The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been terrorizing south-east Central African Republic for years, forcing thousands to seek refuge in towns like Obo. But since the deployment here last October of US special forces, locals have begun hoping things will change and that LRA leader Joseph Kony will finally be captured.
During a recent visit to Haut-Mbomou prefecture, I travelled hundreds of kilometres with a military escort and was able to see some of the terror and destruction wreaked by the LRA.
Of the 21 villages we visited, 15 were deserted after attacks by the Ugandan rebel group, which also operates in South Sudan and Democratic Republic of the Congo. The rebels had stolen people’s meagre belongings, abducted some villagers and killed others, torched homes and left a general trail of destruction. The survivors had fled to the relative safety of towns.
In the village of Nguili Nguili, 12 kilometres from Obo, the capital of Haut-Mbomou, we passed the charred ruins of dwellings and granaries alongside deserted, tumbledown homes that had been left to the elements. Only the twittering of birds and the rustle of fallen leaves broke the silence. It seemed like we were in a cemetery.
“The LRA are out there,” said Jean, a resident of Maboussou village, pointing to the bush. Maboussou has been attacked three times by the rebels, who are referred to locally as the “Tongo Tongo.” Most of the villagers have left for the towns of Zemio or Mboki, but a few with large families, like Jean and Marius, decided to stay. “We are in the village during the day and at night we sleep in the bush,” explained Marius.
The LRA presence has created desolation in an area that was once dotted with oases of human life. Travelling down the 1,300-kilometre trail that crosses the savannah from Zemio to Obo, we didn’t pass a single other vehicle or bicycle. People are simply too scared to travel freely and it was apparent why we needed an escort.
Later, at the Tanango junction, a UNHCR driver, Paul, explained: “This is one of the routes used by the LRA. This track leads to Democratic Republic of the Congo and that one goes to South Sudan.”
At the end of March, UNHCR’s chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told journalists that the LRA had in January resumed attacks in Central African Republic (CAR) after a nine-month hiatus. The attacks in the south-east had left four people dead and 31 abducted, she said, citing CAR security forces.
But while the security situation remained fragile, one exception was Obo, where the situation had improved since the US troops were sent to bolster efforts by the joint CAR-Ugandan armed forces hunting the LRA.
A day before our journey, I met two young men, Pierre and Raphael, who had recently escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army. The two were abducted during an attack on Obo during the night of March 6, 2008; both spent more than one year with the LRA before they managed to escape during an attack against the Congolese army.
“I ended up in the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] in a group led by one of Joseph Kony’s commanders. Over there, they forced me and two other young guys to club to death 15 Congolese soldiers who had been captured,” said Pierre, his face bathed in sweat. “I never thought I would be able to do such awful things,” he added.
Raphael, a nurse, ended up in the base of Kony himself and said he became the LRA leader’s personal medic. “One day I was looking after a very sick woman, who had also been abducted. Kony’s fighters came and took me to him and he decided that I would be his personal physician,” he recalled.
“I learnt acholi, a Ugandan language, and I often visited other LRA bases to look after the sick. We were attacking villages to stock up on provisions and to abduct more people to grow crops of maize, peanut and sweet potato for us. The women became sex slaves, » Raphael said.
Pierre and Raphael are two of more than 400 people who have escaped or been rescued from LRA captivity in the south-east of Central African Republic since 2009.The others all have harrowing stories.
Today, the people of the south-east have almost become hostages in their own villages. They can’t move safely beyond a five-kilometre radius of their homes. Only in and around Obo do people have more freedom of movement. Patrols by the CAR and Ugandan force supported by the US military advisers have enabled local authorities to ensure security within a 25-kilometre radius.
The insecurity means that people cannot conduct their normal lives of farming, hunting, fishing and trade, making them extremely vulnerable. But they all have something in common – the hope that Joseph Kony will be arrested.
By Djerassem Mbaiorem in Obo, Central African Republic (UNHCR)