The LRA - not finished yet

As three truck-loads of newly arrived soldiers from the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) drove through Obo, local residents talked with bitterness and resignation about the continuing security problems and inability of either local forces or their allies from the better-equipped Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) to flush out combatants from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

A UPDF spokesman talked recently in the Ugandan capital of “seeing the end of the LRA. We continue harvesting them like mangoes,” he added, pointing to the killing and capturing of several key figures in LRA ranks. The UPDF is in the south-eastern region of Haut-Mbomou with the blessing of the CAR government of President François Bozizé, whose own FACA has failed to tackle the threat posed by the Ugandan rebels.

The LRA first became active in the CAR in February 2008, staging a series of raids, pushing west from Bambouti, on the border with Sudan. Local human rights associations and other civic groups raised the alarm, backed by the UN, urging a much tougher military response.

After a one-year lull, LRA attacks resumed with much greater intensity in mid-2009. Small groups of combatants have hit villages within a 20km radius of Obo: Ligoua, Kourouko, Gassimbala, Koubou, Gougbéré, Dindiri, Kamou and Ndigba and others.

More than 3,000 internally displaced villagers have fled to Obo. Housed initially in school and church buildings, some have sought refuge with host families, but most are in hurriedly constructed huts and shelters, organized by villagers.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is trying to locate safe water sources, build wells and provide latrines. Obo also plays host to several hundred refugees from across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who fall under the responsibility of the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. They too are in flight from the LRA.

Photo: irin
UPDF troops on patrol: The UPDF is in the CAR's south-eastern region of Haut-Mbomou with the blessing of the government, whose own army has failed to tackle the threat posed by the LRA (file photo)

Ugandan patrols

The UPDF has a strong presence in and around Obo, its troops patrolling the town centre and surrounding villages, backed by helicopters. Among the villages now rendered “safe” by the UPDF is Ligoua, 20km south of Obo.

“The Ugandans brought us the head of an LRA fighter to show they are in the bush, pursuing the enemy,” Ligoua’s chief, Elie Bitimoyo, told IRIN. But Bitimoyo and the chiefs of other displaced communities say their fields and houses are off-limits. There is serious concern in Obo about the loss of crops and livestock, as the LRA is predictably targeting the most fertile and prosperous areas, with potentially dire consequences for the local population.

“The government must make the villages safe and get people back on the land,” local pastor René Zaningba told IRIN. “It is the villages which supply Obo with our food needs and if they stay empty we starve.”

Obo itself has suffered from years of isolation. More than 1,200km east of the capital Bangui, Obo is the capital of Haut-Mbomou prefecture, bordering both Sudan and the DRC. In the past, there were serious clashes between the local population and incoming fighters from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

Photo: Chris Simpson/IRIN
A group of displaced people in the CAR: After a one-year lull, LRA attacks resumed with greater intensity in mid-2009, displacing civilians (file photo)

Attacks on agencies

The landmarks in Obo are the Catholic Mission and the Protestant evangelical African Inland Mission complex, which missionaries first established in the 1920s. Both have housed large displaced communities in recent years.

The recent attack by the LRA on a truck belonging to the Italian relief organization COOPI has raised new security concerns in the southeast. Two local employees of COOPI were killed in a road ambush on 21 September, 45km west of Obo. COOPI, which has worked in CAR since 1974, has suspended activities in the southeast, while appealing for the impartiality of aid organizations to be respected by all parties. The truck was transporting materials for the rebuilding of a school in Obo.

As news broke of the attack, local residents complained of new levels of fear and insecurity. “This region desperately needs help with schools; we have 80 percent illiteracy,” one man told IRIN, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But how can you expect NGOs to work here when they will be putting people’s lives in danger?”