Rain was falling, painting the orange dirt road red. Sixty-year-old Jean-Francois Diambosi hurried along nervously. His nephew’s funeral had finished quickly to allow mourners to leave the village for Bangadi town, four miles away, which at least offered safety in numbers. But the route was perilous: the surrounding thick bush and chest-high elephant grass was ideal ambush territory.
The Catholic church on the outskirts of town should have provided refuge. Instead, Diambosi felt only panic as three gunmen burst out and started shooting. Two men on a motorbike were hit. A bullet struck Diambosi next to his left nostril and blasted bone fragments through his right cheek. The men took their victims’ clothes and money, and the lights and battery from the motorcycle. Then they disappeared into the bush.
”Why are they doing this to us?” asked Diambosi, his face covered in bandages at a hospital in Dungu, 80 miles away, where he was airlifted two days after the attack.
The question has been repeatedly asked over the last year across a remote swath of bush linking three countries in central Africa.
Since it was forced out of Uganda by the military, the notorious and mysterious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has spilled across into previously peaceful parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, splitting into dozens of small groups who routinely terrorise bewildered villagers with beatings, killings, looting and abductions.
In Congo alone, the LRA has killed more than 1Â 200 civilians over the last year, according to the UN. A further 2Â 082 Congolese, about a third of them children, have been kidnapped or reported missing. In an area of the country previously untouched by conflict, 360Â 000 people have fled their homes. Most have yet to receive outside help.
Raids have spilled across into Sudan and the Central African Republic, where LRA leader and international criminal court fugitive Joseph Kony may now be hiding.
”To hear about the LRA is like telling people about a lion,” said Sambia Aarouma, president of the civil society organisations in Dungu, a sprawling river town of crumbled colonial buildings where UN peacekeepers have hastily built a base and Congolese soldiers have been trucked in to guard the bridges. ”If I came here now and said that the LRA was 3km away you would have people leaving straight away to cross the river,” Aarouma said.
The LRA’s spree of terror, which traces its origins back to a rebellion against the Uganda president Yoweri Museveni in 1987, flared up again last year after the collapse of peace talks that had raised hopes that one of Africa’s longest, most inscrutable and most senseless conflicts was about to end.
Uganda struck at the movement last December, with co-operation from Congo and Sudan, and US logistical and intelligence support. Helicopter gunships and fighter jets destroyed the LRA bases in Garamba but no top figures were captured or killed.
The rebels’ response was the same as when faced with Ugandan offensives in the past. In what became known as the Christimas Massacres nearly 500 civilians were brutally slaughtered in several northern Congolese towns on December 25 and 26 last year.
”Men, women, girls, babies, killed with machetes, knives and hoes,” said Sister Ellen Yawala who was in Doruma, one of the worst-affected areas, at the time. ”In one village they made mothers put their small children inside grain mortars and pound them.”
But the Ugandan onslaught provoked Kony into ordering the LRA to break up into smaller groups and the frequency of attacks picked up. In July alone, there were 56 attacks across Congo’s vast Province Orientale. Food was looted, villagers abducted.
On 15 August, three elderly farmers who returned to their abandoned village near Bangadi in a desperate search for something to eat had their legs smashed so badly that one of them had to crawl for more than a mile to seek help.
”Their hair was rasta and they were dirty,” said Judith Animbwibwa, one of the victims. ”They told us not to cry but did not say why we were being beaten.”
Testimonies from recently escaped abductees show that the rebels are using their old method of turning victims into perpetrators to make it difficult for them to return home.
Mado Tahelegu, a 22-year-old woman, was one of 26 people kidnapped from Dungu town on 1 November last year. They were roped together at the waist, marched into the bush and made to punish other civilians who tried to escape or offered resistance.
”They forced us to hit them on the head with sticks until they were dead,” said Tahelegu, who escaped during an attack by Ugandan commandos in May. ”I’m doing my best to forget.”
Gabriel Animbo, 15, was given military fatigues and taught how to shoot. ”They said they would show me how to be a soldier and we would be together. If not I would be killed,” he said.
He escaped in July when he was asked to take water to another child soldier on lookout duty. They ran frantically through the bush for three days before reaching a small town. That is the kind of place northern Congo is; on a 50-minute helicopter flight to Faradje, another hotspot, the view was forest, thick brown rivers and grassland, one or two roads and small collections of huts.
For LRA fighters used to marching vast distances and looking to stay hidden, the territory is ideal. For the few aid groups trying to reach victims and displaced people it is not.
Unlike in other conflicts there is no way to contact the rebel leadership to negotiate safe access, so aid workers cannot travel by road and most relief must be delivered by air. Even then, humanitarian groups face an ethical dilemma as LRA fighters have recently been attacking villagers immediately after food distributions.
”The population is being terrorised,” said Kenneth Lavelle, the head of mission for MÃ©decins sans FrontiÃ¨res, which is supporting the hospital in Dungu and other programmes in northern Congo. ”These people are farmers who need access to their fields but insecurity makes that impossible,” he said.
In Uganda, Kony’s methods made the insurgency difficult to understand, even for those who sympathised with his goal of unseating Museveni.
In Congo, the confusion and anger is amplified. Father Benoit Kinalegu, the director of the Justice and Peace Commission in Dungu, said Kony was ”not a human being”. ”A human being can kill with reason, and an animal to eat. But Joseph Kony just kills people for nothing. The only way is take him out.”
Attempts are continuing. Officially, the Congolese army is leading the operation, with logistical support from UN peacekeepers. But it is the Ugandans who are doing most of the hunting. Despite claiming to have left behind only a few ”intelligence squads” after Operation Lighting Thunder, interviews with analysts, aid workers, local officials and LRA victims suggest the number of Ugandan soldiers in the Congolese bush could exceed 3Â 000.
The Uganda People’s Defence Force spokesman, Felix Kulayigye, said the offensive had left the LRA with ”only one hundred and something hardened fighters”. Some independent observers believe the number could be more than 10 times that. The LRA’s leadership structure remains intact and the rebels are well-armed.
Kony has previously received assistance from President Omar al-Bashir’s government in Sudan, which was keen to punish Uganda for its sympathies with rebels fighting a war in South Sudan.
Uganda says Khartoum has never severed contact with Kony. There are fears that if the LRA leaders are again helped to evade capture, they could be used to destabilise South Sudan before its 2011 referendum on independence.
Across the border in northern Uganda, there remains anxiety that the rebels may yet return to cause chaos. ”It’s a legitimate fear,” said Norbert Mao, a former Ugandan MP who was involved in the peace process. ”Kony has a capacity to defy predictions of his demise.”
Joseph Kony launched his rebellion against President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda in 1987, tapping into political grievances among the northern Acholi people, and infused by a belief he was destined to rule the country according to the biblical Ten Commandments.
Lord’s Resistance Army fighters soon achieved notoriety by turning on the Acholis they claimed to represent, hacking off lips, ears and noses, killing thousands and abducting more than 20,000 civilians, mostly children.
Congo had no part in the war until 2005, when the LRA sought sanctuary in the remote Garamba national park after being forced out of northern Uganda and South Sudan. During two years of subsequent peace negotiations, the rebels were largely quiet, cultivating land and accepting food aid. After talks collapsed in 2008 due to Kony’s refusal to sign a final deal, he ordered his fighters back into action. — guardian.co.uk