It happened three years ago, but Anna* remembers it vividly. “They attacked our village on a Wednesday,” she says. It was the school holidays and Anna, then 19, was visiting her parents in Gbado village in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
There were rumours that Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), was in the area, and villagers slept in the bush at night to avoid attack. Anna was walking back to Gbado with her younger sister that morning when they were abducted by LRA fighters.
“They gave me there on the spot as a wife to one of the commanders,” she says, adding that she does not know her sister’s fate. Looking younger than her age, Anna’s face reveals little of the atrocities she experienced.
But she does not have to explain the obvious. For more than two years she carried luggage, cooked and was sent to loot villages as the LRA travelled north along the porous border with South Sudan and into the Central African Republic.
She says she met the notorious LRA leader, Joseph Kony. “He is like any human being but he has magic powers, juju. When people are planning an attack on the LRA, he already knows it,” she says of the man’s rumoured powers.
Eventually the Ugandan armed forces caught up with them. “I was in position,” she recalls, referring to the system of lookouts for those who are sleeping or looting villages. The army attacked at around five in the afternoon, Anna says, adding: “I escaped into the bush with two younger children.”
The three of them followed the trail of the Ugandan troops, walking until they came to a river they could not cross. For five months they waited for the water to subside, living on wild yams and river water. They were inseparable, dependent on each other for survival. When they finally crossed the river they met some Ambororo nomads, and were handed over first to the Ugandan armed forces, then to the UN refugee agency in South Sudan.
In South Sudan, UNHCR regularly receives new groups of refugees fleeing LRA attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR). Western and Central Equatoria states together now host more than 22,000 refugees from these two neighbouring countries, including more than 700 new arrivals this year. The rebel group also conducts hit-and-run attacks inside South Sudan.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), last year such attacks killed 18 people, wounded nine, and resulted in 49 abductions and 7,382 people being internally displaced in areas adjacent to the borders with DRC and CAR.
“LRA-induced displacements are usually protracted in nature,” said Jose Rodriguez, who heads UNHCR’s operations in Yambio. “Survivors are often traumatized and fearful of returning. They flee with few or no belongings, for periods running into several years. The upheaval among families and communities is debilitating.”
UNHCR works with the local authorities, other UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to assist people who escape or are rescued from the LRA. Where child survivors are concerned, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Ministry of Social Welfare focus on South Sudanese nationals, while UNHCR deals with refugees from the DRC and the Central African Republic.
For each child, protection agencies consult to determine the best solution in the interest of the child. In most cases, this means returning them to their families. In some cases, they are not able to go home immediately due to trauma or continuing insecurity back home.
The two children who travelled with Anna were reunited with their families. Now 22 and wearing a white plastic cross around her neck, she hopes her turn will come soon. “I want to go back to school and finish my studies,” she says. Of the feared LRA leader, she adds hopefully, “His powers do not match the power of god. One day his powers will cease and he will be captured.”
*Name changed for protection reasons
By Sara Lindvall, in Yambio, South Sudan (unhcr)