. “Not at all…” I answered. Then he asked me what people say about him in Uganda. “Very many things” I answered to which they all burst out laughing. Then I noticed that Joseph Kony was a very well groomed and handsome man. He had a smooth skin and very clean set of teeth.
“So where is your hoe, do you go to the garden without a hoe….or to fight without a gun….” I quickly figured out what he meant so I reached for my camera in the handbag and began filming. Kony called one of the women and instructed that she helps me film, he wanted a picture of me and himself and the two commanders, which she took easily. I later learnt she had been abducted from Secondary School and transformed into a rebel fighter and one of Joseph Kony’s 60 wives.
“So do you have any questions….,” Kony asked. I had not realized yet what scoop I had, In fact, I was the first journalist in the world to be granted such an exclusive interview with Joseph Kony, something I did not rush to publish to the world for many weeks. “Yes chairman, I wanted to ask if you are really human.” This question sent Kony, his commanders and all his fighters nearby into a bout of laughter. Popular stories in Uganda went that Joseph Kony was half human half ghost and had the ability to transform to any animal or bird at whim.
“Come and pinch me, come feel my arm,” Kony challenged. I passed my palm over Kony’s smooth arm. I was surprised how I caught on with Joseph Kony.
We started to chat normally and he said Acholi deserved to suffer because they betrayed him when he was fighting to liberate them. He told me how he despised Uganda’s and Acholi leaders and accused them of hypocrisy. Then he said he will never be arrested and appear before the ICC. “Daughter of Lango, no one will ever get me, I will just disappear. But before that, I will fight a very long war and become very famous,” he said.
I noticed that Joseph Kony did not look people straight in the eye when talking. At one point, I asked him how many wives he had which prompted him to parade a few of his wives for me. I had to hold back my emotions as I recognized a few girls who were formerly abducted in Aboke Girls School, among his wives. They had a blank but dutiful expression in their faces. They obviously were not happy. They left immediately after greeting me. Kony said he chose to meet me before everyone else because he knew me to be an impartial journalist. “I want you to go and tell the truth about what you have seen here,” he said.
During the four days we spent in Garamba, I saw Joseph Kony assume a more formal posture while talking to the delegation from Uganda. We returned to Juba. Afterwards, I visited Garamba twice, this time with foreign journalists, religious leaders and other guests. The Juba Peace Talks failed leading to renewed hostilities between the Government of Uganda and the LRA. Uganda’s army launched a new offensive against the LRA in 2008. Both Joseph Kony and Vincent Otti continued to call me on my number for a while until I got a new number.