Attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in parts of the Central African Republic (CAR) have created a complex situation that not only limits the humanitarian response but also raises concerns over widespread human rights abuses, experts say.
The LRA, a rebel group that originated in Uganda in the 1980s, moved into southeastern and northeastern CAR from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2008. Late last year, it attacked Mbomou and Haut-Mbomou prefectures, as well as Derbissaka, Djemah, Mboki, Obo, Rafai and Yalinga locations. In September, some fighters reportedly moved farther north into Vakaga Prefecture, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey.
“In the last 10 days of December 2010, a spate of LRA attacks shook southeastern CAR close to the DRC border,” it noted in a February briefing paper. “It is possible that these attacks were caused by LRA groups returning from Vakaga prefecture south to Mbomou and Haut-Mbomou."
The LRA attacks in small, fast-moving groups, seizing new recruits before heading back into the forests. “Displacement, rape, torture, killings, forcing captives to carry stolen food items, and sexual violence, including intimidation and humiliation, are an integral part of the modus operandi of the LRA,” said Ida Sawyer, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“With no international peacekeepers and few humanitarian actors operating in the south and northeast, protection of civilians remains entirely inadequate,” she added.
The rebel group has exploited the inability of the DRC, South Sudan and the CAR to effectively control their borders, allowing the LRA to evade repeated military operations by regional governments to hunt them down.
Since September 2008, the LRA has abducted 3,054 people in the DRC, CAR and South Sudan, according to reports by HRW and the UN.
One such abductee, Sandrine*, now 19, was seized in April 2009 in the DRC. Caught close to her village of Nguilima in Doungou Province near the CAR border, she lived with the LRA for 18 months.
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“I was brought into a camp in the bush, a few kilometres from where they attacked us,” she told IRIN. “There were four other armed men and many other women. Later I found out all of them had been kidnapped just like me.”
The group was regularly on the move, and Sandrine was unaware they had crossed into CAR. “I tried to escape twice, and was beaten badly for this… I understood that the best time to escape would be during an attack on the group.”
She finally managed to escape, walking until she met a group of soldiers who put her in touch with the CAR Red Cross. Through its international messaging system, they were able to trace her family, and Sandrine will soon be returning home to the DRC.
Other armed groups
Aside from LRA attacks, the CAR has been destabilized by years of clashes between government forces and several domestic armed groups, which have yet to disarm despite a 2008 peace accord most of them signed.
In the northeast, armed violence has severely disrupted livelihoods. Between July and November 2010, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), attacks on villages such as Ouanda-Djallé, Kpata and Yalinga in central-eastern CAR destroyed homes and left a number of civilian casualties.
“The complex security conditions in this region hinder humanitarian response, leaving the local population extremely vulnerable,” the ICRC said in a statement.
"Children as young as 10 have had their childhoods cut short by conscription into armed groups, especially in the east," said Benoit Chavaz, who runs ICRC's protection and detention activities in CAR. "The ICRC is extremely concerned about this issue, and we raise the matter in our dialogue with weapon-bearers wherever possible."
The prevalence of armed bandits coupled with the paucity of government security forces and the withdrawal in 2010 of the UN Mission in CAR and Chad also contribute to the insecurity.
Insecurity also reportedly prevented the European Union from sending a larger observer mission to CAR’s recent elections – which saw President François Bozizé comfortably re-elected amid opposition criticism – even though it footed almost half the costs of the polls.
*Not her real name