The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, recently released a regional update on the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, in the Central African Republic, or CAR, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. The LRA remains a significant threat in both CAR and Congo, and while new attacks haven’t been reported in South Sudan, the refugee situation remains dire.
The report indicates that the situation in these countries has grown worse since the start of the year. In total, between January and June 2012, 128 presumed LRA attacks have been reported in both Congo and CAR, and the numbers appear to be on the rise. There were 75 attacks in the second quarter of the year, an increase from the first quarter, which had seen 53 attacks. Furthermore, the remoteness of many of the areas where the LRA operates means that some LRA activity may not be reported.
OCHA reports that the number of abductions—the majority of which are taking place in Congo—seems to be rising as well. The region-wide number of LRA-related abductions rose from 90 in the first quarter of 2012 to 127 in the second quarter. Approximately 40 percent of those abductions targeted children. According to a new report by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the rebel group has abducted close to 600 children between July 2009 and February 2012, almost half of them girls.
Additionally, those who have been abducted by the LRA continue to face many challenges even if they manage to escape and return home. Florence Ayot’s story is a common one among former LRA abductees. Florence is a Ugandan woman who escaped from the LRA in 2005 after more than 15 years of captivity. Her community has ostracized her for having been forced to marry an LRA commander and bear his children. She spoke to OCHA’s news service IRIN about her struggles since escaping:
The relatives of my parents don't want my children. They say the children are of a top LRA commander who killed their people. The relatives of my husband have also abandoned me. They don't give me any assistance yet they know that I am stranded with the children. We are always stigmatized by the community. My children are always reminded that their father is a notorious rebel commander who killed people and that they were born in captivity.
The continuing threat of LRA attacks and abductions has kept the level of displaced people in the region high. In total, it is estimated that there are more than 447,000 internally displaced persons, or IDPs, and refugees in LRA-affected areas as of June 30.
With 95 attacks, 12 deaths, and 83 abductions from January to June 2012, Congo reported the highest number of LRA-related incidents among the three affected countries. Once again, LRA attacks appear to be rising. The number of these attacks has nearly doubled, increasing from 33 recorded in the first quarter of the year to 62 in the second quarter. OCHA points out that these LRA attacks most frequently take the form of raids to loot food supplies and abduct civilians, often just for a short while to carry the rebels’ plunder. According to the U.N., these raids have jeopardized the humanitarian access and supply of other goods to several areas within Congo.
The increase in attacks has also caused a spike in displacement. An estimated 5,810 or more people in Congo have been displaced since the first quarter of the year, bringing the total number of IDPs to 346,794 as of June 30. Many of those who have been displaced remain hesitant about returning home due to the ongoing instability. Marie*, a 36 year-old woman who fled her village during a midnight LRA raid, told the U.N. refugee agency, “I don’t want to return. If the rebels come again, I will be forced to leave again.” In addition to its own displaced citizens, Congo continues to host 910 LRA-related refugees from CAR and 2,504 LRA-induced refugees from South Sudan.
In CAR, unlike in Congo, the second quarter of 2012 has seen a decrease in LRA-related conflict, but the country has seen an overall rise in violence compared to last year. OCHA reported there were 33 attacks by the LRA during the first half of 2012, surpassing the 24 attacks that took place in all of 2011. The LRA continues to be active in the areas of Bakouma, Zémio, Rafaï, Mboki, and Bambouti where the insecurity is having a devastating impact on local communities.
“It is very difficult for us to cultivate our farms, and now people are suffering from hunger,” a local leader in Ngouyo told Human Rights Watch. “Since the attacks started, we only go to our farms in groups and only to the farms within five kilometers of the village center. But since the recent attacks in the area, no one has left the village to go to their farms for the past two weeks.” The number of LRA-induced IDPs remains high at 20,269, and CAR continues to host 6,034 LRA-related refugees from Congo.
In South Sudan, the situation remains complicated. There have been no LRA attacks reported in 2012, and an improvement in the security situation in late 2011 and 2012 has allowed about 20,000 people from Yambio, Nzara, Ezo, Mundri, and Maridi to return home. Despite this good news, the LRA situation in South Sudan is far from resolved. OCHA reported 50,000 people remain displaced due to LRA-related conflict in recent years and still require humanitarian assistance. In addition, South Sudan continues to host 18,037 Congolese refugees and 1,143 CAR refugees displaced by LRA violence.
Overall, the situation in these three countries remains dire, and in many areas of the region the conflict has grown worse. As it currently stands the force put in place to oppose the LRA is not adequately funded, supplied, or trained to successfully accomplish its mission—crucial among its aims: protecting civilians. Among the humanitarian objectives U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should push during her visit to Kampala this week: more Ugandan troops and resources are needed to protect civilians in remote areas of central Africa where they fall prey to the LRA. In addition, the United States should provide additional logistical and intelligence capabilities, including helicopters, and help broker a deal between regional governments to allow Ugandan soldiers to access all LRA safe havens, particularly in Congo and parts of CAR where civilian populations are especially vulnerable.
Photo: Congolese refugees displaced by the LRA living in a camp in South Sudan (Enough / Laura Heaton)