Still afraid of the LRA

Hundreds of thousands of people displaced by Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are still afraid to return to their villages, despite a lull in attacks, a UN spokesman said.

Some 298,000 people were displaced in Haut Uele district in 2009, along with 42,500 in Aru territory in Ituri. Another 20,000 fled to Southern Sudan and 3,500 to Central African Republic, said Ndiaga Seck, associate information officer with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in the North Kivu provincial capital of Goma.

“Displacement rose 9 percent in Haut Uele and 11 percent in Bas Uele after a massacre in Makombo in December,” he said. “The attacks have since subsided, except in some places, but most IDPs [internally displaced persons] are still living with host families.”

The 14-17 December massacre left 321 civilians dead and 250 abducted, including at least 80 children, according to Human Rights Watch.

"The Makombo massacre is one of the worst ever committed by the LRA in its bloody 23-year history," Anneke van Woudenberg, HRW senior Africa researcher, said in a report issued on 28 March. "The four-day rampage demonstrates that the LRA remains a serious threat to civilians and is not a spent force, as the Ugandan and Congolese governments claim."

The rebels attacked at least 10 villages, killing mostly men. Many were first tied up and then hacked to death with machetes; others had their skulls crushed with axes and heavy wooden sticks.

"The people of northeastern Congo and other LRA-affected areas have suffered for far too long," said Van Woudenberg. "The US and other concerned governments should work with the UN and regional parties to develop and carry out a comprehensive strategy to protect civilians and apprehend abusive LRA leaders."

Before the attack, the LRA had circulated threats of an impending attack in Niangara region of Haut Uele, forcing some residents to flee. A security source in eastern DRC told IRIN that LRA numbers had been reduced to “several hundred”, but they were still very brutal. He confirmed the Makombo massacre, describing the killings as “gruesome”.

But an LRA spokesman in Nairobi told the BBC it was difficult to prove the LRA was behind the massacre. Similar doubts were expressed by Ugandan army spokesman Felix Kulaigye.

"Logically the population in Congo are so dispersed; therefore it makes it difficult for a force that is so thin on the ground to kill that number of people," he said. "Even within five days, the LRA, who are now about 200, does not have the capacity to kill all those people."

The Ugandan rebel group has a history of violent attacks against civilians. According to Enough Project, the LRA has killed at least 1,800 civilians in the DRC since 2008, with more than 100 murdered in January.

“Abductions peaked in March 2009 with over 500 cases, including 300 in Bas Uele,” Seck told IRIN on 29 March. “And when they moved, the rebels committed a lot of massacres.”