They may number as few as 100 men, women and adolescents, but Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) units scattered across the forests of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s Orientale Province have sown sufficient terror to make some 318,000 people take flight, abandoning their homes and fields, in many cases to the uncertain sanctuary of urban centres.
Their fear is far from misplaced, for extreme brutality is a tactic in the survival strategy of the northern Ugandan rebel group, which has killed almost 2,000 people in Orientale since December 2007, mostly in the districts of Haut- and Bas-Uele.
Lacking supply lines and widely dispersed since a botched air raid in December 2008, the small groups of LRA fighters operate independently of each other and live off the land; that is to say, off the local population’s produce and livestock. Since this population has no desire to share what little they have with a rebellion in which they have no stake at all, they are made to leave.
“The violence of its attacks and the suffering it causes are intended to frighten villagers into not giving its pursuers the information they need to wage a counter-insurgency campaign and to frighten civilians away so they can move with less chance of being spotted,” the International Crisis Group said in a recent report on the LRA.
Such calculatedly brutal logic is hard to explain to the victims of violence.
“What can you tell a woman who’s had her lips and ears cut off for nothing?” UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said after visiting the Haute-Uele town of Niangara, the geographical centre of Africa, during a tour of DRC’s most troubled areas.
Photo: Anthony Morland/IRIN
|Can you help? - Officials in northern DRC wait to explain the LRA’s brutal impact to UN humanitarian chief John Holmes|
Holmes also told reporters the UN was investigating reports of yet another LRA massacre, in February 2010, in the village of Kpanga. If claims that 100 people were murdered in this incident are verified, it would bring the total number of people killed by the LRA this year to over 500.
The number of attacks in the Ueles reached 19 in March, up from February’s seven, according to data compiled by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Litany of abuse
For its part, the DRC government, which, in the run-up to elections due in 2011, is keen to demonstrate it has control of its vast territory, has described reports of recent large-scale LRA massacres as exaggerated, a ploy by aid workers to justify their presence.
This is not a view shared in Niangara, where officials told the visiting Holmes about the lack of security, exhausted food stocks and non-existent communications in the area.
Unlike many towns across DRC now, there is no mobile phone network in Niangara, which means it is impossible to raise the alarm in the event of an attack. The town is barely accessible by road.
“[There is] killing, rape, forced displacement, deserted schools, arson, looting, mutilation of different parts of the body…” civil society representative Floribert Tongole said during an explanation to Holmes’s delegation of the wide-ranging effects of the LRA presence here.
“Every week there are new attacks, some even in the town of Niangara itself,” he added.
|The Lord's Resistance Army - key dates|
|1986||The Holy Spirit Mobile Forces, led by Lakwena, is formed in northern Uganda and declares war on Yoweri Museveni's new government|
|1987-88||After Lakwena is defeated and flees to Kenya, catechist Joseph Kony recruits her remaining forces into what becomes the LRA|
|1993-94||Sudan begins to support the LRA in retaliation for Museveni's support for southern Sudanese rebels|
|2001||The US government places the LRA on a list of terrorist organizations|
|2002||Ugandan army launches Operation Iron Fist in southern Sudan against the LRA|
|2005||The ICC issues arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and four of his top commanders|
|2006||Peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA, mediated by the government of Southern Sudan, begin in Juba, Sudan|
|April 2008||Juba talks are suspended indefinitely after Kony refuses to sign a final agreement|
|December 2008||Ugandan-led forces botch a raid against Kony's position in northeastern DRC. LRA retaliations leave almost 2,000 dead over the following 16 months|
Tongole said LRA fighters were just a couple of kilometres away from the town. “Last week they chopped a woman’s lips off,” he said.
According to others in Niangara, three LRA members were arrested on 1-2 May after being found by residents inside the town.
“We can’t go to our fields because we are afraid of the rebels,” one Niangara resident told IRIN.
“Many IDPs are staying with host families here, so they share what food they have. That means there is not much left,” he added.
“Is [LRA leader] Joseph Kony bigger than the United Nations?” a representative of Niangara’s women asked at the meeting with Holmes.
The UN’s peacekeeping mission in the DRC, MONUC, has estimated the number of LRA in Orientale at around 100. Another 100, including Kony himself, are thought to be holed up in neighbouring Central African Republic. Others could be in Southern Sudan.
Even with so few fighters, the LRA has made it too dangerous for aid workers to reach around a third of the IDPs in the Uele districts.
“It’s pure terrorism. The numbers don’t mean anything; what counts is their capacity to harm the population,” said one humanitarian worker in Haut-Uele.
Weak military coordination
He added the LRA were aided by the lack of coordination between the various military forces present in Orientale: MONUC, which plays little direct role in tackling the rebels; the poorly-trained, over-stretched Congolese army, 6,000 of whom are deployed in Haut-Uele; and troops from the Ugandan army, which led the December 2008 operation.
Uganda’s military invitation expired in March 2009 and only a few “intelligence officers” are supposed to be in DRC now. But in reality 1,000-3,000 ground troops are estimated to be still deployed.
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|Gaston Mbali...too scared to go home|
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MONUC has no contact at all with the Ugandan military in Orientale, according to a senior MONUC officer who spoke to IRIN in Niangara, adding that the UN force did support the Congolese army with logistics, transport, food, fuel and training.
According to OCHA, these Congolese troops are not always a force for good, and are sometimes “responsible for some human rights abuses, such as extortion of food and other goods and forced labour.”
Nor are they always an effective deterrent to LRA movements, according to OCHA, which in a March summary of the humanitarian situation in Orientale Province said Congolese “soldiers are unable to stop these repeated incursions [into towns], which they prefer to blame on local bandits.”
Killing Kony appears to be a priority for Uganda. Even Holmes spoke in Niangara of the necessity of “putting an end to him and his colleagues,” given Kony’s repeated refusal to sign a peace deal.
But in its report, the International Crisis Group, while describing the LRA as a “causeless and homeless guerilla group for which the most pressing concern is day-to-day survival”, sounded alarm bells about such a narrowly focused military objective.
Even if “the LRA has a generally low level of coordination and cohesion … [and] may be close to collapse as an organization, individuals and groups have proved extremely resilient.”
“If the LRA were to disintegrate further and even if the army killed or captured Kony, there is a serious risk that isolated groups of fighters would continue to make civilians suffer across the region,” the report warned.
DRC: Gaston Mbali, “When we heard the whistles, we knew we should escape”
IRIN LRA In-depth