Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

LRA Accused of Selling Food Aid

ICC prosecutor says the rebels are using the money they make to rearm.
By Katy Glassborow
The International Criminal Court, ICC, prosecutor has expressed concern that food aid supplied to the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, is being sold by them so that they can rearm if current peace talks fail.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo told IWPR that “states need to keep in mind not to advantage those who are indicted by the court,” adding that “we have information that the LRA was selling these supplies to make money”.

The LRA is notorious for plundering towns and villages for food, resources and children, who are coerced into fighting for the rebels, with girls also forced to become sex slaves for commanders.

Under the terms of the 2006 cessation of hostilities agreement signed with the Ugandan government, and brokered by the autonomous Government of South Sudan, GoSS, the LRA is given food on condition they assemble in Garamba National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

International relief agency Caritas has been tasked by the GoSS to provide food aid - funded by Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland - while peace talks between LRA representatives and the Ugandan government are ongoing.

The talks in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, are aimed at ending a 21-year conflict in northern Uganda which has displaced several million people, resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, and left many civilians disfigured.

The negotiations are paid for through the Juba Initiative Fund and overseen by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, which disperses funds approved by the GoSS.

Food aid is not covered by the fund because under UN rules, resources cannot be distributed to groups still under arms. While the LRA are supposed to have disarmed as part of the agreement, this has not happened yet.

ICC prosecution investigators have been in northern Uganda and the DRC since mid-2004, when Moreno-Ocampo launched investigations into violence in both countries.

In July 2005, arrest warrants were issued for LRA leaders Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo, Dominic Ongwen and Raska Lukwiya for murder, attacks against civilians, abducting children and enlisting them to fight, sexual enslavement, pillaging and rape.

Lukwiya died in a gun battle with Ugandan soldiers last year. None of the others has been arrested.

The rebels are now based in Garamba National Park in the northeast of DRC where they have assembled during the peace talks.

Every month, Caritas drives eight trucks of food from Kampala to Ri-Kwangba in south Sudan, from where it is taken by LRA representatives to the camp at Garamba.

A Caritas accountant told IWPR that each consignment contains several thousand kilogrammes of food, including flour, rice, beans, oil, coffee and milk. The journey takes a week, and once the food is in Ri-Kwangba, mediators from the Juba talks fly in to oversee the transfer.

“This food is monitored right from Kampala until it arrives in the assembly area,” he said.

Mediators from the Juba peace talks then verify the items, and LRA representatives acknowledge receipt of the food.

“Sometimes they complain that it is not enough,” added the accountant.

It is unclear how many rebels are stationed at the base and what proportion of them are captives.

While Caritas initially supplied the rebels with sufficient food for 5,000 people, the last delivery was cut to sufficient supplies for 3,000 after it was deemed that the figure given by the LRA was an exaggeration.

“It is hard to determine the size of the force because it is easy for the LRA to disperse and then re-gather,” said Peter Eichstaedt, a journalist who has worked extensively in Uganda and has written a book on the LRA.

He believes Kony's force is from 500 to 1,000 fighters and accompanied by several thousand women and children.

Moreno-Ocampo insists there are far fewer that 3,000 rebels in Garamba National Park.

He is asking countries that support the ICC to monitor “with utmost vigilance” any diversion of aid which benefits the wanted LRA commanders – and warned that “any assistance that can help them abscond from the court would be unlawful”.

During the conflict, several previous peace negotiations have failed, leaving observers suspecting that Kony used the pause to rearm for a return to war.

Moreno-Ocampo told IWPR that while certain NGOs have good intentions, "many times Kony has used negotiations to reorganise, regroup and rearm. This time I know he is collecting money, and is much more powerful than one year ago”.

Pierre Cibambo from Caritas told IWPR that his organisation is simply providing people with humanitarian aid to survive.

“It is very disappointing to be blamed for what we are trying to do in good faith, and according to our humanitarian principles,” he said.

However, Cibambo acknowledged that it was “a very sensitive issue” and said he was not necessarily advocating that the supply of food should continue.

He added that his organisation has been monitoring the situation and if it seems that feeding the LRA is not helping, “we would ask for resources to be given to those who really need them”.

Stig Barlyng, the Danish ambassador in Uganda, told IWPR that Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland have agreed to finance the GoSS to help fulfil its obligation to feed the LRA as one of the terms of the ceasefire.

He told IWPR that the four countries have investigated claims about the LRA selling off aid for a profit with representatives from the GoSS, Caritas, the Ugandan government and traditional leaders, all of whom said the claim had no foundation.

“We were told by the resident district commissioner in Gulu that he would be the first to complain, and give the message to the GoSS and countries which are providing the funding,” said Barlyng.

He said Denmark strongly supports international justice, but that the current peace process is a blessing for people who have been badly affected by the war.

“If the process requires us to momentarily put aside our strong stance on the inhumane and degrading way the LRA have behaved [by providing them with food], I am not the one to oppose this,” said Barlyng.

If the peace talks were to end, the funding would stop immediately, he added.

Kristen Knutson from OCHA in Uganda was keen to disassociate her office from the effort to feed the LRA, explaining to IWPR that “money goes directly from the state donors to Caritas”.

Some people IWPR spoke to in northern Uganda defended the provision of aid to the LRA.

John Francis Onyango, from the coalition of Ugandan NGOs which monitors the ICC, said the aid is aimed at the women and children the LRA have abducted, and explained that it would be impossible to isolate them from the indicted men.

He said that while any direct support for the top LRA leaders is not good for ending impunity, the people being held captive are “entitled to receive humanitarian assistance”.

Lawyer Komakech Henry Kilama from Gulu told IWPR that many civilians are still being held captive and other than the food aid have no means of survival.

He said that people in the north support whatever it takes to ensure peace returns.

Kilama suggested that it is better to give aid while the peace talks are ongoing than have the LRA forcing child soldiers to rob villages for food, “Supplying them [with] food is a necessary evil.”

Janet Lapat from the Mother Daughter Project in Gulu - an organisation which helps young mothers who were abducted and raped by the LRA - sees feeding the LRA as a good way of letting captives know that they are welcome to come back home.

However, she said that victims of the LRA are frustrated that so much money is being “wasted in Juba”, when the rebels’ victims are struggling to make ends meet. “People are not so happy, because those whose families have been killed or deformed are not getting any help,” she said.

Funding has now dried up for her organisation - which since 2005, has helped 950 women and their 2,000 children receive an education and learn skills to make money - leaving women and children in northern Uganda without a lifeline.

“There is no support for these girls - they were relying on our resources,” Lapat told IWPR. “They trusted us, but now we can do no monitoring or follow up, we can’t do anything without money. We have left them hanging now.”

Moreno-Ocampo maintains that the only way to prevent recurring violence and provide victims with peace, security and justice is to secure the arrest of the four top LRA commanders.

“Marginalise those four, isolate them, arrest them, and you will have both peace and justice which victims are entitled to,” he said.

Katy Glassborow is an IWPR international justice reporter in The Hague.

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