THE world and Africa are given to forgetting it, but a war that could determine the future shape of the Great Lakes region has been going on in the bushes of the Central African Republic (CAR) and DR Congo (DRC) in recent years.
It pits several armies grouped under the African Union’s African Regional Task Force, against the brutal and superstition-fuelled Lords’ Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony, a rebel group that has spread terror in South Sudan, eastern DRC and parts of CAR since it was pushed out of northern Uganda nearly 10 years ago.
Kony and several of his lieutenants were indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes in 2005, and despite a concerted hunt for him that was joined by special forces American troops sent by US President Barack Obama two years, the dreadlocked “prophet” has evaded capture and death.
60,000 abducted children
The campaign, however, has had some successes, like helping abducted child soldiers. Former abductee John (not his real name) says that although his life was at risk during an attack, “it was my best chance of escaping”. The LRA had held him captive for six years and forced him to brutally murder dozens of innocent civilians as they went looting across the region.
The United Nations estimates that over 60,000 children have been kidnapped by the rebel group and forced to become fighters, sex slaves or porters. Kony claims to have spiritual powers and he and his group are responsible for displacing over 160,000 and killing over 100,000 since 1986. His aim is to overthrow the Ugandan government and rule it according to the Ten Commandments.
John grew up in Obo, in the Central African Republic. After his escape from the LRA, he came back home. He had been planning his escape for weeks, saving bullets to be able to kill his fellow fighters in case they discovered his secret plan and try to stop him. Then the Taskforce attacked the LRA and he took this opportunity to run.
The Regional Task Force is an African Union authorised mission that is solely focused on eliminating the LRA in the countries where it is or has been active: Uganda, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. Although the four countries were to send 5,000 troops in total, the Task Force is operating at half that level.
Uganda has 1,500 to 2,000 troops in the field, DRC up to 500, CAR zero, and because of South Sudan’s internal conflict their number is less than 200.
John is just one of many in Obo that was abducted. International NGO’s such as Invisible Children established centers here and in other badly affected villages where former abductees receive assistance after their horrible experiences in the jungle, that often lasted for years.
Coming home after years with the rebel group is not easy says a 14-year old girl who was abducted from her parents’ house in Obo one night: “I am happy to have left but found nothing but poverty after finally making my way back home.” Her parents died in the years she was in the jungle – where she was forced to do domestic tasks and often had to run up to 100 kilometres a day running from the Regional Task Force.
In CAR there is no police force and military troops protecting civilians. The Ugandans have stepped up and have troops in these underdeveloped parts of CAR - which also happen to resource-rich areas.
At this point 90% of the Taskforce’s fieldwork is happening in CAR. Though the previous government in Bangui led by Francois Bozize had agreed to contribute 1,000 troops, all of them left after Seleka rebels took over in March 2013.
How Kony survives
CAR - a country bigger than Kenya and with less than five million people, which is about 12% of Kenya’s 42 million - is a perfect place to hide for anyone that can survive on old-school tactics, and those are exactly the ones Kony is using.
Drones cannot be used to trace him, as the forest is too thick and cannot penetrate to the ground and the needed manpower on the ground cannot be provided. Also, the jungle provides food, animals and water. And the LRA, who is split up into five groups, only uses old fashion technology - like high frequency radio communications that is difficult to intercept – when they really need to communicate.
But this isn’t the only reason why the LRA was able to survive for almost three decades, explains Lieutenant General Samuel Kavuma from the Regional Task Force headquarters in Yambio, South Sudan. He says the LRA is good at “taking advantage” of politically unstable regions.
They moved to South Sudan in 2006. The region had been plagued by instability for decades because of a rebellion, and not long after it finally got independence in 2011 another deadly conflict broke out in December 2013. DRC and CAR both have and had weak governments that usually do not extend their powers to the border regions of the nation.
In Nzako, CAR – another taskforce base – the market day is peaceful. Talking to residents it becomes clear the calmness of the gold-town is appreciated, as many can tell stories of the LRA attacks from the past, which were allowed by those by Seleka.
Seleka, believed to be backed by Chad, is alleged to have an agreement with the LRA, which allows the Uganda group loot the country without hindrance for its resources to buy ammunition and arms and continue to destabilise parts of the CAR.
The Joint Intelligence Operations Center of the Taskforce is based in Dungu, DRC. Here officers say there are indications the LRA is weakening. In the past few months they have been very quite and rarely attacking villages and haven’t abducted children; they actually released 32 women and children in August and another 26 in September because being on the run with too many children and women slows down the group as the LRA is on the run and in survival mode.
Just a mile from the Intelligence Center is the Congolese contingent of the Taskforce. Congolese soldiers are practice LRA counter attacks.
The military barracks and facilities are poor. Some of the soldiers are not even provided with army boots, but are wearing raining boots instead—like rebels would. Congo wasn’t able to provide the promised 1,000 troops citing lack of resources.
The LRA has two active groups in Congo. One is poaching elephants in the Garamba National Park, while another group provides the transportation from the Park to CAR or Sudan to sell those items on the black market.
The commander of the Congolese contingent Lieutenant Colonel Myembo Kasongo says that the LRA is not attacking the people of Congo: “They use Congo as a food basket and to poach. They encounter people only if they need food and to go into villages.”
Increase in abductions
But a new report released this week by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said 432 people had been abducted since January, calling it a “steady increase” as its more than double the number of abductees in 2012.
Despite that, some of the gains made against the rebel group are evident. Previously the LRA controlled areas are now undisturbed.
Kony, though, is still free and successfully avoiding arrest. He is said to be hiding in the Sudanese area of Kafia Kingi, leading many to ask why he is still not captured or killed.
Looking at the few poorly supplied troops, they are unlikely to stop him any day soon.
While the Americans back the mission logistically and by providing training, there is no other form of support for Uganda which is footing the bill. The authorisation of the African Union comes with no financial assistance; something that all military leaders of the Taskforce say is needed to effectively halt the LRA.
Former abductees like John in CAR say they feel safe from possible future LRA attacks because he knows the Uganda forces are there to protect them. But it is questionable whether Uganda would still be willing to send troops if the LRA is pushed further away, into Sudan and or maybe even Chad. And the aging Kony is already preparing the next generation of LRA youths. Besides promoting his sons – his favourite son is named Salim Saleh after the brother of Museveni – he has recently promoted more young officials to command even over senior LRA officials.
-Marthe van der Wolf is a journalist based in Addis Ababa, and a contributor to Mail & Guardian Africa.