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Sudan/Uganda: Equatoria - reluctant host for the LRA

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YAMBIO, 13 June 2007 (IRIN) - Zachariah Nzari says the rebels camped a few kilometres from his village in Southern Sudan overstayed their welcome the day they turned their guns on his people - looting property, destroying homes and abducting villagers.

That was in January 2006. Fighters with the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) entered Nzari's village of Nabanga in Western Equatoria, after looting and destroying 75 homes, took away four people to carry their booty.

"Their bodies were [later] found," said Nzari, the village chief of Nabanga, just a few kilometres from the border between Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. "But the bodies of seven [other] people who went into the forest to collect honey have not been found."

The forest is now a no-go area for Nzari's community, yet they depend on it for honey and building materials. Also missing, the chief added, were six girls who were abducted; cereals, chickens, goats, radios and other valuables were looted.

The rebels, say locals in the state capital of Yambio, have continued to threaten them despite ongoing efforts by the Southern Sudan government to broker a peace agreement with the Ugandan state. The on-off peace talks, mediated by Southern Sudanese Vice-President Riek Machar, are set to resume in Juba.

While the world focuses on the talks, Nzari said, his people continue to suffer from their unwanted neighbours. "The Vice-President used to say there was going to be peace between the people of Uganda and the LRA, but we want peace between the people of Nabanga and the LRA first," he told IRIN.

The rebels, he added, should return the girls they abducted from Nabanga: "When the Vice-President came to Nabanga we presented him with their names on paper [and] he asked [Joseph] Kony [leader of the LRA] where are these girls. [Kony] said they were there in the bush with them at their camp. We want them to bring our people back, [then] just leave our country."

New report

Nzari was in Yambio on 13 June to attend the launch of a report, Reluctant Hosts, by the humanitarian agency, World Vision, highlighting the devastating effect of the presence of Ugandan rebels in Western Equatoria.

"It is not just northern Ugandan communities that have been affected - the international community should broaden its scope," said Sophie Gordon, author of the report, which describes how attacks on villages and towns in the region have continued in 2006 and 2007.

The report quotes the governor of Western Equatoria, Samuel Abu John, saying the local population had suffered a wave of abductions, displacement and looting during the 2006 long lull in talks when the LRA delegation refused to return to Juba for security reasons.

"We as the people who have been most affected ... are not being given the space to talk of what has happened to our people and participate in these talks in Juba," the governor notes in a forward to the report.

Much-needed development, following the north-south Sudan peace agreement in 2005, ending more than 20 years of war, has been limited by LRA activity. Cultivation of crops and schools was also disrupted.

"There is no official number, but we found 10 children abducted - of whom nine were girls - just in one county," said Gordon, adding that further reports of abductions had been made in the last months after the study was conducted.

Abu's deputy, Joseph Ngere Paciko, said more than 50 people had been killed by the LRA since they arrived in Western Equatoria in 2005. At least 16 children were abducted and their whereabouts still unknown.

"Although killings have reduced since the talks began, looting has continued; two weeks ago they looted in Mundri," he said, adding that it was frustrating to hear the LRA denying attacks the state authorities knew to have taken place. "We are giving a chance for peace but the LRA must stop harassing our people," he emphasised.

Another resident, Albino Clement, was more blunt: "We were not consulted about the LRA coming to our area. They should go to their land, to Uganda; if they stay here they should be like refugees, without arms."

Living in fear

World Vision said funding for protection and an early warning system for Western Equatoria was desperately needed to help prevent widespread looting, murder and rape in case of another LRA 'rampage' in that area.

It described the people of Western Equatoria state as living in an "atmosphere of fear" despite the ongoing talks in Juba.

"In February 2007, the LRA left its hideout in the DRC and travelled north into Southern Sudan, after peace talks between the government of Uganda and the LRA collapsed," said Seth Le Leu, programme director of World Vision Southern Sudan. "Its soldiers wreaked havoc on the populations of Eastern and Western Equatoria, repeatedly attacking communities, abducting, looting, allegedly raping and killing its citizens."

On the resumption of talks, he said: "This has not put an end to the fear felt by people in Western Equatoria. Under the terms of the renewed talks the LRA must assemble in one single place - which is within Western Equatoria. These communities have once again been forced to become the reluctant hosts of this movement. Men, women and children are living in constant fear of attacks."

According to the report, the LRA has also victimised humanitarian workers in the region. It cites the killing in November 2005 of two staff members of an international mine clearance agency south of Juba and an attack in February 2006 on a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) compound in Yambio.

In December 2005, UN compounds in Yambio and Yei were attacked, with two staff killed in Yei. "The rise of attacks in southern Sudan has led to communities being harmed on two levels: their own communities have been pillaged and terrorised and their access to international aid and relief has been greatly hindered," said the report.

However, when peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government began in July 2006, the frequency of attacks in Western Equatoria greatly reduced.

Among atrocities listed in the report is the plight of abductees. They were normally loaded with looted goods, tied to one another, and made to walk in convoys to the DRC through the compounds of other residents in order to loot more goods and take more hostages. Goats were tied with ropes to the captives' waists and chickens attached to their arms.

Accountability issues

The current round of talks is focusing on "accountability and reconciliation", the third of five agenda points in a process that had stalled since December when LRA confidence in Machar's mediation dropped. Intervention by UN special envoy Joachim Chissano helped get the talks back on track in April.

The issue of accountability is particularly sensitive given the arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court against LRA leaders, which the LRA has said must be withdrawn. Discussions will look at a range of options in traditional, national and international justice to provide some measure of accountability and justice for victims of abuses committed by both sides during the long conflict.

LRA movement expected

But as the talks resume, Sudanese officials said rebel movement from Eastern Equatoria to the Ri-Kwangba base on the DRC border had not been completed as required, adding that 1,000 rebels were thought to remain in Eastern Equatoria.

Offers of help from Sudan with transport and pre-positioned food had been refused, a senior official said, because the LRA feared ambush by Ugandan soldiers. They also "don't want their numbers to be known", he said.

In Nimule hospital in Eastern Equatoria, Junal Logira, a father of eight, was recovering from an infected bullet wound. He recalls the night the LRA came to his house, in April, in the Labone area, east of Nimule: "Thank God I wasn't drunk that night." His wife woke him up when she heard shooting; he crawled outside and the family fled in different directions. He was hit in the ankle.

"The LRA fighters took all the food and some money," he said. "They uprooted my cassava crop and ran away."

Orieyn Okara, an elderly man displaced several times by the rebels, strapped a bag of sorghum rations distributed by an NGO in Nimule on to his bicycle, then angrily snapped: "Where is this Kony? I have lost all my 12 children . he has done a lot of damage . Have you found him? If you have, kill him."

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