As world attention is drawn to their plight, victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army say their situation is getting worse
“I don’t want to go back home, I’m too scared,” says Brigitte Seleigi, who fled her village after it was attacked by the Lord’s Resistance Army on 10 March, one of a rising number of violent acts by the guerrilla rebel group that has led to displacement of the local population and a growing humanitarian crisis.
Seleigi is in Dungu, the largest town in this part of Province Orientale in the north of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), sitting on a sack of basic food aid provided by the World Food Programme. She is surrounded by thousands of other Congolese villagers who abandoned everything and came to Dungu, some walking more than 30 miles through the night in their desperation to escape the LRA.
Their fear is well-founded. The LRA has existed for more than a quarter of a century, eluding military efforts and negotiations seeking to put a stop to their activities. They first operated in northern Uganda, before pressure from the Ugandan military forced them into eastern DRC in the middle of the last decade.
It also has cells in South Sudan and regions of Central African Republic. LRA fighters have committed massacres, mutilations, and mass rapes; they have abducted thousands of adults and children, using captured minors as sex slaves and child soldiers. Their crimes in this part of DRC have resulted in more than 300,000 people fleeing their homes since the end of 2008.
The LRA is led by the enigmatic and ruthless Joseph Kony, who recently gained worldwide notoriety thanks to the Kony 2012 campaign video released by the American NGO Invisible Children. Dubbed the most viral video of all time, it has been viewed more than 86m times on YouTube. On Tuesday, Invisible Children was due to launch a sequel, Kony 2012 Part II, which it billed as being designed for an international audience, with more details on the LRA.
Invisible Children’s highly emotive plea for the international community, and the US military in particular, to intervene to arrest Kony has attracted praise for raising awareness but also fierce criticism for what is, in some people’s view, a gross over-simplification of a complex conflict.
Not many of the millions who have watched Kony 2012 are in Dungu.
There is barely any mobile telephone reception, and access to the internet is limited. When asked whether they have heard of the video, the villagers shrug and shake their heads. In any case, these people do not need a social media campaign to know who Kony is. They have lived in fear of the LRA for more than 50 years.
“People have been terrorised, seriously traumatised, by repeated attacks by the LRA and the violence and mutilation they have suffered,” says Jorge Holly, head of office for UNHCR in Province Orientale. The mere rumour of an LRA presence is enough to send people scattering into the bush.
Victims of LRA violence are easy to find. Micheline Medu is sitting in the local hospital, her left shoulder heavily bandaged and clutching her nine-month-old baby.
“A month ago we were travelling from Dungu to Bangadi [near the South Sudan border] when I realised shots had been fired from the bush,” she says. “My husband was on a motorbike in front of me and was unharmed. I was hit in the shoulder and we fell. The man on the motorbike behind us was killed.”
The number of incidents involving the LRA has dramatically increased since December 2011, from almost none in the final months of 2011 to 33 so far in 2012, but in nearly every case gratuitous acts of violence have been replaced by pillaging, looting and short-term abductions.
On 24 February the LRA attacked a small settlement six miles from a village called Gangala Na Bodio, on the road back to Dungu. “The rebels came around 2am and went from door to door, looting food, goods, clothes and medicine, and abducting one person,” says Jean-Pierre Bnogoti, head of the village. He is dressed in shabby blue overalls, the only clothes he has left after the attack.
“There were 12 LRA with guns, and five of them were children, around 11 or 12 years old. They fired many shots, shooting into the school. We have many, many traumatised children here.” Some 500 people fled and have stayed away, but more than 300 have decided to return, despite their fears of future attacks.
“We have returned because of the excessive suffering caused by displacement,” says Bnongoti. “We are leading a plea for improved security here. We refuse to abandon our fields that we’ve worked so long to cultivate. We want to be independent and not rely on aid, but we need protection if we are to work in our fields.”
That protection has been lacking for some time. The Congolese army based nearby arrived hours after the LRA had pillaged the village and returned to the bush. “The LRA used lots of bullets,” says one local who witnessed the attack. “The soldiers who eventually came were scared. They knew they didn’t have the numbers or the equipment that the rebels had.”
Even providing aid without adequate security is a risk. “The LRA come for our goods and possessions, so when we receive aid they just attack again,” says Bnongoti. “But without the aid, without food, water and clothes, we will die.”
The villagers facing these desperate choices, the people in overcrowded IDP camps in and around Dungu, and the staff working at overstretched and under-resourced humanitarian agencies in the region, all return to one fundamental need: improved security that would allow people to leave the camps and return home.
“At the start of the crisis the population around Dungu was 5,000,” says Holly. “Today there are 20,000 people due to the IDPs, and access to land has been enormously reduced by security perimeters around the town. Of course villagers want to go back but first they want to know they’ll be protected.”
The overcrowding is creating tensions between indigenous and displaced people over access to land, aid and services like school places, as well as the inevitable sanitation and hygiene problems.
In October 2011 Barack Obama deployed 100 US military advisers to the region to help in the fight against the LRA and to improve security. Two of those advisers are in Dungu.
Any military intervention carries high risks, however.
“All we ask is that they are well co-ordinated. We don’t want another situation like in 2008,” says local civil society leader Father Benoit Kinalegu, referring to another US-advised offensive against the LRA that was unsuccessful and led to the reprisal Christmas massacres of civilians in 2008 and 2009. The massacre at Makombo saw 300 people butchered and 150 abducted.
“If they [the Americans and Congolese army] plan their operations badly then it is very dangerous. But we hope they will do it professionally, and will succeed in protecting the local population,” says Kinalegu.
Back in Gangala Na Bodio, Nalunga Tungati, who was also abducted by the LRA, agrees.
“If the US soldiers come and do their job we will be very happy, but we have seen no sign of them yet.”