LRA spreads fear and threat of famine in Congo

Attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army are spreading fear and the threat of famine through previously undisturbed tracts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the head of Unicef warned on Tuesday.

As many as 320 000 people have been displaced in the north of the country by the notorious rebel group as it extends its abduction and terror raids across the region, according to the UN children’s agency.

Unicef’s executive director, Ann Veneman, returned this week from Dungu, the town where rescued child victims of the LRA are being supported. Although the surrounding land is fertile and lush, she said, farmers are now afraid to plant crops.

”These people were living relatively peaceful lives, sending their children to school and then the LRA came,” she said. ”When the situation is so insecure they are afraid to go out and work their fields. Then you see hunger and malnutrition rates go up.”

As many as 1 200 civilians are estimated to have been killed in the area over the past two years. In one raid, known as the Christmas massacre, LRA fighters attacked a Catholic church last December, hacking worshippers to death.

”The population of Dungu live in constant fear of attacks from the LRA, who inflicted 20 years of terror in Uganda and other neighboring countries,” said Veneman. ”The LRA is notorious for kidnapping children, forcing them to kill and maim innocent victims and enslaving young girls as their concubines.”

The rebel group, which originally began life in northern Uganda in 1987 and has expanded its operations into neighbouring Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

Despite hopes that Joseph Kony, the chief of the group might negotiate a ceasefire, the LRA has recently stepped up its violence. Kony himself is rumoured to be in the Central African Republic. According to local legend, he is said to have fathered 160 children.

”I met a boy who had been kidnapped by the LRA,” Veneman said. ”His foot became seriously infected and he was unable to keep up with the daily long-distance treks across the countryside.

”The rebels taunted him and then severely beat him and left him behind. He lay stranded in the bush without food or water for five days before he was found.” He, like many other rescued victims, is now being looked after by a foster family in Dungu.

”The children said they wanted to go back to school,” said Veneman. ”They want school uniforms. I asked one little girl what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said she wanted to live in the Congo — because she had been taken out of the country by the LRA.”

In Dungu, the UN military force (Monuc), is composed of Moroccan troops. They operate out of a ”castle” built by the former Belgian colonial occupiers, she said.

Veneman walso visited the east of the country, where most of the 2,1-million internally displaced refugees are now in camps, having fled different rebel groups operating in the area. She visited Panzi hospital, a centre that specialises in the surgical and medical treatment of rape victims.

”Many of the victims are left alone with many children because their husbands have been shot or ran away because they didn’t want the shame,” she said. ”What shocked me even more was [one young woman who] said after the first soldier raped her, the second soldier took a cloth from his pocket to wipe her clean and then proceeded to rape her. This happened multiple times.”

”One woman explained the hardest choice she had had to make was which one of her eight children she could afford to send to school.”

After India and Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo has the unenviable record of having the largest number of deaths of children under the age of five.

More children in the DRC have been used and recruited by armed forces than anywhere else in the world — an estimated 33 000 boys and girls dragged into the conflict. As many as 5 million people have died since the fighting began in 1998. —

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