Fighters from Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army have hacked or beaten to death at least 321 Congolese villagers in one of the worst single atrocities of their 23-year insurgency.
The attacks occurred in a remote part of northern Democratic Republic of Congo between 14 and 17 December last year, but their scale has only now been made public. Human Rights Watch, which on Sunday releases a report on the mass killings, says that most of the dead were men who had been tied up and then cut with machetes, or had their skulls crushed with axes or clubs. Family members later found many of the battered bodies still bound to trees.
More than 250 civilians, including 80 children, were seized during the raid that left a “stench of death” in the Makombo area of Haut Uele district, the report said. The attacks were allegedly ordered by General Dominic Ongwen, a fugitive from the International Criminal Court. United Nations human rights officials in Congo, who this month reached part of the heavily forested area where the attacks occurred, corroborated the account. They recorded the names of 100 victims and 150 abductees. But Todd Howland, director of the UN’s joint human rights office in Congo, said the Red Cross had reported burying 250 people and the death toll was likely to be higher. “A figure of 321 does not sound exaggerated,” he said. “It could be more than that.”
The massacre is a reminder of the threat posed by the LRA rebels, who became notorious for kidnapping children and their brutal killing methods during the 18 years they terrorised Uganda before moving to Congo. It also highlights the chronic failure of governments in the region and the international community to protect civilians.
Trail of death
LRA rebels have killed 1 600 Congolese civilians and abducted more than 2 500 since September 2008, after peace talks broke down. Yet the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, known as Monuc, has only established three bases in Haut Uele and Bas Uele — an area the size of Belgium — with about 1 000 troops. Congo has tried to play down the LRA presence, as has the Ugandan military.
The Human Rights Watch report, A Trail of Death: Ongoing LRA Atrocities in Northern Congo, said the rebels used similar tactics in each village on their 104km journey. Pretending to be soldiers, they told villagers not to be afraid. Once people had gathered, they were seized.
“LRA combatants specifically searched out areas where people might gather — such as markets, churches and water points — and repeatedly asked those they encountered about the location of schools, indicating that one of their objectives was to abduct children,” the report said. “Those who were abducted, including many children aged 10 to 15 years old, were tied with ropes or metal wire at the waist, often in human chains of five to 15 people. They were made to carry the goods the LRA had pillaged and then forced to march off with them. Anyone who refused, or walked too slowly, or who tried to escape, was killed. Children were not spared.”
According to the report, Congolese and Ugandan soldiers — who have been pursuing the LRA since 2008 — arrived in the area on 18 December. The Congolese army sent in an investigation team on 26 December, which concluded that a large massacre had occurred but did not make the knowledge public.
The Ugandan military spokesperson in Kampala, Lieutenant-Colonel Felix Kulayigye, denied that any significant attack had occurred at Makombo. He said that Operation Lightning Thunder — a US-backed Ugandan mission to destroy LRA bases in a Congolese national park in December 2008 — and follow-up operations had left the rebels with fewer than 200 fighters. “We do not believe that the LRA has the numbers or the time to kill 300 people in Congo.”
But the UN joint human rights office in Kinshasa disagreed. Todd Howland said that the scale of the abductions since 2008 meant the LRA remained a serious threat. He said his office heard of the Makombo attack in January and asked Monuc to provide access to the area. But insecurity in the zone and difficult terrain meant investigators had to wait until March 10 to reach the site.
“You can question whether the Congolese government’s reaction is adequate. But you can also question whether the UN member states have met their obligations under the international responsibility to protect.” – guardian.co.uk