By the spring of 2013, the legend of Akram Kebir had once again spread to every corner of Afghanistan. His name was whispered in fields and market places and NATO bases. Every news channel in the world yearned for a face to face interview. Every editor in the world was ready and willing to pay top dollar for a photo. Any photo. The Americans had raised the price on Akram's head to $5 million. Every night tens of thousands of NATO soldiers hoped and prayed he would stay clear of their sector.
Nobody ever knew where he was. He moved through the mountains like a ghost. Drones silently spent every minute of every day gliding over the vastness of the mountains. Elite soldiers patrolled for weeks on end and never found so much as an empty plastic bottle.
For weeks there would be nothing and then one day a patrol would be ripped apart by a string of well set IED's and yet more NATO troops would be cut apart by equally carefully arranged cross fire.
Akram and his men had by now been responsible for the death of 43 NATO troops from four nations. They had killed Americans, French, Italians and British. A further 172 soldiers had been wounded to various degrees and removed from the field.
Intelligence officers burned the midnight oil trying to second guess Akram's movements. What was the size and makeup of his force? How many vehicles did he have? Did he have a main command bunker somewhere? How was he re-supplied? How did he communicate with the Taliban leadership? They were certain his group numbered between 200 and 400 and they simply couldn't understand how so many fighters could manage to remain so invisible.
Most troubling of all to the analysts was the period between June 2009 and September 2011 when there had been no evidence of any activity whatsoever. Where had Kebir been for all that time? Over the border in Waziristan? Or maybe Iran or Yemen? Was Kebir still fighting for the Taliban or had he used this time to make connections with groups with more global ambitions? Nobody could discover any kind of clue. He just vanished.
And then in the autumn of 2011 the killing started up again.
If they had known the truth, they would probably have buried it. The truth would have astounded them. The truth would have made them want to smash up their computers and scream in frustration. For Akram Kebir did not have between 200 and 400 fighters under his command. And he did not have a well-hidden command bunker. His band had never been greater than 20 and by 2013 it numbered a mere 13. He had spent the lost years laying down a chain of supply caches which contained enough arms and ammunition to maintain the group for ten years. The last time he had met with the Taliban leadership had been in February 2009 when he had informed them of his long term plan to operate alone and like a ghost. He had told them there would be no kind of contact and he would undertake the task of killing the Kuffar. He demanded money and they gave him $100,000 in well used notes. And then he was gone in the night. The Taliban leadership were as much in the dark about his whereabouts as NATO command.
Akram never stopped moving. He never spent more than one night in the same place. He only allowed fires to be lit when there was enough thick cloud cover to hide the group from the drones. They were mountain men who could cover twice as much ground as any Special Forces pursuers. Not one of his men had slept in any kind of building in more than five years. They didn't just blend into the landscape. They were the landscape.
By the spring of 2013, the boy Omar was long gone. The man Omar was brutally fit. His face was dark and hard. The months of blisters and legs screaming with pain were by now a forgotten memory. His uncle gave his famous name to their deeds, but it was the magic in Omar's fingers which made the group so effective. The Mujahideen had been laying IED's since 1980, but nobody had ever perfected the art like Omar. His devices never fizzled and failed. He applied his brain and anticipated how his targets would react like he was playing a high explosive version of chess. He always seemed to know what the NATO troops were going to do before they knew it themselves.
Primary blast, secondary blast, kill zone and out. No engagement ever lasted for more than sixty seconds. The towering silence of the mountains would be broken by an eruption of savage sound and fury and then the silence would return. By the time the helicopters would swoop down to gather up the wounded, Akram and his men would be gone.
Omar was a part of a group within the group. For many years he and Akram's two sons, Faisal and Tariq, had set themselves apart. They were the youngest by many years. For the first two years, Akram had ordered his sons to stick to their cousin like a second skin to ensure he didn't try to escape. But eventually, things had changed. Akram became convinced his nephew had grown into a true Mujahid. He was happy for the young men of the group to be a group apart. All the other men had fought the Russians alongside Akram and spent the long cold nights remembering old battles.
Akram trusted the nine older fighters who at been at his side for thirty years and more, but he only trusted them 99%. He only trusted family 100%.
Every night he would pass the bag of used dollars to his two sons who would find a place to hide it. For three years he wouldn't allow Omar to join them in with this task but eventually he accepted the son of his brother as real family.
The leader never had the first suspicion of the slow mutiny being plotted by his nephew and his sons. Such a thing was beyond his comprehension. Any fighter who tried to slip away would be tracked down and executed. There was nowhere to run. Not for the old fighters. Not for his nephew. Not for his sons. Their Jihad would continue until the Kuffar left Afghanistan.
It had taken Omar years of patient work to bring his cousins round to embracing the idea of escape. When Obama and the other NATO leaders had announced a timetable to leave, they had waited for Akram to tell the group it was time to leave the mountains and return to their lives. He didn't. Instead, he told them they would keep on killing until there was nobody left to kill.
