By Katy Glassborow in The Hague (AR No. 191, 28-Oct-08)
The Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, is on the rampage in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, forcing an estimated 70,000 civilians from their homes, dragooning children into their ranks, and killing those who get in its way.
According to local NGO reports, since mid-September, several villages in Haut-Uele province - which lies on the periphery of Garamba National Park - have been attacked, as well as the town of Sakure in South Sudan. Over 5,000 people have fled north to the city of Yambio in South Sudan, while tens of thousands have gone south to the town of Dungu, Haut-Uele's capital, or west to the village of Bangadi.
The recent attacks on villages - including Boyote, Kiliwa, Nakale, Ngilima, Kana, Napopo, Limolo, Duru, Nambia and Bitima - mark a significant escalation in LRA violence, as the rebel group had been relatively quiet since peace talks between them and the Ugandan government began two years ago. During this period, they plundered villages for livestock and implements, but there were few reports of killings and abductions.
Observers say the rebel group now appears to be launching an all-out offensive in the area close to its Garamba base, which peaked on September 17 with a series of seemingly coordinated assaults.
"Six villages were struck on the same day at the same time and in the same way. [LRA] rebels went to the markets first and pillaged them systematically. Then they went to the schools and then killed the 'chef' [or leader] in every village," Father Benoit Kinalegu, head of the Dungu Peace and Justice Commission, told IWPR.
Hundreds of children were reportedly abducted from schools. Two pupils who were abducted in Duru along with classmates and teachers and managed to escape to Dungu said that they had been taken to the bush and forced to carry loot from their own ransacked village.
During the attacks, rebels apparently separated adults from children, killing the former with axe blows to the back of the neck. Women with babies strapped to their backs were not spared. Children - who the LRA turn into soldiers, sex slaves and porters - were taken to another location.
These reports from organisations on the ground have been corroborated by International Criminal Court, ICC, prosecutors, who say the September 17 attacks "all follow[ed] a similar method, with markets surrounded and looted, students abducted from school, properties burned and dozens of civilians killed, including several local chiefs". Tens of thousands have now been displaced, say prosecutors.
In 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants for top LRA commanders Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen. Otti and Lukwiya have since been killed in internal disputes and the others remain on the run.
For some 20 years, the rebel group terrorised civilians in northern Uganda - pillaging villages, mutilating and killing men, and raping women. They also kidnapped children, who they kept as slaves and also trained to become fighters.
A tentative calm was restored to the region after 2006, when the LRA sent representatives to the south Sudanese capital Juba to begin peace negotiations with Kampala. A long-negotiated draft deal would have left the LRA commanders exempt from prosecution at the ICC. However, in April, the talks collapsed when Kony failed to turn up to the jungle town of Ri-Kwangba on the Sudan-Congo border to sign the agreement.
During the talks, several European countries donated food aid to the rebels in an attempt to deter them from looting villages. However, critics said this merely allowed them to sell the aid, re-arm and come back stronger.
Since the collapse of the peace process, evidence has emerged that rebels have stepped up abductions, kidnapping hundreds of children from the Central African Republic, CAR, and the western equatorial province of South Sudan.
ICC prosecutors say they have information that Kony issued orders in December 2007 to abduct 1,000 civilians to expand his ranks. "Kony is now implementing his plan," said prosecutors in a press release.
They accused the rebel leader of using the negotiations to buy time and resources.
"Kony - just as he has many times in the past - uses the peace talks to gain time and support, to rearm and attack again. The price paid today by civilians is high. The criminals remain at large and continue to commit crimes, and they are threatening the entire region," continued the press release.
The population of Haut-Uele province is now feeling the sting of the revived fighting force.
Humanitarian workers say they are struggling to access the remote area - which has little infrastructure in place - to deliver aid.
So far, the population has received no food aid at all apart from some basic assistance from the Catholic relief agency Caritas.
Director of Caritas in DRC Bruno Miteyo said logistics are hampering any greater relief effort.
"There is one road [in the area], but it is in a very bad state. If we take aircraft, it is very expensive. Humanitarian organisations are wondering how to help those who are displaced," he said.
Representatives of international organisations say they are currently arranging the delivery of essential aid via a landing strip built in Dungu by the United Nations last year.
Jaya Murthy of the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, said that medical kits for sexual violence victims, containing anti-retrovirals, have now reached health centres in Dungu. Plans for further aid include vaccinations for tens of thousands of children, plus emergency shelter like plastic sheeting.
However, it is not clear how supplies will reach those harder to access parts of the region, where residents are becoming increasingly dispersed.
Claude Mahoudeau of aid organisation Doctors Without Borders, MSF, said that some areas were so insecure that IDPs are now fleeing to the forest to hide.
"We are trying to reach them, but it is impossible," he said.
He added that while the UN has a mobile clinic in Dungu - where a small number of Congolese army, FARDC, troops, and a handful of observers and police from the UN peacekeeping force MONUC are struggling to protect civilians - it is too dangerous to deliver assistance to more remote areas where there are no troops in place.
"There is a small runway in Bangadi which has been cleaned up by the people, so it is possible to land there. But until now, we cannot set up assistance because there is no protection," he said.
