SUDAN-UGANDA: Civilians flee LRA "revenge" attacks
South Sudanese children displaced by attacks by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in the town of Mundri, Western Equatoria state
MUNDRI, 27 January 2009 (IRIN) - Every person seeking assistance at the government offices in Mundiri, Western Equatoria State, has a story to tell after fleeing rebel attacks on their homes.
"The LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army] attacked our village of Diko [on 4 January], taking 10 people with them," said Saleh Sebit, a village elder. "We do not know where they are, and we fear they are now dead."
One eight-year-old boy said he was forced to watch rebel fighters chop the legs and arms off his father and a companion, before they beat the men to death with a wooden club.
"The LRA attacked two tractors as [they were] coming with people to Mundiri," added Sebit. "They fired, killing one, and set fire to the vehicles."
Sebit and the boy are just two of an estimated 8,000 people displaced in a recent upsurge of attacks on farming villages in Western Equatoria state. Many of the displaced, according to state officials, are now staying with relatives.
The upsurge followed a mid-December, Ugandan-led assault
on rebel positions, with support from Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Analysts, however, say that despite hopes that "Operation Lightning Thunder" would crush the rebels, they are far from a spent force. Others claim the LRA was tipped off and the jungle hideouts in north-east DRC were largely empty when the Ugandan gun-ships arrived.
According to UN figures, some 130,000 in both DRC and South Sudan have been forced to flee their homes. Hundreds more have been killed, while others have been abducted as the rebels fan out across the region.
"The LRA seem to want to take revenge," said Bullen Abiatara Ariwari, commissioner of Mundiri West country, where several attacks have occurred. "We are supporting those [displaced civilians] who have come here, and have increased security."
In Western Equatoria, there is growing pressure for those who have fled to return home since key sorghum crops must be harvested soon, or they will risk losing their grain supply for the year. But most are too scared to do so.
Officials said troop numbers had been beefed up, but outside Mundiri there were only young men patrolling villages with bows and arrows, and a few with AK-47 assault rifles.
The growing humanitarian needs are worrying many, with critics arguing that poorly planned military action against the rebels only served to exacerbate civilian hardships.
|LRA fighters are being blamed for the attacks
"Protection of vulnerable civilians must become a priority for this operation so that one of the greatest costs of this offensive - those lives lost and communities destroyed by LRA attacks - do not outweigh the benefits," said Julia Spiegel, analyst for the Washington-based Enough Project.
"Simply put, protection of those at risk must be paramount in any military effort [in future]."
Concern is also growing over the possible impact on the wider region.
"The military operation will certainly raise humanitarian, political and economic problems, which will invariably complicate the potential security in the region," said Louise Khabure of the International Crisis Group.
"The gains made in the peace process have been lost … It would be difficult to resurrect any talks as trust has been broken."
However, LRA representatives deny their fighters are involved. "These reports are not true, this is not the LRA doing this," said Justin Labeja, a delegate to the failed two-year-long peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government. "This is another group responsible."
The claims are dismissed by many in South Sudan. "The LRA are targeting women and children, not soldiers," said Eluzai Munda, retired bishop of Mundiri. "What they are doing is not human."
International agencies have called for an end to abductions, forced recruitment and extreme violence against women and children affected by the conflict.
"More people have been killed over the past few weeks in Haut-Uele than over the last six months in North Kivu," Pierrette Vu Thi, representative of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in the DRC, said. "The number of children abducted has reached horrible proportions."
The official had just returned from a mission to Dungu in the Haut-Uele District of DRC. "We urge all armed groups to immediately end deliberate attacks against civilians, the recruitment and use of children, and to release all children in their ranks," she added in a 27 January statement.