LONDON, 15 December 2010 (IRIN) - On Christmas eve two years ago, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) launched attacks in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Southern Sudan, killing more than 600 people over a three-week period. Hundreds more were abducted and thousands displaced.
Last year there was another wave of December killings, abductions and displacement. Now, says a joint briefing paper from 19 humanitarian agencies active in the region, communities in the affected areas await Christmas with fear. The report, Ghosts of Christmas Past, urges the world not to forget this conflict, which tends to “fall between the cracks” of national and international attention.
Military action against the LRA in Uganda has dispersed the fighters into the remote borderlands between DRC, Southern Sudan and the Central African Republic. Responsibility for dealing with the problem is shared between four national governments, three of which have UN peacekeeping operations.
However, there are virtually no roads or communication links. When atrocities take place, it can take weeks or even months before anyone outside the area hears about them. The people of its scattered villages are extremely vulnerable. One suggestion in the report is that donors, working with telephone companies in the region, could fund a massive expansion of mobile phone coverage.
For the most part, locals’ only protection is national security forces, which are weak, poorly trained and badly paid. The report quotes villagers in Dungu, DRC, describing how the Congolese army deployed in the area had moved their bases inside the villages for their own safety. “We are the ones protecting the army,” they said, “Not the other way around!”
The temptation is for local people to set up their own militias. The governor of Western Equatoria State has called on the Southern Sudan government to give the Arrow Boys in the area proper weapons to defend their communities against attack. But the agencies who contributed to this report are wary of these self-help movements, saying that local defence groups in eastern DRC have morphed into violent militias or lapsed into banditry. And re-arming civilians in Southern Sudan could be destabilizing to next year’s referendum.
Military action against the LRA in the past has failed to capture or kill its commanders, and merely dispersed the chaos over a wider area. Operations against the rebels are also complicated by the fact that there are only a small number of core LRA members. The group is mostly made up of young people abducted and forced to fight or serve their captors, victims of the violence as much as its perpetrators.
The report argues against indiscriminate bombing of LRA camps so as not to put children and abductees at further risk. It calls for much more effort to encourage the escape or defection of these press-ganged fighters, rather than simply regarding them as the enemy and attempting to kill them. The Ugandan experience, it notes, suggests many fighters are desperate to leave the LRA and return home.
Many of the recommendations are directed at the UN. It says there needs to be better coordination and information-sharing between the UN Mission in DRC (MONUSCO), UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) and UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Since they have a mandate to protect civilians, they should decide how to deploy their resources based on where civilians are most at risk.
The report also called for more civilian staff to work with locals, especially female staff, and more training for the peacekeepers to help them respond to the different protection needs of men, women and children in affected areas.
Last month, President Barack Obama presented to the US Congress a Strategy to Support the Disarmament of the LRA.
When he signed the related LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act into law earlier this year, Obama said: “We must all renew our commitments and strengthen our capabilities to protect and assist civilians caught in the LRA’s wake, to receive those who surrender and to support efforts to bring the LRA leadership to justice.” The new strategy names the increased protection of civilians as the very first of the US’s strategic objectives. It emphasizes increasing the options for LRA fighters and what it calls “associated persons” to leave the battlefield safely.
But the US is only one player in this complicated catastrophe. Marcel Stroessel, head of Oxfam in DRC, said at the report’s launch: “As a regional problem the LRA is no one government’s responsibility. The [UN] Security Council has long neglected to put the LRA as a specific agenda item and has failed to respond seriously to atrocities. The international community and regional governments must work together so that families can finally tend their fields and sleep in their homes free of fear.”