Many of the stories Enough's field researchers hear while immersed in their work in some of the world's worst conflict zones don't make it into our policy reports, press releases and Congressional testimony. Indeed, as each field researcher can attest, some of the most compelling stories and interactions come at the most unexpected times. We created Enough's Field Dispatch series to capture just that type of story -- one that may not fit in directly with a policy paper but offers real illumination and insights into the situation on the ground.
Enough's Ledio Cakaj filed this new field dispatch from northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a region terrorized by a marauding band of fighters known as the Lord's Resistance Army.
HAUT UELE DISTRICT, Province Orientale, Democratic Republic of Congo --
In a trip to Province Orientale of northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in early December 2009, Enough researchers found abundant evidence of brutal ongoing violence committed by the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA. Despite claims from Congolese and Ugandan state officials that the LRA is on its last legs, attacks against Congolese civilians perpetrated by the rebel group remain frequent. The LRA is far from finished. While there are disputes about whether the Ugandan rebels have been weakened by recent offensives against them or not, it is clear that they remain incredibly dangerous and ruthless. There are also lingering concerns and suspicions that the LRA may once again be receiving direct support from the ruling party in Sudan. This is the first of two dispatches based upon my visit to Haut Uele.
Brutalities in Haut Uele reminiscent of LRA of old
There is a long history of LRA violence in Congo. Attacks, however, reached a peak after Operation Lightning Thunder of December 2008, when the Ugandan army, in collaboration with the Congolese army and with U.S. support, attacked LRA bases in the Congolese Garamba National Park. The operation had the effect of scattering the LRA forces which in turn unleashed a series of coordinated attacks against the Congolese population. In a period of three weeks, close to 1,000 people were brutally murdered. About 200 were abducted, many of whom have not yet returned. Attacks continued throughout 2009, bringing the total number of LRA-caused deaths to 1,500. An estimated 3,000 people were abducted in the year; about 700 of those abducted were children.
According to internal UN reports, the LRA was responsible for an average of 30 killings per month in the Haut Uele region of Province Orientale during 2009, with those numbers increasing sharply around November and December. On Nov. 26, an attack near the village of Ngilima left 10 dead. Eight people from the same family were burned alive while two others were killed by machete blows. In Bangadi, four people were killed on Dec. 2, two of them badly mutilated. In Tapili, 15 people were believed to be killed on Dec. 14, although the real number might be twice as high, as bodies are still being found in the bush. In a couple of attacks on Dec. 19 and 21, two people were killed in Ngilima and two women were severely mutilated. A great number of abductions also occurred with each attack. A priest from the area estimates that the number of the abductees in the Tapili attack totaled more than 300. Notably, there were at least four cases in December in which victims' lips and ears were cut--a practice rarely seen since the heyday of the LRA's strength.
These recent attacks are especially shocking in their brutality. No longer focused on just stealing food to survive, LRA forces in Congo appear to be attacking in order to terrorize the population and perhaps to send a message to the Congolese authorities who claim the LRA is finished. These ulterior goals may explain why the LRA has returned to using vile practices such as severe mutilation
Testimony from survivors of LRA violence
Testimony from survivors of LRA violence in northeast Congo describes this resurgence of brutality. One survivor of the Nov. 26, 2009, massacre described above recounted the LRA attack on his family:
We were eating dinner outside of our hut when seven LRA rebels appeared and told us in broken Lingala [one of the local languages] to get inside of our hut. They looted our food, locked us inside our hut and burned it. There were 10 of us, my whole family inside the hut. When I realized they were burning us alive I started to push against the door, forcing it open. One rebel standing outside of the door tried to hit me with a heavy club but I dodged it and ran in the bush. They shot after me but missed. Apparently they shot or hit everyone else in my family who tried to come out. Except for one other person, everyone else was burned alive.
A man, whose lips and ears were cut by LRA rebels on the night of Dec. 2, 2009, in Bangadi, spoke with difficulty and was still in shock. He said that his arms were tied tightly around his body, as one of the LRA rebels kept him pinned on the ground while another proceeded to cut his lips and ears. He said that they did this in total silence, kicking him while mutilating him.
Read Part II.
John Norris is Executive Director of Enough, the anti-genocide project at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. Ledio Cakaj is an Enough field researcher based in Kampala, Uganda.