DRC town takes stand against Ugandan rebels

Homemade rifles, physical training and self-confidence are the only weapons Bangadi’s militia have against Ugandan rebels bringing chaos and death to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The small town of Bangadi, in the far north-east of the Central African nation, needs such help against Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) fighters active about 100km north-east of Dungu, the main town in the Haut-Uele district.

Within a few weeks its population of 15 000 has grown by about 20 000 people displaced by the LRA, known for its atrocities and believed to be based in the nearby Garamba park, where Congolese and Ugandan soldiers hunt them.

“On September 12 2008, when we heard that the LRA was within 45km and that we would get no help, we decided to create a self-defence force,” the militia’s self-styled intelligence chief, Hilaire Kabadunga, said.

In his headquarters, a thatched hut like hundreds of others, he was surrounded by some of his men, carrying machetes, spears or artisanal rifles with bits of string for their slings.

“We recycle plastic cartridges and the lead [for bullets] comes from old car batteries,” Kabadunga said.

The force had its baptism of fire on October 19 in a predawn attack by about 40 wild LRA fighters wearing charms and with palm oil daubed on to their faces, who attacked displaced people in a school, Nicolas Akoyoefuda, the local civic leader said.

“The LRA is an indefinable phenomenon,” the elegant, greying man in his 50s told Agence France-Presse. “Some of them come simply to burn and to kill. They take nothing.”

But the Ugandan rebels are excellent shots and the militia “lays traps for them”, he added.
“We can’t attack them head on.”

The reported toll among the LRA was 31 rebels on October 19, but others made off with several kidnapped civilians. Such clashes and fear of them has kept local people from their crops, where they might be ambushed in the fields.

‘If we weren’t confident in victory, we would leave Bangadi’
In its first fight, the militia lost two of its own men, while 11 civilians were killed. A Dungu-based Swiss official with Médecins sans Frontières, Serge Pfister, said “nearly 1 000 people” have been slain by the LRA in the region.

Each time the militia fight, Akoyoefuda said that they “take the body of a rebel and burn it in the middle of the town”.

The force includes 360 men of all ages, as well as two adolescents, who need to count on being in good physical shape. Kabadunga said that gymnastics was a part of the school curriculum.

At nightfall three times a week, the militia run out into the forest pressed up against the town, clambering over obstacles and practising commando tactics, then return to the marketplace in central Bangadi.

Then they dance holding their machetes and rifles high, applauded by the local people.

“If we didn’t stand up to fight, if we weren’t confident in victory, we would leave Bangadi,” Kabadunga said.

The Congolese and Ugandan armies began joint operations against the LRA’s elusive leader, Joseph Kony, and his men at the end of 2008 and about 100 Congolese soldiers arrived at Bangadi early in February.

But the militia force will not stand down.

At twilight, they sing a song of warning to President Joseph Kabila’s government in Kinshasa: “Go tell Kabila that we won’t disarm until the LRA has gone.”

In the region as a whole, food is scarce, because of looting by the LRA, according to Pfister, who said that initially displaced people were taken in by families, but their capacity is stretched to the limit.

“Insecurity is permanent across 99% of the territory,” Pfister said in Kinshasa by telephone, with “nearly 1 000 people” killed by the rebels, while the United Nations put the number of displaced at 130 000 at the end of January.

“In health centres, we regularly see wounded people” who had risked going out to work their land, he added, while market prices were escalating because “you can hardly use the road any more”.

“We expect a rise in malnutrition among vulnerable people, particularly the children.”—Sapa-AFP

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