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War Against LRA Looms in Congo

Government troops look set to take on Ugandan rebels who terrorise and plunder Congolese villagers.
By Peter Eichstaedt
On the morning of Good Friday, March 21, third-grade schoolteacher Raymond Rpiolebeyo rode his bicycle down the dirt track leading to his home village of Gurba, expecting to spend the Easter weekend with his family and friends.

But his trip was cut short when a group of heavily-armed rebels emerged from the jungle, ordered him off his bicycle and took him captive.

The fighters were members of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, the Ugandan rebel group that for the past two-and-a-half years has occupied remote areas in and around the Garamba National Park in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC.

After two years of relative quiet, and as peace talks with Uganda continued in Juba, South Sudan, the LRA went on the rampage in the remote region where the park is located, with a campaign of looting, abduction and killing.

In a major extended raid, rebel forces left the Garamba park at the beginning of February and crossed first into South Sudan and then into the neighbouring Central African Republic, where the rebels kidnapped more than 100 people and pillaged the town of Obo before returning to their base camp in DRC.

Along the way, the group used captured civilians to act as porters for looted goods. Some of the captives were then pressed into service, forced to undergo military training to boost the ranks of a group that has survived over many years by abducting and forcibly conscripting civilians including children.

Recent reports suggest the situation is about to intensify. United Nations sources say units of the DRC army could begin arriving by the end of June in Dungu, the area’s main town, located less than 100 kilometres from the Garamba park. Their mission would be to keep the LRA forces in check, if not drive them out of the park altogether.

Such a move could, however, herald a protracted war against the LRA, which currently numbers about 700 seasoned guerrilla fighters with a cult-like devotion to their leader Joseph Kony, making them one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most feared militias.

Rpiolebeyo was captured while the group was on its way back from Obo and was raiding the DRC town of Doruma, a scattered collection of mud and thatch huts.

He made it to his village that day, but on foot and in captivity. When he left, he was forced to carry a heavy bundle of goods that the guerrillas had looted from his neighbours.

The group walked eight days through the jungle to its base in the Garamba park. Rpiolebeyo said the nights were especially miserable because he and other abducted civilians were drenched in their own sweat from being made to sleep under plastic sheeting secured by bundles of stolen goods.

“Along the road, I looked for an opportunity to escape. I was really angry at them,” he said of the rebels. “I was afraid of dying. They told us that if anyone tries to escape, they would shoot them.”

Once at the LRA camp, he was always accompanied by rebel fighters, so there was little chance of getting away. But on the trek to get there, he had made friends with a man named Moise, who had been kidnapped from CAR and was just as keen to escape. The two men hatched a plan to make a run for it in the dead of night when everyone else was fast asleep.

A few nights later, Rpiolebeyo lay quietly amidst the sleeping guerrillas, with his rubber sandals placed by his head as a signal to Moise. Carefully stepping over the rebels, the two made their escape and walked for two days until they arrived in Duru, one of the towns closest to the rebel base.

Rpiolebeyo was one of the lucky few to escape from the LRA, whose semi-permanent base is accessible only on foot.

Despite the difficulty of negotiating the thick forest in the national park, the DRC military is now making plans to dislodge Kony from his hideout, following his refusal this May to sign a peace deal with Uganda that had been two years in the making. The deal would have ended more than 20 years of warfare in northern Uganda that has claimed 100,000 lives and displaced nearly two million.

Rather than make peace, Kony appears to be remaking his army by abducting people from around the region, training the men as combatants and forcing young women to become sex slaves and cooks for commanders and fighters.

Among those kidnapped from Doruma on Good Friday was 13-year-old girl Jeanne Mbolikino. She had been left with her uncle, Jean-Pierre Mbikoyo, so that she could go to school in Doruma, one of the few places in the region to offer educational facilities.

Earlier that day, Jean-Pierre and his wife had left home to attend church in a nearby community, telling their own children and Jeanne to follow soon after.

But Jeanne never arrived. As she and her cousins crossed a field, they were stopped by the LRA and Jeanne was abducted as her cousins fled.

Mbikoyo and his wife learned of the kidnapping later that day.

“I’m really angry,” said Mbikoyo. “I’m suffering a lot. I was responsible for her. If I could, I would bring her back, but I have no power.”

