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Notorious Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony is “solidly on the run,” just one step ahead of his pursuers, thanks to U.S. training for regional militaries hunting him, and an aggressive campaign that offers rewards for information leading to his arrest, a top U.S. official told Yahoo News.
“We’ve got him in a box,” Stephen Rapp, the ambassador-at-large for war crimes and crimes against humanity, said in an exclusive interview.
Kony, who leads the Lord’s Resistance Army, drew renewed global attention in 2012 when a 30-minute video about his activities went viral. He has been accused of kidnapping tens of thousands of children and training them to fight for him or forcing them into sexual slavery.
In 2005, Kony and some of his top deputies became the first people indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. Most have eluded capture.
“Kony continues to operate in uncharted areas, where there are no roads, and as one Ugandan commander told me the trees are as thick as broccoli,” Rapp said. And “he’s not someone that goes on BBC interviews and creates a frequency that you can track.”
How has the United States worked to change that? In October 2011, President Barack Obama sent 100 elite U.S. commandos to train regional government forces. And the government has offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to Kony’s capture.
“Just in recent days” the United States has had clues that the international effort has “gotten very, very close to Kony,” Rapp said Wednesday.
“We’ve got Kony solidly on the run, we’ve substantially diminished his forces, the operation is carried on in a way that protects the civilians,” he told Yahoo News.
The War Crimes Rewards Program has put up posters in English, French and regional languages, dropped flyers from helicopters and broadcast messages via loudspeakers in an effort to convince populations inclined to shelter some of the world’s most wanted fugitives to turn against them.
The program won a significant expansion in January 2013, broadening its mandate to cover more people accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.
The reward amount varies, Rapp explained, depending on whether the information concerns a “big fish” or a “little fish,” how much danger the informant faces and other factors.
Over the past four years, the program has paid 14 rewards, averaging $400,000 each, for information about suspects on the run from international courts for the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, he said.
“Understand: Our reward program only pays for information leading to the arrest, transfer or conviction of the individual,” Rapp said. “It doesn’t pay for a dead Joseph Kony … it’s not a dead-or-alive bounty. It’s to have him face his accusers in court.”
Rapp said his efforts to bolster international support for putting war criminals on trial take him on the road 220 days a year. “Sometimes it’s almost like being a fugitive, someone that’s on the run because of the law,” he joked.
The ambassador at large oversees the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice and coordinates U.S. policy to prevent — or respond to — mass atrocities.
The ambassador works with other countries to build support for courts and “truth and reconciliation commissions” that hold accountable those responsible and work to pave the way for national unity.
Rapp was a prosecutor in Iowa in the 1990s when he watched — from Cedar Rapids — the massacres in the Balkans and the genocide in Rwanda.
He decided he needed to be part of the efforts to bring the Rwandan perpetrators to justice — and ended up winning the conviction of two news outlets that encouraged the massacre of some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis.
“If you’re a prosecutor, and you’re out there trying to make the world safer for families and communities, and you see the worst crimes, you want to see a response to them,” he explained. “You want to see the vicious perpetrators — the people that would destroy lives, and particularly to do it in horrendous ways — you want to see those people brought to justice and you want to see those victims repaired.”
The walls of Rapp’s headquarters on the seventh floor of the State Department, down the hall from Secretary of State John Kerry’s lavish workplace suite, have the unmistakable vibe of bureaucracy. One hallway features art prints you might see on the walls of a not-especially-imaginative college student.
But they coexist with eye-catching posters of notorious figures like Bosnian Serb Ratko Mladic, now on trial for the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995.
Some of the fugitives have a red “x” over their picture — captured. A doorway to a classified briefing space carries ominous warnings about safeguarding secrets. There are carved wooden messages of appreciation for Rapp’s work as chief prosecutor for the Sierra Leone court set up to punish atrocities during that country’s civil war.
One aide, whom Yahoo News spoke to but agreed not to name or show on camera, is a fugitive hunter whose office features a corkboard with pictures of fugitives, where they are thought to be hiding, and possible contacts.
So how does Rapp relax? Or does he?
“I actually find being on airplanes between visits relatively relaxing,” he said with a laugh. “And watching a movie and reading a book and thinking about other things, and sitting with friends, and joking about all of the sort of humorous things that come with working with people of different societies and different places.”
“I get relaxation out of spending time with the people that share this passion, and some of its successes," he said. “It’s possible, even in the midst of these kinds of things, to relax, and enjoy it, and share the joy of being alive when at the same time you face the horrors of people that have had that right to life, and decent life, and safe life cut short."