Urgent calls from an alliance of aid organizations for international intervention have turned the spotlight on the continuing atrocities being committed by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) across Central Africa.
Atrocities carried out by the LRA continue across Central Africa
The alliance of 19 aid agencies fears that the LRA, a sectarian religious and military group which formed out of a rebellion in Uganda in the 1980s, will step up its attacks on remote communities in Sudan, Central African Republic and DR Congo during the Christmas period.
The group, led by war crimes suspect Joseph Kony, already carries out attacks in these regions up to four times a week, according to a report published by the agencies alliance, which includes Oxfam, Christian Aid, Refugees International, World Vision and War Child UK.
Despite concerted but ultimately unsuccessful efforts by the Ugandan army in December 2008 to finally defeat the LRA, the group - known for its slaughter of civilians and the abduction of children - continues to strike fear across Central Africa. The failure of Operation Lightning Thunder resulted in a wave of brutal revenge attacks by the LRA.
"The LRA's leaders call themselves Christian visionaries, but they are mass-murderers roving around Central Africa searching for communities to eviscerate," Richard Gowan, an Africa expert with the European Council for Foreign Affairs, told Deutsche Welle. "Efforts to deal with the LRA as a rational political force have failed."
"The UN tried to talk to the LRA in 2006-8, which was a useful experiment, but the negotiations went nowhere and Uganda's military campaign against LRA bases in the eastern Congo in 2008 only forced the LRA into the Central African Republic and Sudan, sending tens of thousands of civilians running for their lives."
It is alleged that the LRA has killed more than 2,000 people since December 2008 while kidnapping more than 2,600 and forcing more than 400,000 refugees to flee from DR Congo, the Central African Republic and southern Sudan.
"The acute suffering and mass population displacement the LRA has generated across international borders is undermining stability in an already fragile region, where southern Sudan is preparing to hold a landmark referendum on secession in early 2011," the alliance report - entitled "The Ghosts of Christmas Past" - said.
Alun McDonald, Oxfam's regional media and communications officer for the Horn, East and Central Africa, says the international community's response has been weak and counter-productive. "The LRA is the most deadly group in DR Congo at the moment, killing over 1,000 people this year. Yet less than 1,000 of the 18,500 UN peacekeepers in the country are deployed in LRA-affected areas."
Alliance calls for international intervention to stop LRA
War crimes suspect Kony remains as elusive as his LRA
As well as warning of the potential for Christmas attacks, the agencies alliance has called on the international community to do more to stop the LRA once and for all.
"War Child advocates for the scaling-up of non-military interventions in the region, primarily focusing on the safe release and reintegration into communities of child soldiers recruited by the LRA, particularly girl soldiers who are often neglected in the reintegration process which increases the likelihood of re-recruitment," Nivi Narang, the campaigns director at War Child UK, told Deutsche Welle.
"We want the international community to give the LRA problem the attention it deserves," Oxfam's McDonald said. "Governments should explore non-military options for dealing with the LRA while remembering that many LRA fighters are in fact abducted children. Helping them to escape and defect would put an enormous dent in the LRA's military capacity."
McDonald also believes that increased numbers of well-trained UN peacekeepers in areas most at risk from LRA attacks would act as a real deterrent to the small but violent group.
UN, US show increased willingness to act
The UN is sending more peacekeepers to areas at risk
In response, the UN Security Council has echoed the call for greater international action and has dispatched 900 peacekeepers to a remote region of DR Congo where the LRA carried out consecutive Christmas attacks in 2008 and 2009. The Security Council has also welcomed an African Union move to set up a joint task force to fight the LRA and deploy joint border patrols.
The United States, which provided logistical support for the Ugandan Army's Operation Lightning Thunder in 2008, has also promised to support a new effort to finally defeat the LRA and catch the elusive Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
President Barack Obama presented Congress with a new plan last week that would promote "the defection, disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of remaining LRA fighters; and... increase humanitarian access and provide continued relief to affected communities." The plan is part of a wider strategy agreed upon by Congress six months ago to "defuse the spiraling bloodshed in Central Africa, protect the civilian population and bring LRA leaders to justice."
Experts lament too little action coming too late
African forces fighting the LRA need more international help
The belief among experts is that while it is a positive development that the United Nations and United States are now moving the LRA problem up their African agendas, a lot of damage has already been done and the efforts they speak of may be too little too late.
"The UN has huge problems in Central Africa, ranging from instability in the Congo to the upcoming independence referendum in South Sudan," said Richard Gowan. "There are thousands of peacekeepers in the region, but they're overstretched already."
Gowan believes that tackling the LRA will be a long and grinding process with the only 'quick fix' coming from the death or arrest of its leader, Joseph Kony. Even that might not end the threat the LRA poses to Central Africa.
"Very, very few people would shed a tear for Kony," Gowan said. "But if he died, the LRA might still keep going in a new form."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge