Honore Tadri (20) was in Faradje on Christmas Day when about 150 armed men surrounded the market square where most of the Congolese town’s residents had gathered for a festive concert.
The fighters, members of Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), waited for church services to end then slaughtered at least 143 people, crushing skulls with axes and wooden bats.
When night fell they set fire to about 940 houses to help them see during a looting spree that went on until they left at dawn, taking with them 160 children as sex slaves and soldiers.
Tadri hid during the initial attack but was captured in the morning and made to carry the pillaged contents of his neighbours’ homes.
He was tied together with 12 others and told to march through the bush. When their pace lagged, they were forced to kill one of their group, a man he knew.
”He was older than the rest of us. They handed out whips … We beat him to death. They forced us to do that,” Tadri said.
The LRA has hacked, beaten to death or burned alive at least 620 villagers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) amid a struggling multinational offensive against the rebel group, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Uganda’s army, with the backing of Congolese and South Sudanese troops, launched assaults on LRA bases in northern DRC on December 14, aiming to crush the rebels and capture their leader, self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kony.
But in more than a month of operations, coalition forces have failed to track down the rebel leader, and his fighters, estimated to number between 800 and 1Â 000, have embarked on a bloody campaign of terror against local villagers.
”The Ugandan army knows better than anyone else that when you attack Kony, he attacks innocent civilians. This is what he’s done in northern Uganda. This is what he’s done in Sudan,” said Human Rights Watch senior researcher Anneke van Woudenberg.
At the time of the attack on Faradje, a week and a half after the Ugandan-led operations began, the town of 37Â 000 inhabitants was entirely undefended. The towns of Duru and Doruma, attacked between December 25 and 27, were also left without military protection.
After killing at least 80 people in Batande, LRA fighters ate the villagers’ Christmas meal, then slept among the bodies of their bludgeoned victims before moving on to the next town.
”They should have planned for this. They should have known it was going to happen here,” Van Woudenberg said.
Ugandan commanders last week rejected criticism of the operation and vowed to push on until they captured or killed Kony. They said it was the job of the Congolese army, which has deployed about 3Â 500 troops for the offensive, to protect civilians during the assault.
Local officials also blame DRC’s 17Â 000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission, Monuc, which is mandated to protect civilians, for doing nothing to stop the killing.
”This is all happening right under their noses. We’re asking ourselves what Monuc’s mandate is in all this,” said Pierre Mudia, a provincial Parliament member from the northern town of Dungu.
Monuc officials say they have few troops to spare from a force overstretched by an escalation in fighting between government troops and Tutsi rebels in the province of North Kivu that threatened to spark a new regional war late last year.
The LRA is still attacking villages across northern DRC, including in areas close to Faradje, but 36-year-old Jeanne Anili and her six children have nowhere else to go.
She fled to the town from a nearby park ranger station earlier this month after it was attacked and her husband captured by LRA fighters.
”Some said they should kill him right away, but others wanted to take him away and kill him somewhere else. I never found his body,” she said, breaking down in tears.
”I’m here with the children. We have nothing left.” – Reuters