It was enough for Faisal and Tariq to swear a blood oath to their cousin. When their opportunity came they vowed to take it.
The hoped-for opportunity started to emerge on a snowy afternoon in January when they successfully wiped out a six man patrol from the American 82nd Airborne Division. The blizzard was so intense they had more time than usual to take anything useful from the corpses. Omar took an iPhone from the breast pocket of a dead Latino and hid it away.
It took him two months to perfect an escape plan. In the phone's memory, the most promising number was 'Major Collins'. Omar was pretty sure a Major would never be a part of a six man search and destroy patrol which meant the man was still alive. Maybe he was based close by in Afghanistan. Maybe he was in America. Omar came up with a plan which made the Major's location irrelevant.
At ten past six on a cold evening, the group stopped in a wooded area to lay up for the night. Akram gave the money bag to Faisal just like always. The text message to the American Major had been typed and ready for several weeks as Omar waited for the right moment.
The moment had arrived. He checked nobody was watching and pressed 'Send'. Once the phone assured him the message had been delivered, he hid the phone under a rock and joined his cousins.
“Dear Major Collins. I am part of the group who attacked your patrol on 6 January 2013. I am with Akram Kebir. This phone marks his location. You have 30 minutes to arrange an air strike. Any longer and he will disappear. You need to be fast.”
Omar and his two cousins moved fast in fading light. By the time they heard the approaching pair of F16's they had covered nearly two miles in twenty minutes. They paused and stared down the steep slope as the planes sent four rockets into the phone signal. For a few seconds, the enormous sound of the explosions bounced around the towering peaks and then there was silence.
They shared the moment and then started their long walk.
Six months later they arrived at the refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais known to one and all as 'The Jungle'.
THE BEST GOAT HERDER IN OBONGI
Moses, Moses, Moses.
I'm afraid I am going to have to claim a rather large slice of artistic license to get into the back story of Moses Mdumba. Sorry. I guess you'll either live with it or bin the whole thing right here and right now. I have just finished my so called interview with Moses. To call the encounter an interview would be pushing it a bit. Pushing it a lot in fact.
Basically, I wittered on and Moses just sat there and smiled. He smiles a lot and when he smiles he looks about fifteen years old. When he does a stern face, he could almost pass for eighteen. Neither of these age estimates come close to the truth. Moses is unsure as to the exact date of his birth and I am certainly not about to head out to Northern Uganda to dig around in the records.
His best guess is somewhere around 1998. Which makes him thirty three now.
Let's be frank here. Let's call a spade a spade. Moses doesn't really do talking. I have asked the other guys if he has ever done talking. All I get are grins and shaking heads. Moses? Talking? Come on....
So what am I to do? Well, I suppose I will do my best to take the bits and pieces he has given me and add them to some research and then try to knit it into my best approximation of his back story. Fair enough? Well, it will have to be.
So. Moses Mdumba was born in a village called Obongi in Northern Uganda in 1998. Or thereabouts. He has no memory of his father who died of malaria when Moses was still an infant. He had an older brother,
The family had a thatched hut, six cows, twelve chickens, an acre of land, and a flock of twenty three goats. The lack of a man in the house guaranteed the family was always poor. Food was short and they knew none of the luxuries of the modern world. Neither boy ever attended school and their day to day lives were all about work, not play.
When Moses was five years old he was given the job of taking the goats to their grazing and bringing them home at the end of the day. To switch on the famous Moses smile, all you need to do is say the word 'goat'. The very thought of goats animates him like nothing else. Not that this obvious enthusiasm ever leads to many words. All I got was a few snapped out sentences.
“I liked the goats very much. I think I can understand goats very nicely. My goats they like Moses. They love Moses. I was the very best goat herder in Obongi. This is true.”
And I have no reason to doubt him. I have a picture of the five year old Moses leading his small flock of goats out into a flat baked plain where the only shade was provided by a scattering of Acacia trees.
I asked Moses about Obongi and I didn't get much.
“Obongi, he is very small. Very dry. He is not like Scottish.”
So I Googled and I didn't get much more. An off the map village in an off the map part of the world. Had he ever been anywhere else?
“One day my Mummy she take me and Abraham to Gulu. He is big town. Not big like Scottish but big.”
So. One trip to Gulu and the rest of his boyhood days herding the family flock of twenty three goats.
And then when he was eight years old and his brother Abraham was ten years old, Joseph Kony's men came for them in the night.
“I was sleeping. There is big shouting. I am waking. And Kony men they are here. One man, he is holding my brother very hard. The other man...."
And as the words dried on his lips his eyes locked onto his take on the thousand yard stare. A thousand yards of dried earth and half starved goats picking away at wispy vegetation. A burning blue sky. A dust devil in the far distance.
“.... the other man kill my mummy. He kill her with machete. And they take me out of this hut. And my brother. They take us.”
