By Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch
Victims of atrocities by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have sent emotional personal pleas to US President Barack Obama, calling for urgent action to end attacks by the rebel group, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch conducted five research missions to northern Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic between May and September 2010, in areas where few outsiders have traveled. Researchers spoke with hundreds of victims, took their testimony, and recorded their messages to Obama and other world leaders. Based on an analysis of this and other information gathered in the region, Human Rights Watch called for a comprehensive international strategy that places at its core the protection of civilians.
Human Rights Watch on November 11, 2010, posted dozens of the video postcards, testimonies, and letters from adults and children in the region, appealing to Obama and other world leaders to help end the suffering inflicted by the LRA.
"Even in the crush of politics at home, President Obama and other world leaders should respond to the desperate cries of the LRA's victims," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "His leadership is urgently needed to work with governments in Europe and Africa to protect civilians and arrest the war criminals responsible for the attacks."
The LRA, an especially brutal rebel group that has caused havoc in the central African region, has killed at least 2,385 civilians and abducted over 3,054 others since September 2008, when regional peace talks collapsed, according to Human Rights Watch and United Nations documentation. With the LRA attacking villages in remote areas with limited communications, roads, and other infrastructure, the actual number of victims is probably far higher.
One community leader was forced to flee his home in Digba village, northern Congo, after the LRA attacked. He told Human Rights Watch: "There are many dead. The LRA abducted our people, whipped them, tied them up, killed them, and burned our homes. We have truly suffered a lot because of the LRA."
In May, Obama signed legislation requiring the US government to develop within 180 days a comprehensive, multilateral strategy to protect civilians in central Africa from LRA attacks and to take steps to stop the rebel group's violence. Under the law, the new strategy is due by November 24.
The LRA was pushed out of northern Uganda in 2005 after fighting the government for nearly two decades. The rebel group now operates in the remote border regions of northern Congo, the Central African Republic, and Southern Sudan.
Many of the LRA victims were beaten to death, or their skulls were crushed with heavy wooden sticks, Human Rights Watch said. LRA combatants tied others to trees, then sliced their heads with machetes. The LRA forces abducted children to kill family members and neighbors who try to escape, are tired or weak, or whom the LRA decides it does not need.
In an attack in Duru, northern Congo, on August 28, five LRA combatants abducted eight civilians less than a kilometer from a UN peacekeeping base, and that night brutally killed three of the young men taken with knives. A woman and 16-year-old girl released the next morning told Human Rights Watch that the LRA gave them a message for the Congolese army: "We are nearby, and we will be back soon."
The LRA is estimated to have between 200 to 400 armed combatants, plus hundreds of abductees. It has no coherent political objectives and no popular support. It is able to replenish its ranks only by abducting children, and sometimes adults, who are exposed to immense brutality and forced to fight. Three of the LRA's leaders -- Joseph Kony, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen -- are sought by the International Criminal Court (ICC) under arrest warrants issued in July 2005 for war crimes committed in northern Uganda. All three remain at large and have been implicated in new atrocities.
Ongoing military operations against the LRA, led by the Ugandan army alongside national armies from the region and supported by the US government, have failed to capture the LRA's top leaders or end LRA attacks on civilians. The Uganda army and their allies appear to lack the capability, will, or expertise to apprehend the LRA's top leaders, even though they have come in close proximity to some senior commanders on several occasions in the past year.
In an earlier letter to Obama, Human Rights Watch urged the US government to use its diplomatic clout to bring together like-minded world leaders who can commit political will, resources, intelligence, and assistance for specialized units capable of arresting the LRA's top leaders wanted for war crimes and rescuing abductees, while at the same time significantly enhancing UN, regional, and local capacities to protect communities at risk of attack.
"The LRA's top leaders can be found, but the current strategy of supporting Ugandan army operations is clearly not working," Van Woudenberg said. "A new approach is needed to protect civilians and to bring together improved intelligence and capable units to apprehend the LRA's top leaders. Otherwise, the LRA's grave threat to civilians will continue."
Human Rights Watch has also called on the UN Security Council to step up its efforts and advance capabilities such as rapid response to protect civilians in areas affected by the LRA's violence. While three peacekeeping missions are in the affected areas, they lack a cross-border mandate that would allow them to address the full scope of the LRA problem, and they are not focused on addressing LRA violence.
The UN peacekeeping force in Congo, MONUSCO, is the largest in the region, with nearly 18,000 troops, but only 850 UN peacekeeping troops are in the LRA-affected areas. No peacekeepers are based in Bas Uele district, on the border with CAR, despite repeated LRA attacks and abductions in the area over the past 20 months. The UN has no peacekeepers in LRA-affected areas in CAR, and only a handful of UN humanitarian staff. The United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) is present in Western Equatoria but has also proven ineffective at protecting civilians from LRA attacks.
"The UN's response to attacks on civilians and its assistance to those in need has been woefully inadequate, so at the very least the UN needs to deploy more of its existing forces to LRA-affected areas," Van Woudenberg said. "The UN Security Council should urgently discuss this regional threat and commit further action and resources to protect civilians at risk from the LRA."
Based on recent reports, the LRA's leader, Joseph Kony, may have moved to the border region between the Central African Republic and South Darfur, an area controlled by Sudan's Khartoum government. In the past, Sudan provided important military support to the LRA.
Human Rights Watch called on the Sudanese government to ensure no support of any kind is provided to the LRA, and urged the US government and other world leaders to pressure the Sudanese government to ensure that the LRA does not find refuge in Darfur. Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir is also wanted by the ICC for crimes against humanity in Darfur.