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A legacy of trauma

“At 8pm, a man with an AK-47 entered our tukul (house) and ordered us to remain seated. I saw that other men had surrounded the tukul. We were scared and decided to run away. The man inside the tukul shot my brother in the back as he tried to escape. I ran into the bush. I could hear my relatives screaming as they were attacked. The next morning I came out of my hide-out and found the bodies of my relatives. My uncle had been hacked to death and my sister-in-law had been cut into pieces. My aunty was still alive but had been stabbed with a bayonet.”

Former child soldiers board a helicopter of the UN mission in the DRC for repatriation to undisclosed regions of the country - © UN Photo/Marie FrechonThis evidence was given by one of the hundreds of victims interviewed by UN human rights officers investigating the ongoing campaign of terror waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) across several countries in central Africa.

Two reports, just released, detail the atrocities committed by the LRA under the command of Joseph Kony and his senior officers in the closing months of 2008 and early part of 2009. One report focuses on attacks in southern Sudan between December 2008 and March 2009 and was prepared by Human Rights Officers working for the UN Mission in Sudan. The second report prepared by the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) focuses on LRA operations between September 2008 and June 2009 in the vast country’s remote Orientale province.

Both documents detail a consistent pattern of brutality, murder, rape, abductions of women and children, recruitment of child soldiers and massive displacement of populations. Security forces, both local and international, have been unable to offer adequate protection to the affected communities. The range of documented atrocities is so serious the reports conclude they amount to probable crimes against humanity. The report from DRC also finds probable war crimes.

These findings come on top of existing arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court against LRA leader Joseph Kony and other senior commanders, outstanding since 2005, on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The LRA started out as an armed Ugandan rebel group in the late 1980’s. 

These latest investigations are the result of renewed attacks by the LRA across a number of countries after an unsuccessful military action against them. In December 2008, after the collapse of a peace deal negotiated with the LRA the Governments of Uganda, Sudan and the DRC with technical support from the U.S. military, joined forces in an operation, code-named Operation Lightning Thunder aimed at eradicating the group’s leadership. However, the effect of the offensive according to both reports has been to splinter the LRA into several small groups which now operate in DRC, Southern Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Common to both reports is unimaginable brutality and torture of victims. The LRA use two types of weapons, a variety of bladed weapons including machetes, hoes, clubs and spears and firearms. The investigators in Southern Sudan note that often their preference is to attack people first with bladed bladed weapons, reserving the guns for those trying to escape.

The report on Southern Sudan investigated 30 incidents over three months. The LRA it says, “systematically targeted (civilians) and subjected (them) to brutal violence, without regard for age, sex or ethnicity”. The details are horrific. One witness described finding the mutilated body of a fellow villager. “The villager’s leg had been chopped off, his jaws had been dislocated and his teeth had been pulled out.” In Southern Sudan at least 81 people were confirmed killed and another 74 were abducted, many of whom are presumed dead.

The investigation in DRC establishes a death toll of at least 1,200 civilians, some of whom were women raped before being killed, the abduction of 1,400 people the majority of whom, 630, were children as well as more than 400 women.

Eighty of those killed during a series of massacres over the Christmas period in 2008 in DRC were locked in a church and murdered – ”a place of slaughter” as one witness described it. The report describes survivors unable to speak because of the severity of the injuries, shock and trauma they have suffered.

Local populations, terrorised by the constant attacks have fled, many staying within the borders of their own countries but thousands of others crossing into neighbouring states to become refugees.

In Southern Sudan at least 38,000 people have been displaced by the LRA campaign and nearly 17,000 have become refugees. The report says: “The attackers caused major loss of life and shattered communities… As well as injury and death, the attacks spread terror throughout communities, causing widespread displacement.” 

In the DRC more than 220,000 people have been displaced, most of them moving to places where there was a police or military presence. The report from the DRC however, notes that “soldiers of the Congolese armed forces, supposed to protect civilians, also committed human rights violations, including executions, rape, arbitrary arrests and detentions and illegal, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and extortion.”

Failure of the authorities in DRC to offer adequate protection to the local civilian populations has led to the emergence of local self-defence groups, a development which has caused “trafficking and the illicit proliferation of small arms and war” in the part of the eastern Congo where the LRA is operating. In Southern Sudan it’s a similar story with the investigators reporting little confidence in the security forces and affected communities also resorting to the formation of “self defence groups”.

Having found that the crimes committed by Joseph Kony and his cohorts are so serious as to constitute probable crimes against humanity and in DRC probable war crimes, both reports recommend a renewed effort to pursue the leaders of the LRA, so that their cases can be brought before the International Criminal Court. In DRC, the Congolese authorities are also urged to bring to justice members of the local military responsible for alleged human rights violations. The international community should “significantly and urgently” reinforce the peacekeeping operation (MONUC) in DRC “to enable it to more effectively fulfil its mandate to protect civilians, support security reform and the restoration of state authority”. Both reports stress that the development of self-defence groups should be discouraged.

23 December 2009