One Shot at a Warlord
The camp commander had just told me that two of the soldiers on our side were eaten by crocodiles the previous week. That got my attention. But as I stood in a clearing of scrub trees in the hot, dry desert of South Sudan, I realized that the thin man walking toward me, leaning on a cane, was much more dangerous than any croc. Crocodiles attack when they are hungry or their turf or young are threatened. I was about to meet General Caesar Acellam, an African warlord who had helped lead a campaign of murder, rape, torture, and enslavement across at least four countries. He was a top lieutenant in the psychopath Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. As such, Acellam had hunted the most vulnerable people on the planet—poor, starving children—to turn thousands of boys into sadistic soldiers and girls into sex slaves.
It was May 2012, and the temperature was over one hundred degrees. I had flown into this remote camp in a Cessna Caravan turboprop just minutes before, and the sweat was pouring out of me. There were tents and Mi-8 transport helicopters and Mi-24 attack helicopters parked under camouflage tarps. The dirt landing strip
and the camp clearing were barely visible when we began our descent. There was an unmistakable, almost electrical, charge of pride among the Ugandan army leaders who hosted us. For months their men had camped in the jungle and tracked and finally ambushed Acellam just a few days before along the banks of the River Mbou in the nearby Central African Republic (CAR)—the same river where crocs had claimed their comrades.
The LRA’s evil campaign is more than a quarter century old. Its soldiers are vicious fighters with a twisted loyalty to the messianic Kony. He and the LRA are blamed for displacing around two million people and forcing upwards of sixty thousand children to fight for him during his more than two decades of spreading mayhem through what’s called the Great Lakes region of Africa.1
At the time of my visit, Ugandan soldiers had been leading an effort to hunt the LRA down in CAR. Kony and his followers have been on the run and have lost many supporters in the last several years, but they are skilled jungle fighters and difficult to find.
Kony has left a trail of death, mutilation, and misery. A young woman who looked to be about twenty also walked toward me with the forty-nine-year-old Acellam. The Ugandan commander explained that she was one of the thousands of girls Acellam and his followers had abducted and raped, and had been living as Acellam’s “wife.” She was holding the hand of a little girl with an angelic face who looked to be about two years old: Acellam’s daughter. The young woman’s body language was striking. She clearly felt she had to stand near Acellam, yet she leaned away as if she were a magnet being repelled by a colliding charge. I fished in my pocket and produced a Tootsie Pop and handed it to the child. Her mother smiled at me and helped the little girl unwrap it.
Acellam was being held under armed guards, but the Tootsie Pop was a weapon for my own personal mission that day. Others included my cameras, jars of peanut butter and jelly, and a few slices of bread. I am an experienced photographer of life in the developing world, both its fragile beauty and its
dark, difficult sides. A friend of mine who is an advocate for impoverished and exploited people all over the world, and who supports the hunt for Kony, had asked me to take photographs of Acellam and his family. I was told that Acellam needed to look relaxed and smile in the photographs. Not for the sake of journalism or art: the photos were for laminated flyers urging the remaining members of the LRA to surrender. These would be dropped over the jungle by C-130 transport aircraft. It was important for the photograph to convey Acellam being treated well and with respect.
Stiff and wary at first, his eyes bloodshot but still sharp, Acellam surveyed his surroundings as one experienced in dangerous situations would do. But there was a resignation to him. He was tired; he knew he was done. He was no longer in control of his fate. I reminded myself that I was in the presence of an evil predator. The good I hoped to accomplish with photographs required me to bury my disgust for a man who, at this moment, I needed to like me.
Acellam, I could tell, was accustomed to underlings attending to his needs. I jumped up to get him water, and I prepared what for him was exotic fare: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He liked it. He told me he and his family had been eating “roots” in the jungle. His English was very good. He began to relax. He smiled when I asked if he liked the peanut butter. I got the pictures, and over the next few months, 565,000 laminated flyers with my photographs of a smiling, apparently happy Acellam—with quotes from him urging LRA fighters to surrender—rained down over the jungles of the Central African Republic. In the year that followed, dozens of fighters and hundreds of victims emerged, including a barefoot, one-eyed combatant in a tattered suit who surrendered in Obo, CAR, by holding the flyer with the photographs of Acellam and his family over his head. He later explained that he had fought with Kony for sixteen years.
This member of the Ugandan army was part of the brigade that captured General Caesar Acellam in May 2012. Photo: Howard G. Buffett
The photographs used in this flyer represent a disarmed Acellam. They disproved rumors of his torture and death and encouraged many victims to seek out safety and escape Kony. Courtesy of: CLRA Partners
This was one of my more unusual high-adrenaline encounters in a decade of trying to attack the causes of hunger and create more sustainable, lasting solutions. It’s been a wide-ranging journey, peppered with dangerous, even bizarre experiences. Why was a meeting with a vicious warlord part of the hunger equation? Because one of the most challenging elements in battling hunger, especially in Africa and Central America, is conflict. Individual stories of the bloodthirsty barbarism of Kony and his followers are horrifying, but two million people displaced and sixty thousand children kidnapped over the last twenty-plus years continue to live a fragile, hungry existence.
Conflict is ugly and takes a long-lasting toll on children and families. It ruins agricultural production, disrupts the shipping of food, and destroys land. It creates mass dislocation as people flee for their lives. And that is a dislocation from which there is no easy or ready recovery. It can mean months, even years, spent in a filthy, crowded camp for displaced persons. It can mean returning home only to find that one’s land and home have been taken over by others who feel entitled to remain there. And as those former child soldiers escape or are released from the only life they know—uneducated, traumatized, disconnected from their families—how are they to feed themselves? They have spent their childhoods murdering on command, often high on drugs. They typically have limited skills and are often hated by their own people.
In 2005 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) said that conflict was the world’s leading cause of hunger.2
In 2007 Oxford University economist Paul Collier, writing in The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, analyzed the states that are home to the world’s poorest people, most of them in Africa. He found that 73 percent have recently been in, or continue to be in, a civil war. But poverty and hunger exacerbated by conflict exist all around the world. I’ve seen firsthand the human toll the drug wars are taking in Central America. In some regions of Mexico, for example, families living in
remote villages have been forced to convert their corn and bean crops to marijuana and are starving at the point of the drug lords’ guns.
I confess: I am personally drawn to intense, high-stakes situations such as that South Sudan jungle. I am drawn to conflict-related challenges, as they are among the hardest problems we face. I am comfortable going where other philanthropists and aid groups may not or cannot go. But this kind of adventure is not my day job.
As you’re about to learn, I’m a farmer. Mostly, I approach food insecurity—when a person is routinely unsure of when, how, or where they will access their next meal—and poverty from the perspective of a farmer who operates planters and combines and who understands soil, seeds, and fertilizer. The bulk of my battles are with weather, insects, and weeds. However, I’m committed to addressing the full picture and complexity of hunger—even the most difficult realities. And I can promise you that even in far less dramatic situations in agricultural agencies or food-security conferences or the back rooms of Washington, DC, there is a waste of resources, corruption, or unintended consequences from failed policies. These impediments and the slow pace of politics and bureaucracy are almost as maddening to me as a warlord’s sneer. We know that millions of people die of nutrition- and hunger-related causes every year, more than three million of them children.3
This mission did not come to me quickly or easily. To understand how I ended up making a warlord a sandwich, however, we have to leave the jungle and travel back in time to a much quieter spot in America’s breadbasket.