In December 2009 when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rampaged through the Makombo area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), brutal destruction trailed in their path. During attacks on at least ten different communities, the militia killed over 320 civilians and abducted hundreds more, marching them off into the dense jungles. The attacks lasted for four days, during which many were hacked to death or killed with lethal axe blows to their heads. Tellingly, in the Western media, these events were reported three months later. Although the conflict in central Africa remains one of worst conflicts in the modern era, its representation in the media is greatly disproportionate to the scale of the issue.
For over 20 years the LRA, a radical Christian sect, has been engaged in Africa’s longest running military conflict. Founded in 1987, its leader Joseph Kony sought to protect the interests of the marginalised Acholi tribe in Uganda and overthrow the government. However, the group has long lost sight of this, disseminating into a regional insurgency affecting vast areas of central Africa. Having found sanctuary in the dense forests of the DRC, the LRC has carried out raids not only in Uganda and on remote Congolese villages, but also across areas of South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
Since the LRA’s formation, its attacks have led to the displacement of almost two million civilians across central Africa and they have forcibly conscripted 30,000 child soldiers through violent indoctrination. In a highly unsettling and routine practice, abducted children as young as 10 or 11 are forced to partake in vicious attacks on remote, defenceless villages, often cutting off people’s ears, noses and lips. The children of this militia are frequently made to kill their parents or rape members of their own family, in a policy designed to make return and reintegration virtually impossible. Those who do attempt to escape are tortured and killed, usually by other children.
It is estimated that 90% of fighters in the LRA are abducted children. In this year alone, the LRA has killed 152 civilians and abducted over 530 people. While many of the abducted boys are prepared for future service as rebel fighters, abducted girls face an equally disturbing future. In addition to performing ‘female’ tasks such as cooking and cleaning, girls are also assigned to different LRA officers for sexual slavery or forced marriage. The leader of the LRA, Joseph Kony, is believed to have forcibly married over 40 women and fathered children numbering in the dozens. Refusal to conform is almost certainly fatal. In a case documented by Human Rights Watch, a 17 year old girl, having resisted an attempted rape by an LRA commander, was beaten to death by other children – including her 12 year old sister.
Earlier this month, US Special Forces set up a base in the Central African Republic to aid the Ugandan army in tracking down the LRA. There are, however, several reasons to be wary of recent developments.
Following a disjointed 2008 military campaign by Uganda, the DRC, and the Sudan, the LRA managed to endure the operation and remain a tangible threat. Indeed, not only did the operation fail to capture any senior commanders, the LRA retaliated with a series of ruthless revenge attacks on villages that covered an area 20 times larger than before. Furthermore, the military operation complicated regional political dynamics triggering the fragmentation of the group into different factions. As a guerrilla organisation that has lived off the land, the advent of smaller, self-contained units presents new challenges. Aside from making the LRA more difficult to track down, it also renders a purely military solution to the conflict unlikely.
Problematically, both the governments of Uganda and the DRC have repeatedly claimed that the LRA no longer represents a significant threat. Despite the DRC being the only country with recorded LRA attacks since October, its government has requested the removal of all Ugandan troops from its territories. The affected eastern provinces have traditionally been beyond the reach of a centralised government, and at a time when the DRC is still reeling from widely disputed elections, a weak security infrastructure is likely to leave behind a potentially dangerous and exposed power vacuum.
If the underlying causes of the conflict are ignored, the latest military manoeuvres will serve little strategic benefit. Historical problems of marginalisation that gave rise to the LRA in the first instance, combined with poor civic governance and ineffective security mechanisms across the affected countries, are issues beyond the scope of military solutions.
The head of Oxfam in the DRC, Marcel Stoessel, commented, “it is unbelievable that world leaders continue to tolerate brutal violence against some of the most isolated villages in central Africa and that this has been allowed to continue for more than 20 years.” Away from a global media that has helped to externalise particular conflicts in the public imagination, the war in central Africa continues. The region may not be deemed to have the geopolitical significance of other conflicts that have claimed substantial media presence throughout 2011. The suffering of its people however, is no less real.
Photo: Charles Okello, then 23, was cutting sugarcane outside the Patongo camp for displaced people in northern Uganda when he was attacked by LRA rebels who suspected him of being a Ugandan soldier. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times
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