After being forced to spend more than a year at Joseph Kony’s side, Aubin Kotto-Kpenze vows to get justice for fellow survivors of the Lord’s Resistance Army
When Aubin Kotto-Kpenze walks into a restaurant in Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, it isn’t clear whether the armed guard with him is there to protect him – or other diners. After all, Kotto-Kpenze, 47, spent two years at the side of one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony.
Abducted to become the Ugandan warlord’s personal doctor, Kotto-Kpenze managed to escape in 2009. Today, he pursues an ambitious mission: to catch Kony.
“My goal is to pursue Joseph Kony and his people,” he explains when we meet. “We want them to be caught. We want to hold them to account.”
Over Kony’s 30 years at the helm of the LRA, he has ordered the killing of more than 100,000 people and forced more than 20,000 girls and boys to become sex slaves and child soldiers. Two million people have been displaced. In the first half of 2016, the group kidnapped some 500 civilians across three countries.
Kony fled Uganda years ago and is believed to be in hiding with around 100 men in Central African Republic (CAR). Kotto-Kpenze knows he has his work cut out.
On 6 March 2008, Kony’s gunmen entered the pharmacy where Kotto-Kpenze worked in Obo, in the south-eastern tip of CAR. They kidnapped staff and looted the shop.
One of the men noticed Kotto-Kpenze’s white lab coat and, taking him for a doctor, told the others to go easier on him. On arrival at the LRA camp, Kotto-Kpenze was immediately summoned to see Kony.
During their first meeting, Kony said no harm would come to him while he was with the LRA leader. But when asked if he would become his personal doctor, Kotto-Kpenze hesitated – and Kony’s tone changed: “Here, it’s either submission or death,” he told him.
A Ugandan child’s drawing bears witness to some of the atrocities carried out by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Photograph: Alvaro Ybarra Zavala/Getty Images
In the months that followed, thanks to his knowledge of medicines, Kotto-Kpenze gradually built up trust with Kony and his men. “I did everything as if I was one of them,” he says. “Even in the rain, when I was exhausted – I tried to show that I could handle everything, that I was loyal.”
Then, one night, Kotto-Kpenze found himself by chance alone for the first time since his capture. “I thought to myself, ‘Perhaps today is the day when God wants me to escape.’ So I took advantage and fled.”
After three days in the bush, he arrived at a village. People initially panicked at the sight of him – a man with a wild beard, torn military clothes and carrying a gun – but later directed him towards a South Sudanese military base 25km away.
Kotto-Kpenze was handed over to the Ugandan forces who had Kony under surveillance. “They knew of me, that I was Kony’s doctor, that I was close to him,” he says. They wanted to use him to catch Kony. Terrified at the prospect of being recaptured , Kotto-Kpenze refused to help. “I told them, no, I can’t go back there.”
A few weeks later, Kotto-Kpenze was back in CAR, where he had a breakdown. “The emotions of seeing my family again … I fell into a state of trauma,” he says. He spent months undergoing treatment in a psychiatric unit.
“When I came back, I lost my wives,” he says, explaining that one had died and the other had left him. “I lost my personality, my credibility among some people, I’ve lost my children – I can’t look after them in the way I used to.
“Even today, there are people who sometimes point at me, saying, ‘You’re LRA. You used to eat people in the bush, you killed people.’”
Determined to support fellow survivors, in 2010 Kotto-Kpenze set up an LRA victims’ association. He has counted more than 1,600 victims in CAR – “and that’s a low estimate. There are likely to be many more.”
Kotto-Kpenze has collected victims’ testimonies for the international criminal court in The Hague. In 2005 the court issued arrest warrants for the LRA leaders for crimes against humanity. In December 2016, the ICC began the trial of former LRA commander Dominic Ongwen, who is charged with crimes including murder, torture, rape and sexual slavery.
But Kotto-Kpenze is frustrated that little has resulted from his efforts. “It’s the CAR government that has to act,” he says. “We want this, but it seems the state does not.”
A Human Rights Watch researcher in Bangui, Lewis Mudge, explains: “The judiciary in Central African Republic is very limited in its ability to go after LRA suspects.”
He says the toppling of the government in 2013 destroyed what remained of CAR’s weak legal system. “Since then there have only been two criminal sessions in the country – one in 2015 and one in 2016, both with significant international assistance.” Mudge adds that he is not aware of a single charge pending in CAR courts against LRA suspects.
Even counting victims is extremely difficult, especially in a lawless region like south-eastern CAR, says Mathias Barthélemy Morouba, president of the Central African Observatory for Human Rights and a lawyer working with LRA victims. “The judges can’t work there. Peacekeepers are being killed. The army is inoperational,” he says.
Joseph Kony speaks to journalists in southern Sudan in 2006. Photograph: Adam Pletts/Getty Images
Kotto-Kpenze refuses to give up, outlining plans to identify victims across the country “and document proof of human rights violations by the LRA from 2008 until today”.
One glimmer of hope is a special criminal court, established in 2015 to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in CAR since 2003.
Mudge says this will serve as a necessary partner to the international criminal court: “[It] offers the best chance to address serious crimes, break the cycles of impunity, and help strengthen the justice system overall.”
Kotto-Kpenze knows that getting justice for victims will be a tough process. But, he says, “it is this that drives me. This is why I feel Kony must be caught.”