After seven years held captive by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), 16-year-old Apiyo Tabisa’s release five months ago in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) along with a dozen or so others was as sudden as her abduction from Uganda.
Vincent Binany - deputy to senior LRA commander and International Criminal Court (ICC) war crimes indictee Dominic Ongwen - “gave us no reason. He left us by the side of the road and just told us to go to the soldiers [Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC)],” she told IRIN.
She spent seven years wandering the frontier lands of the DRC, South Sudan and Uganda as a porter and cook and witnessed “too many [killings] to remember. There were just too many,” said Tabisa, who is awaiting repatriation from Dungu (northeastern DRC) once her relatives have been traced.
“Some were shot or beaten with pieces of wood. I don’t know why. If you make a mistake they kill you. If you have witchcraft, they kill you. There does not have to be a reason,” Tabisa said. “Seeing the killings and the beatings - that was always the worst. If you say something [to object to the killings] they kill you.”
Matthew Brubacher, political affairs officer working with the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO)’s Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration and Resettlement (DDRRR) unit, and an LRA specialist based in the eastern DRC city of Goma, told IRIN: “We still don’t know why they were released [by Binany],” but answering such questions is key to developing strategies to dismantling the armed group.
Why so durable?
Why has Joseph Kony’s LRA, which has raped, abducted and pillaged for the past 25 years survived so long?
From the early 1990s, the LRA conducted raids into northern Uganda from bases in eastern Equatoria in southern Sudan (now the independent state of South Sudan), where President Omar al-Bashir co-opted and supplied the group to fight the then-rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which in turn enjoyed support from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
From 2005, the LRA began moving into areas of the DRC close to the border with Sudan. More recently, the LRA has also been active in the Central African Republic.
The undeveloped frontier lands with scarce infrastructure, weak government and isolated communities enabled the LRA to forage for food, and kidnap - boys for child soldiers and girls as sex slaves.
At the core of the LRA’s ability to survive and outwit their numerically superior opponents was “maintaining secrecy in the LRA”, said a World Bank June 2011 report entitled Diagnostic Study of the LRA authored by Philip Lancaster, Guillaume Lacaille and Ledio Cakaj.
“Kony appears to understand that one cannot defeat the enemy one does not know, and consequently masks the LRA behind a curtain of mystery. The rituals performed in the LRA, some military in nature, others religious, are in part designed to maintain the secrecy and mystery of the LRA - much like a secret society or a cult,” the report said.
Runners and fliers
The LRA’s few hundred core fighters are dispersed across a region about half the size of France spanning three fragile countries. Modern methods of communication, such as satellite phones (there is little to no coverage for mobile phones in much of the region) are eschewed as they can be tracked by satellite and reconnaissance aircraft. Runners are used to carry messages, with this task often entrusted to the senior ranks.
Onen Unita - an officer serving under senior LRA commander Okot Odhiambo who, like Kony, is wanted for war crimes by the ICC - was used as a runner to convey decisions to other commanders in the DRC taken at a meeting in CAR in June 2011.
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Lt-Col Golam Faruque, chief coordinator of MONUSCO’s Joint Intelligence Operating Cell based in Dungu, which collates information about the armed group, told IRIN: “We know about the meeting, but we don’t know anything of what decisions were taken,” but added that in the second half of 2011 the number of violent incidents in the DRC attributed to the LRA decreased substantially. He also noted that armed groups have high and low periods of activity.
Ian Rowe, DDRRR head of Orientale Province based in Dungu and working to eliminate the group, tries to gather intelligence based on snippets of information.
Unlike his counterparts in eastern DRC where mobile phone communication with potential defectors is a vital tool in convincing the officer class of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) to defect, no such avenue exists with the LRA.
Instead, there is a reliance on leaflet distribution guaranteeing amnesty, except for those indicted by the ICC, and a network of FM radios conveying a similar message to LRA combatants in a variety of languages, including Acholi and Lingala, in the three affected countries.
Rowe said the fliers are either air-dropped by MONUSCO, or distributed by FARDC in the DRC and by the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) in CAR and South Sudan, “and put on trees or along waterways, as historically the LRA follow waterways”.
MONUSCO’s DDRRR has produced 30,000 flyers for distribution, showing photographs of recent escapees in the past few years, which those still “remaining in the bush” were likely to recognize, Rowe said.
"We just had a Kony wife surrender in Djema. She saw the wife of Odhiambo on one of our leaflets disseminated by the UPDF in eastern CAR. That convinced her to leave, despite Kony telling her that the woman had been killed shortly after the picture was taken," Brubacher said.
“Our inability to communicate, deal or negotiate with the LRA directly and effectively… means that for the most part, we have very little idea as to the extent our messages are getting through,” Rowe said
It was difficult to put a precise number on the penetration of the messaging by DDRRR, but he said some estimates of 75 percent were probably an “overestimation of the number of escapees we're receiving in Dungu who state having seen or heard our messaging.”
In September 2011, another LRA commander, Ocan Bunia, died, reportedly of malaria, in the DRC, and a number of captives were released. At their debriefing there were indications that fighters in the group had also wanted to defect, but had no way of safely doing so.
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Ugandan LRA defectors are met with hostility by affected communities and MONUSCO’s DDRRR programme has embarked on an awareness-raising programme to try and convince people to hand them over to the authorities rather than mete out their own form of justice, which acts as another barrier to the LRA's disarmament and demobilization, Brubacher said, and has led to bizarre acts by LRA fighters.
“The last LRA commandant who surrendered jumped onto the road naked in front of a Caritas motorcycle. When the motorcycle driver agreed to help him surrender, the LRA fighter went back into the forest and got his gun and uniform. That is how hard it is to surrender,” he said.
The incident with Bunia acted as a catalyst to develop the concept of assembly points, which are at least 10-15km from the closest communities. Two sites have been identified northeast of Dungu, one north of Faradje, one in Garamba National Park, and one south of Bangadi.
Rowe said 30,000 fliers detailing the locations, funded by the San Diego-based NGO Invisible Children, would be distributed to make these sites known, and it was expected the concept would be rolled out regionally.
MONUSCO has agreed to send patrols to these sites twice a week to check-up on any LRA defectors. “It is the best we can do for these people [defectors]. Although they might have to hang around for a few days before being picked-up.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions