/ 20 October 2008

Refugees mourn children snatched by LRA

First the Ugandan rebels locked the children in the village school. Then they killed those adults who resisted and tied down others.

First the Ugandan rebels locked the children in the village school.

Then they killed those adults who resisted, tied down others, burnt the thatched huts and smashed the grain stores.

Only then did the dreadlocked fighters from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) return for their real prize: they dragged the Congolese children out of the classroom, tied their hands tightly, and led the column of fresh conscripts off for a new life fighting in the jungle.

”They took them all into the bush,” Mary said softly, hugging her year-old baby tightly to her chest. ”That was when I ran to Sudan.”

Mary, from the farming community of Dungu in the north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, made her way through about 55km of thick jungle to southern Sudan two weeks ago.

Here in Gangura, a remote village roughly 12km into Sudan, the latest arrivals wait patiently in the dappled shade of a mango grove for representatives from the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR to register their details.

”What they made these people suffer is not human,” said Lexson Wali Amozai, state director of the Southern Sudan Refugee and Rehabilitation Commission in Western Equatoria.

”These LRA are destroying the lives of peaceful people,” added Amozai, who is coordinating efforts by the UN and other aid agencies to support those displaced by the attacks.

A UN report earlier this month accused the northern Ugandan insurgents of ”grave human rights abuses” against communities across the region.

About 5 000 refugees have arrived in southern Sudan, but the attacks have displaced many more inside DRC, according to UN estimates.

Local officials estimate that more than a hundred children have been abducted in DRC and another hundred in south Sudan.

Many see the recent attacks as the death knell for three years of peace talks aimed at bringing an end to one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts.

”The LRA leadership is laughing at us — you cannot decide to make a peace negotiation while your troops are attacking innocent civilians,” Amozai added, watching a group of refugee children playing in the dust.

LRA rebel chief Joseph Kony began his battle 20 years ago, to fight against the marginalisation of the people of northern Uganda, he said.

But their ferocious attacks, with rebels chopping off the limbs and lips of their victims, were often aimed more at the civilians they said they fought for than on the military.

Its top leaders, fugitives from the International Criminal Court, are accused of forcibly enlisting child soldiers and of the massacre of thousands of people in battles that have now spread far across the region.

Driven out of Uganda, the rebels began moving three years ago to the remote jungles of north-eastern DRC, whose dense forests far from central authorities allow easy movement across the porous borders with South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR).

While villagers grew used to rebel raids seeking food and basic goods such as soap and car batteries, they said recent ones were far more brutal, prompting fears that rebels are recruiting children for a new offensive.

”There is always an end to everything… but the peace process is not looking hopeful with the LRA’s failure to sign,” said Jemma Nunu Kumba, governor of Sudan’s Western Equatoria state, which runs along the DRC border.

”People ask the question: ‘Why is the LRA killing us?’,” Kumba added. ”We are not Ugandans; we are not part of their conflict … but these are questions that nobody can answer.”

The rebels, whose raids punched several miles into Sudan, even attacking an army base, have also displaced hundreds of southern Sudanese.

Extra troops from the southern Sudanese army have been deployed along the border, but those traumatised by the attacks remain nervous, looking over their shoulders at the twisted and tangled forest.

”We took many days to get here, because we had to hide off the roads, coming through the bush,” said John Karyami, a farmer who fled with his two young children.

”We were terrified they would catch us on the way,” he added.

”Any child they find in the lands they say is theirs they will take, any adult they will capture or kill.”

There’s talk of military pressure mounting against the rebels, with troops from the DRC, backed by troops from the UN peacekeeping mission there (Monuc), reported to be planning to crack down on them.

But here in the vast, thick forest, the rebels are experts at evading capture.

Refugees claim the rebels are driving all villagers out of a wide zone around their forest bases.

Gungbale Gengate is a Protestant minister now sheltering in Sudan but who ran a Bible school in the DRC village of Napopo until it was destroyed by rebels earlier this month. He estimates that LRA lands cover more than 200 square kilometres.

”I came only to get help, some essentials — food and a cooking pot, then I will go back,” Gengate says.

”The LRA say that they want no person on their lands, but what can we do? This is where we are from.” – AFP