They took them. The followers of Joseph Kony. The soldiers of his 'Lords Resistance Army.' If you Google 'Joseph Kony' you will find a hell of a lot more than if you Google 'Obongi'. Not many know Kony's name now, but twenty years ago his was a name synonymous with the very darkest corners of the human soul. If you had Googled his name in 2012 you would have found him to be number one of the list of the most wanted men in the world. He took that particular slot on the day Seal Team Six dispatched Osama Bin Laden. It was the day Joseph Kony moved from number two to number one.
Who was he? He was the son of a priest who morphed into a murderous psychopath. He claimed to have the ear of God and he established his ramshackle army to resist the undoubted atrocities the Ugandan government were committing in the north of Uganda in the 80's and 90's. Maybe in the early days, Kony was indeed a genuine resistance fighter. But any such credibility didn't last for very long. His modus operandi was that of a textbook monster. His forces marauded and murdered and raped. His idea of conscription was to kidnap children and indoctrinate them through a mix of drug cocktails and brain washing. He forced them to commit atrocities whilst the other child soldiers egged them on. If they carried out the task, they became a part of the army. If they failed they were killed. Boys were drilled as warriors. Girls were used as sex slaves.
When Moses and Abraham were taken in the night, Kony was at the zenith of his power. The LRA was counted in the thousands, most of them child soldiers. They wreaked their havoc all across Northern Uganda and for a while there was little the Government in Kampala could do to stop them.
“Did you do bad things, Moses?"
“Yes. I did very bad things.”
“Is it something you can talk about?”
“No. I cannot talk about this one.”
And suddenly the stare was of the two thousand yard variety.
“And Abraham? Did he do bad things?”
“No. My brother he would not do this one. They kill him."
Christ. What can you say? If you know, well please send the answer on a postcard care of my publishers. I said nothing. I just reached out and took his hard calloused black hand in my soft journalist white hand. And his eyes looked straight through me and all the way to a place only he could see. Or not see.
Moses was a soldier of the LRA for eight long years. Slowly the army withered on the vine as the government soldiers forced Kony further and further into the bush. Moses crossed borders without knowing it. They were driven out of Uganda and into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Then they were driven out of the Democratic Republic of Congo into the Central African Republic. But there were no border posts. No customs posts. No duty free shops. Only a million square miles of forest and nothing. When they found a village, they killed and looted and raped and abducted. But most of the time they just ran. Day after day. Week after week. Always with a gnawing hunger. Always with their pursuers snapping at their heels.
By 2012 Kony's name was suddenly playing large on the social media. Young people from all over the world signed on the dotted line to campaign against the most wanted man in the world. President Obama took note and put a $5 million bounty on Kony's head. A team of 100 Green Berets was dispatched to the heart of Africa to advise on the hunt and to offer logistical support.
Every jungle firefight was defensive. Every jungle firefight was lost. By 2013 the LRA was little more than a semi starved rabble.
The best goat herder in Obongi had been waiting for many months for the right moment to arrive. The moment came in March 2013 when the older soldiers were passed out drunk on looted palm wine.
Moses took his moment and slipped from the camp.
And he walked. All he knew of the world were snippets he had collected from other boy soldiers. Some spoke English and he had absorbed some of their words. In the empty hours of the night, the boys would sometimes share their dreams of being somewhere else. Somewhere far away. Many dreamed of home and family. Others who had no home or family to return to dreamed of distant lands. One boy had spoken of a land called Scotland where they had the finest cattle a man could ever find. The boy had proclaimed Scotland to be the greatest land in the world. And for no reason he could ever understand properly, Moses Mdumba latched onto the boy's dream and took it for his own.
He knew Scotland lay far away in the north. He knew how to use the sun to navigate a route. He knew enough.
He walked through the Central African Republic and into Chad. He walked through Chad and into Libya. He crossed the Sahara to the coast of the Mediterranean sea. He got a place on a dingy and he was pulled from the water by a Dutch rescue ship.
“But how did you eat? How did you pay the people traffickers? Where did you find money?”
“When I am with Kony I learn how to live from land. And I learn bad things. When I leave Kony I am not a boy. I am man. Like you see now, yes? I am big man. Very strong.”
And suddenly I had a new picture of the Moses who had sneaked from camp on that dark, dark night. He was a boy only in age. By now he was already well over six feet tall and no doubt as hard and fit as a human being can be. For years he had walked for miles every day through some of the most brutal terrains on earth. He was a veteran of a hundred firefights. In another parallel life, he might have been one of the East Africans to win Olympic Gold. Instead, he learned to survive at any cost. He was the 21st-century version of the African warrior. No wonder he found his way all the way to Libya and won himself a place on one of the boats.
And then? He escaped the camp in Italy and more or less walked all the way to Calais and the jungle. He found his own corner and lit his own fire. When three Albanian gangsters stood too close to him, he stood to his full height and drove them back with the ferocity of his stare.
The moment was noticed by three figures who sat around their own fire a few yards away. One of the figures stood and walked over to Moses. They looked into each other's eyes and connected. The man held out a hand and spoke.
“My name is Omar.”
“I am Moses.”
“Come. Join us. We have food.”
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