A new Human Rights Watch report has given details of a large scale massacre of civilians in north-eastern Congo by the Ugandan rebel group the Lords Resistance Army in December last year. In a well-planned operation, the LRA killed more than 321 civilians and abducted more than 250 others, including at least 80 children in northeastern DRC near the border with Sudan. The attack was one of the largest single massacres in the LRA’s 23-year history and witnesses said for days afterwards the remote area was filled with the “stench of death.” (photo © 2009 Reuters)
The horrific nature of the attack is outlined in HRW 67-page report “Trail of Death: LRA atrocities in Northeastern Congo” (pdf version).It was one of a series of assaults in the Haut-Uele and Makombo regions of DRC late last year during a vicious four-day operation to abduct child soldiers for their operations. In each town they arrived in, the LRA pretended to be Congolese and Ugandan army soldiers on patrol, and spoke in broken Lingala (the common language of northern Congo) to reassure locals. Then they tied them up with ropes or metal wire at the waist, often in human chains of five to 15 people and dragged them away. The victims included many children aged 10 to 15 years old who were made to carry pillaged goods. Anyone who refused, or who walked too slowly, or who tried to escape was killed. Hundreds were hacked to death with machetes or had their skulls crushed with axes and heavy wooden sticks.
Both the Congolese and Ugandan governments had previously claimed the LRA was no longer a threat to the DRC. HRW says embarrassment over these claims contributed to the lack of news of the massacre reaching the outside world. A DRC army investigation unit arrived in the area a week later and concluded the LRA had carried out the attacks but no further action was taken. Ugandan soldiers attempted to pursue the assailants but without success.
It wasn’t until the end of December that news filtered through to MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. Though it regarded the LRA as the enemy, MONUC did not have the resources to investigate. Its priorities were to defend the district capital Dungu from LRA attack, and attend to the long-running crisis in Kivu. However after a HRW briefing in March, MONUC sent a team of human-rights specialists to the area to investigate.
The attack was coordinated by General Dominic Ongwen, commander of LRA forces in northeastern Congo. Ongwen is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes committed in Uganda and he divvied up the abductees among the LRA commanders and separated into multiple smaller groups, each heading in a different direction. HRW has now called on the ICC and the DRC to investigate Ongwen and his two most senior commanders for their role in the massacre.
It will be a task easier to ask than answer. Originally restricted to Uganda, the LRA has now evolved into a regional power causing deadly mayhem in Uganda, southern Sudan, CAR, and Congo. They were pushed out of Uganda in 2005 and now operate in the remote border areas between southern Sudan, Congo and CAR. Despite continual attacks from multiple directions, including the 2008 US-logistics backed Operation Lightning Thunder, the LRA has proven remarkably resilient and able to regroup to continue their attacks against and abductions of civilians. In retaliation for Operation Lightning Thunder the LRA attacked numerous Congolese villages around the end of 2008 killing almost a thousand civilians and abducting hundreds more.
HRW says one hope of defeating the LRA comes from the US government. On 24 February, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Senate told the Foreign Relations Committee “I have been following the Lord’s Resistance Army for more than 15 years. I just don’t understand why we cannot end this scourge. And we [the US government] are going to do everything we can to provide support we believe will enable us to do that.” Three weeks ago the Senate unanimously passed the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. The bill is now before the US House of Representatives and if enacted into law requires the Obama administration to develop a regional strategy to stop LRA attacks, LRA, work to apprehend their leadership, and support economic recovery for northern Uganda.
HRW says the people of northeastern Congo and other LRA-affected areas across the central African region have suffered for far too long. “They are waiting for strong, effective action to end the LRA’s atrocities,” said the report. “[And also] to see the safe return of their children and other loved ones who remain with the LRA, and to let them know they are not forgotten.”