MAKPANDU, Western Equatoria, Southern Sudan — As she spoke softly in her native Zande language, Monique*, an 18-year-old Congolese refugee and orphan living in Makpandu refugee camp in southern Sudan, kept picking at her skirt as if trying to brush off some unseen dirt or thread. During our half-hour interview under the shade of a straw-roofed structure at the camp, Monique did not make eye contact with me, my colleague, or our translator, staring into the distance behind us or over her own shoulder as she described the time she spent as a captive of the Lord’s Resistance Army or LRA.
“When I was abducted, I wasn’t married,” she said without emotion. “But the tonton [LRA] made me take a soldier as my husband.”
Five months later, Monique escaped during the commotion caused by a clash between the LRA and the southern Sudanese army. Now she is one of more than 2,700 refugees living in Makpandu camp in Western Equatoria state near the border of Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Unlike many areas in southern Sudan, the verdant state of Western Equatoria enjoyed relative peace and stability following the 2005 signing of Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement. But in the past year, Western Equatoria has suffered from the insidious and brutal presence of the LRA.
In 2009, tens of thousands of Sudanese in Western Equatoria were displaced and hundreds more abducted or killed by the LRA. Meanwhile, the U.N. mission in Congo estimates that over 200,000 people in northeastern Congo were displaced from late-2008 to last June, many of whom fled across the border into Sudan to escape violent reprisal attacks by the LRA following a failed U.S.-backed military offensive against them in Garamba National Park.
Now living in two large refugee camps, in the towns of Makpandu and Ezo, refugees from Congo like Monique and others from the Central African Republic are stuck—afraid to go home due to the continued threat of the LRA but generally unhappy to be forced to live dependent on the U.N. refugee agency and international NGOs providing services in the camps.
In Makpandu camp, most people are from the Zande ethnic group; like the Zande of southern Sudan, the Congolese Zande are farmers who grew their own food and supported themselves back home in northeastern Congo before the LRA terrorized their communities and forced them to flee to Sudan. The refugees we interviewed desperately wanted to go home, but many of them faced similar predicaments as Monique: amid fractured families and uncertainties about the situation in their home villages, people in Makpandu say they have a hard time imagining their futures.
Monique said she is hopeful that her mother and siblings are still at their home in the village of Kiriwo, but she hasn’t had any contact with them. At Makpandu, Monique is classified as an orphan because there was no one she knew who could take her in.
The refugees in limbo in Makpandu are a testament to the fact that the continued tragedy of more than two decades of terror throughout central Africa rendered by the LRA will not end until the group is dismantled from the top down. The shadow of LRA leader Joseph Kony is felt today in refugee camps in Western Equatoria, in villages in northern Uganda, in Congo’s Garamba National Park, and increasingly in Central African Republic and further north in Sudan where the LRA is on the march. The sun will not shine again in these places until the shadow of Kony is eliminated.
Please see this post to hear the story of Mama Francoise, another woman we interviewed for this series about Makpandu refugee camp.
*Name has been changed.