Mahoudeau is pushing for the authorities to secure the area. Until that happens, he said, any food or non-food items sent there may lure rebels back to plunder the aid.
Christophe Ilemassene of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, had similar concerns.
"We are debating whether we even want to send food to an area where we cannot guarantee minimum protection for the recipients," he said.
"We are not sure whether it is a good idea to distribute assistance and put people at risk [in more distant areas] or just assist people in Dungu. It remains to be seen."
Meanwhile, the violence continues to spread. Ilemassene said that Bangadi - where some 20,000 civilians fled after their villages were targeted - was itself attacked on October 19.
"We do not know whether the displaced people in Bangadi have now moved on as a result of the LRA attack," he said.
With only a scattering of peacekeeping troops on the ground in Haut-Uele, observers fear the LRA assaults look set to continue.
Although there are more UN peacekeeping troops in DRC than in any other country, they are occupied with trying to contain violent uprisings by other armed groups in different parts of the vast country, which is the size of western Europe.
"We have the north Kivu problem, and a resurgent militia in Ituri [in the eastern DRC] which is attacking the national army," said MONUC's Michel Bonnardeaux.
In North Kivu, renegade rebel leader Laurent Nkunda is leading a group of around 5,500 fighters sympathetic to the Tutsis of neighbouring Rwanda. In a violent power struggle with Kinshasa, around 100,000 civilians have fled their homes since January. An estimated 20,000 people recently headed to North Kivu's regional capital, Goma, which Nkunda has vowed to take over. At the beginning of the week, civilians stoned UN headquarters there, demonstrating against MONUC, which they say has failed to protect them.
Bonnardeaux said that for the DRC authorities, tackling the fighting in North Kivu was a greater priority than attempting to quell the LRA.
"There are competing emergencies between the North Kivu situation and the LRA, but the Kivu problem threatens the legitimacy of the government in Kinshasa. The LRA situation does not, so it is not getting as much attention from Kinshasa," he said.
Observers say that given the numbers of displaced and the brutality of attacks by the LRA, the lack of peacekeepers and military presence on the ground in the Dungu area is particularly startling. In Dungu proper, there are only four military observers, a platoon of 12 Moroccan MONUC peacekeepers, and 160 FARDC soldiers.
"This is not a sufficient number [of troops to deal with the LRA threat]," said Bonnardeaux. He added that MONUC has been transporting FARDC soldiers to the area, but that the army did not want numbers revealed "for obvious reasons".
Acknowledging the urgent need to contain the LRA, MONUC has now asked the UN Security Council to send more peacekeepers to DRC. In turn, the UNSC has asked MONUC for a complete analysis of the situation plus recommendations.
According to Father Kinalegu, the people of Haut-Uele are growing increasingly frustrated with MONUC. Citizens demonstrated against peacekeepers on September 25, marching to their base in Dungu and demanding weapons so they could protect themselves instead of relying on the blue helmets.
They are equally despairing about the FARDC, he said.
"People have a bad history with the Congolese army and have suffered so much that now they don't trust the Congolese army and it makes them scared," said Father Kinalegu.
Locals are now calling for Congo to work with neighbouring countries to solve the LRA crisis. However, they are wary of the intervention of Uganda, which reportedly backed a rebellion in DRC against former Congolese president Laurent-Desire Kabila in 1998. Neither do they trust southern Sudanese rebels, the SPLA, who, in the 1990s, destroyed villages and pillaged in the area.
In the absence of an effective military presence in Haut-Uele, the displaced population has begun to take up arms to defend themselves, resulting in greater bloodshed.
On October 19, during the LRA attack on Bangadi, local youths formed a self-defence force. Six were killed defending the village, and one LRA rebel was also reportedly killed.
Father Kinalegu said in the Kivus, locals formed a militia -the Mai Mai - in an attempt to defend their homes and villages against rebels after fighting spilled over from nearby Rwanda. He warned that a similar scenario could unfold in Haut-Uele province, causing violence to spiral out of control.
According to Father Kinalegu, locals are no match for the LRA forces.
"The population is asking for weapons for self-defence, but at the moment, people only have machetes and [other rudimentary weapons]."
People in the province are now calling for the LRA to be found, arrested, and sent to the ICC, said Father Kinalegu.
"All the authorities in Haut-Uele province made a declaration that the Congolese government should collect evidence of what is happening, and give it to the ICC so that the LRA can be prosecuted for what is happening in the area," he said.
Father Kinalegu said it was a mystery why the Congolese authorities did not try and arrest the LRA fugitives. "Here, people are being murdered but nobody is being tried for anything," he said.
This frustration is apparently shared by the ICC, which does not have an independent police force of its own to make arrests and relies on governments that support its mandate to hunt down suspects and turn them over. Both Uganda and the DRC have signed up to the court.
ICC prosecutors have called for renewed efforts to arrest Kony, while court judges said on October 21, that the recent attacks made it of "utmost urgency" that the DRC government indicate how it will take steps to find and arrest the Ugandan rebels.
For the sake of effective investigations and prosecutions, as well to prevent the commission of further crimes, judges have ordered the Congolese authorities to hand over this information by November 17.
Katy Glassborow is an IWPR international justice reporter in The Hague.