Mbikoyo met Rpiolebeyo, the kidnapped teacher, who had seen Jeanne at the LRA camp and told him that she was all right. But that has provided little comfort.

“I put her in my prayers every day that she will be released,” he said.

The raid into CAR attracted some publicity, but the LRA was attacking villages in DRC well before that.

The beleaguered town of Duru has suffered a number of attacks since the end of last year. Sister Seraphine, a nun who has worked as a teacher here for two years, recalled the first attack on December 15, 2007.

Interviewed by IWPR at her convent in Dungu, she said six LRA six soldiers entered the church’s living quarters at eight in the evening, demanding water, food and money. Chaos erupted, as someone rang the alarm on the church bell and people fled.

“They went from room to room,” she said. They took anything of value, including nearly 12,000 US dollars in cash that Sister Seraphine had collected over the previous year to pay for repairs and supplies for the local hospital.

The LRA fighters eventually left, taking away everything they could carry including all the hospital’s medical supplies. Before they went, they delivered a message, telling Sister Seraphine that they had come in retaliation for the presence of United Nations troops from the MONUC peacekeeping force in Dungu, where work had begun on an airstrip capable of landing large cargo planes and troop carriers.

“We are coming here for revenge because of the presence of MONUC,” she recalled the LRA fighters saying, “They took our officers” – an apparent reference to the many defectors from the LRA who have sought protection with the UN forces.

That first raid and subsequent attacks on Duru have left local residents shaken.

“People no longer go to their fields and no longer work,” said Sister Seraphine. “When the LRA comes, they all run.”

All this is nothing new to Father Benoit Kinalegu, head of the Dungu Peace and Justice Commission, which has been documenting abuses committed by the LRA in Ituri region.

He said the guerrillas were having a far greater impact on life in and around the national park than those involved with the LRA peace talks are willing to admit.

Father Kinalegu said at least 400 families have disappeared from the park, and at least one village has been abandoned, its residents having either fled or been killed. Some 20,000 people have been displaced from areas adjacent to the park.

In late May rebels entered the small town of Kapili, just 45 km from Dungu, and forced people out of their homes at gunpoint. Then they moved in and started cooking food for themselves.

Displaced residents gathered machetes – the only weapons they had – and made plans to attack the rebels. They were talked out of it by the village leader, who convinced them it would be foolish to face the rebels and their guns.

The rebels left Kapili two days later.

Father Kinalegu suspects the LRA rebels may have settled into the park permanently. One sign of this is that they left Kapili carrying hoes and bags of seed, an indication that they will be growing crops this season, not an activity one would expect from a mobile guerrilla force.

“I think [Kony] is creating a mercenary force that can be used against any [regional] government,” said Father Kinalegu, expressing a suspicion that is shared by a number of analysts. (See LRA Prepares for War, not Peace, AR No. 168, 24-Apr-08.)

Father Kinalegu noted that this part of DRC is so remote that it is undefended by the army or police. Locals have not forgotten the time in 1998 when guerrillas of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army crossed the border, occupied parts of northeast DRC and terrorised civilians.

“People are really afraid,” he said.

According to Kinalegu, the presence of MONUC forces in the region offers some comfort, but he noted that the UN forces have not taken an aggressive stand against the LRA.

If the DRC army confronts the rebels as it is now expected to do, that will create new worries.

"We expect the army to chase the rebels,” he said. But with a force of at least 1,000 soldiers about to descend on Dungu, whose population is about 12,000, “we’re afraid because of bad [past] experiences with the army”, he added.

The community may be willing to put up with some of the abuses for which the Congolese army has become notorious as long as it can get rid of the rebels.

“Local people want to see Kony out of the DRC,” said Kinalegu. “We don’t care what means are used.”

At the same time, he is alarmed at the prospect of war, especially one against Ugandan rebels in which local Congolese civilians are not involved and do not understand

“We are a victims of a war of which we do not know the origin,” he said.

For teacher Rpiolebeyo, the idea of a war involving the LRA is especially frightening, given the rebels’ reputation for vicious retribution against anyone who defies them.

“I’m scared because we were followed,” he said of his flight from the rebel camp. “The rebels know where I am.”

Peter Eichstaedt is Africa Editor for IWPR.

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