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Portrait of Uganda’s fearsome rebel prophet

Feb 10, 2006 (GULU, Uganda) — His rebel group is one of world’s most notorious, reviled for an incongruous mix of religion and brutality, but Joseph Kony, the chief of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is a mystery to most.

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Joseph Kony

For nearly 20 years, the elusive guerrilla supremo’s fighters have terrorised vast swathes of northern Uganda with an unholy blend of murder, mutilation, rapes, kidnapping and wanton destruction.

Yet the self-styled mystic and religious prophet who claims to be waging war on God’s direct orders to replace the Ugandan government with one based on the Biblical Ten Commandments is as unknown as he is feared.

Wanted on war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court, Ugandan authorities say Kony has fled under pressure into the Democratic Republic of Congo and possibly to the Central African Republic from a base in south Sudan.

But his whereabouts are impossible to confirm, pictures of him are rare and few outside the LRA have even met Kony, a 45-year-old primary school dropout who likes to be called "the teacher" by his family of 27 wives and 42 children.

"I saw him for the first time when I was in the operations room," says one of those wives, Margaret, recalling how she met Kony as a teenage LRA abductee learning how to break down and assemble weapons at a guerrilla base.

"Two of his wives were pregnant, he chose me," says the now 33-year-old woman who was freed from LRA captivity in an army raid last year after living in the bush since 1991. "I don’t know why. I was a virgin."

"It was a chance, because I was better treated than the others," she says, referring to horrific atrocities other abductees, mainly children, were subjected to.

Ex-LRA abductees speak of being forced to brutally kill and maim friends and neighbours as well as participate in grotesque rites such as drinking their victims’ blood.

"I never killed," Margaret tells a reporter in this northern Ugandan town that has been at the epicenter of the fighting that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced nearly two million people.

But according to other liberated Kony wives, concubines and nannies, the rebel chief who took over leadership of a two-year-old regional rebellion in 1998 is not a killer himself.

"He doesn’t kill, he gives orders to the commanders and the commanders give the orders to the small children," says Nancy (16) who served as a babysitter for Kony’s prolific brood before being freed in an Ugandan army raid.

Kony’s hold over his largely uneducated and impoverished followers appears based on a combination of ruthless repression and alleged supernatural abilities.

"He says he has spiritual powers and I believe it," says Nancy, who speaks with difficulty since being shot in the jaw during the attack that freed here.

"Once, he spotted a person who talked to him while he was not even there."

"He says he’s doing God’s will," says 23-year-old Evelyn who was "married" to Kony in 1994. "He says he’s a prophet. He wants to overthrow the government [and] replace the Constitution with the Ten Commandments."

"He had four palaces in southern Sudan," Evelyn says, recounting her day-to-day activities as one of Kony’s wives as she suckles her youngest daughter, one of three children she has borne Kony.

"I mopped the house, I prepared the breakfast, I prepared his bath." Margaret interjects.

"He used to beat me with a stick or his fist if the bath wasn’t ready or if the food wasn’t ready," she says.

The bizarre domestic life with Kony and the abuse he meted out, however, was not enough in itself to turn these women against him.

"I grew a kind of love for him," says Evelyn. "But when I came back, I realised that a war took place in my village: two of my brothers, two aunties and my dad had been killed. I grew a lot of hatred."

"He said that he would come back one day to take care of our three children, but I don’t believe him," she says. "He only tells lies."

Still, some wives remain convinced that Kony, now apparently on the run with a small group of die-hard loyalists, had some ability to predict the future.

"He said that one day he would be alone without any children and wives, with only 300 fighters, and these things are happening," Margaret says.