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LRA steps up abductions

Hilke Fischer, Coletta Wanjohi / guNovember 24, 2014

The Lord's Resistance Army has been escalating its abductions in Central Africa, a new UN report says. Although AU-led military operations appear to be weakening the group, the countries involved have other priorities.

LRAA heavily armed soldier from the Lord's Resistance Army passes a village. Photo: EPA/STEPHEN MORRISON +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Morrison

Nesipiyo Tashana was 16 years old when rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) abducted her in the Central African Republic. That was three years ago. To avoid being killed, she had to do as she was told. "In the bush we were forced to hard labor and always carrying the luggage of the rebels," she recounted. "I have so much pain in my heart when I remember that."

She is now in a transit camp for former LRA abductees in Yambio, the capital of South Sudan's Western Equatoria state. African Union (AU) soldiers had brought her here.

In the first nine months of this year alone, 432 people were abducted by the LRA, according to a UN report published in November. That is more than double the number in 2012.

The militia makes many of the abductees work as porters, others are forcibly recruited as fighters. To ensure that they do not even contemplate fleeing and returning to their villages, many boys are forced to kill their own mothers. Women and girls become sex slaves or wives of the fighters.

No trace of Joseph Kony

Since its founding in Uganda in 1987, the LRA is said to have abducted up to 70,000 children. The group left northern Uganda in 2005 and has since been terrorizing the border region between the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The UN recorded 150 LRA attacks this year. The rebels are said to have killed 22 people.

LRA leader Joseph Kony attends a meeting. Photo: EPA/STUART PRICE/POOL +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
LRA leader and war crimes supect Joseph Kony is still at largeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The group's leader, Joseph Kony, ranks high on the list of alleged war criminals wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. In 2012 the US-based organization Invisible Children, which seeks to alert the world to LRA atrocities, caused a stir with a web video calling on viewers to demand that Kony and the LRA be brought to justice. The video was viewed almost 100 million times.

Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo put together a regional force under AU mandate. This African Union Regional Task Force (AU-RTF) conducts military operations against the LRA.

The United States provides logistical support to the Central African states. In May the US deployed two military aircraft designed for long-range missions over difficult terrain and about 150 additional soldiers. But the soldiers are not engaging in combat.

So far they have not succeeded in finding rebel leader Kony. The satellite surveillance system as well as much of the other high-tech equipment from the US is of little use in the dense jungle. LRA fighters have long stopped using traceable means of communication, relying on messengers instead.

Rivers divide the area in which the LRA operates. There are hardly any roads and the villages are difficult to reach. Days can go by before soldiers hear about an LRA raid, and by the time they arrive on the scene, the attackers are long gone.

Map showing where the Lord’s Resistance Army is active.

Rise in abductions despite weakened LRA

Nevertheless, the military initiative has already yielded some success, according to Louis Charles Brum, who coordinates intelligence from the AU countries involved. Since 2010, he said, LRA fighters had changed the way they operated. "There is no longer mutilation; they are killing only when it is necessary for them to survive," he observed. They would only abduct people temporarily now and use them as porters. After a day or two, they would be released. "They are no longer burning villages, there is less violence [and] they are looting just to survive," Brum said. He put their number at less than 300 fighters and said most of them were currently in the Central African Republic.

The marked increase in abductions may have something to do with political crises in countries contributing troops to the AU-led force.

In November 2012, fighting escalated between the Congolese army and the M23 rebels, who had taken Goma, a city with 500,000 inhabitants. In March 2013, Seleka rebels seized power in the Central African Republic, plunging the country into violent conflict. And a bloody civil war has been raging in South Sudan since an alleged coup attempt in December 2013.

Such crises have prompted these countries to withdraw soldiers from the AU-RTF.

Uganda has also pulled soldiers out in order to deploy them in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, according to Kennedy Tumutegyereize. He works for Conciliation Resources, a London-based nongovernmental organization that supports local efforts to promote peace in the area in which the LRA is active.

LRA Rebellen im Garamba Nationalpark Kongo
In the dense forests, rebels have little to fear from the AU-led force hunting themImage: Getty Images/AFP

Military action insufficient

Tumutegyereize warned that the LRA could not be defeated through military means alone. Measures to secure a lasting peace had to be taken as well, effective administrative structures needed to be put in place and civilians had to be protected. Former LRA captives had to be reintegrated into society. If any of these things were left out, it was unlikely that the terror would come to an end. All of these points were included in the AU strategy, but apart from a few isolated projects by aid organizations, nothing was being done in this respect, Tumutegyereize said.

People in the region want to be able to go about their daily business, grow their crops, engage in trade and send their children to school without living in constant fear of abductions. According to Tumutegyereize, this requires intensifying cooperation between the government and the military on the one hand and local authorities on the other. Such an approach had worked very well in South Sudan, where there had been no LRA attacks for a year. The UN report confirms this.

Nesipiyo Tashana, who is living in a transit camp far away from home, is worried about the military focus for an entirely different reason. "If the military says that they want to kill the rebels, what about our friends who were abducted and are innocent? They will be killed too." She hopes the military is aware of this and exercises caution going after the LRA.