The back of Masua Abaneru's skull is caved in, his scalp a mass of interlaced scars. He speaks nervously and with barely concealed frustration.
"They gave the order to those children who had not yet killed to come forward," he says in an unsteady whisper. "I remember the first blow was from a kid. If it had been an adult striking me with a machete like that, I'd be dead now."
Abaneru survived. But when he awoke in a forest clearing in northern Democratic Republic of Congo, ten from his family had been slaughtered.
Variously labeled a rebel movement, a mystical cult, or a terrorist organization - its official U.S. State Department designation - Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army has led Africa's longest-running and, arguably its most brutal, armed uprising, espousing a nebulous program to enforce the Ten Commandments as a the law of the land while waging a merciless war on civilians.
Two years ago, after the latest attempt to talk the LRA and its messianic leader, Joseph Kony, out of the bush had foundered, the U.S. military's Africa Command provided advisers, planning and logistical support to a Ugandan army strike against rebel hideouts in the Congolese jungle. The operation was meant to last three months and aimed to wipe out the LRA once and for all. Instead, poor preparation and botched execution allowed Kony to escape, his fighters launched a wave of reprisal massacres, and today the Ugandan army is still pursuing an increasingly overstretched campaign across Congo, South Sudan, and Central African Republic.
In Congo, the hardest hit of the three countries, over two thousand villagers have been hacked or beaten to death with machetes and clubs or burned alive in their homes. Thousands more have been abducted. Schools, churches, fields and entire villages have been abandoned as a quarter million frightened civilians have flocked to the relative security of larger towns.
As its ranks have dwindled due to disease, defections, and battle losses, the LRA has become increasingly reliant upon an old practice: kidnapping. Young boys are trained as soldiers and sent into battle. Girls are distributed as rewards to commanders who have exhibited particular loyalty to Kony and are forced into a life of sexual slavery. The choice for these children is clearly spelled out by their captors: kill or be killed.
In May, President Barack Obama signed into law the Lord's Resistance Army Demobilization and Northern Uganda Reconstruction Act of 2009, the most broadly supported piece of Africa specific legislation in recent history, making it American policy to "to protect civilians from the Lord's Resistance Army, to apprehend or remove Joseph Kony and his top commanders from the battlefield...and to disarm and demobilize the remaining LRA fighters."
The White House must implement the law by early November, but it won't be easy. In nearly a quarter of a century, the Ugandan army, America's principal partner in the fight against the rebels, has never managed to finish them off. Central African Republic, with its tiny, poorly trained and under-equiped force, is already dealing with a number of armed rebellions of its own. And aid workers estimate that around half of all abuses against civilians reported in LRA affected areas of Congo are now committed by the Congolese troops sent to protect them.
Still, news of the new law has raised hopes in central Africa of a more robust American involvement in ridding the region of the LRA once and for all.