“We want American soldiers here on the ground. They could sort this out. Just having two of them here would make a big difference.” Sitting outside his office in Zémio, 730km east of the Central African Republic capital, Bangui, the mayor, Pierre-Raymond Agueboti, spoke with anger and frustration about the havoc wrought by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in his region.
“We have no freedom now,” Agueboti told IRIN. “In the past we could hunt, we could fish, we could farm our land. All of that has gone into decline now. There is no security for us. Our hands are tied and our arms are crossed.” Agueboti welcomed the interventions made by NGOs and UN agencies in Zémio and the surrounding region, providing shelter for IDPs and refugees, running health clinics and supporting local agriculture. But he said people were wary of the culture of dependency that had resulted. Agueboti warned that the continuing insecurity had left the region increasingly isolated. Civil servants, teachers and medical personnel were more reluctant to move to the southeast, particularly after the killing of a senior doctor in a road ambush in June.
Like others in the southeastern Haut-Mbomou region, Agueboti refers to the LRA as the “Tongo-Tongo”, loosely translated from the local Zande dialect as “those who never sleep, who march at night, and who can catch you any time”. Witnesses of LRA attacks talk of groups of heavily armed men breaking into houses, destroying property, killing or abducting their victims, easily recognizable because they speak Acholi, Kiswahili or Lingala, not central African languages like Zande or Songo.
Since early 2008, the LRA has attacked dozens of villages in CAR, mostly in the southeast, forcing a mass exodus into towns such as Obo and Zémio, where they are now mostly sheltered in hastily assembled displaced people's (IDP) sites, joining thousands more forced out of their homes by the LRA across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Three years ago, the tide appeared to be turning against the LRA. Well-armed troops from the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), deployed in the CAR with the full blessing of the host country’s government, had mounted a high-profile counter-insurgency operation against the LRA, tracking the mixed columns of rebel soldiers and their abductees through the bush. The UPDF confidently announced that a long elusive victory was at hand, pointing to the elimination of several senior LRA lieutenants, hinting that the movement’s leader, Joseph Kony, was finally within their sights.
Agueboti said Kony was still in southeast CAR, hiding out in the forests north of Zémio, near the River Vovodo. He praised the UPDF for its display of force - “without them this place would have fallen to Kony” - but said his people felt let down. He accused the Ugandan military of failing to deliver on its initial promises, the UPDF not liaising effectively with the local population, losing out on valuable local intelligence. Augeboti was more dismissive of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA). “If there is an LRA attack, they are wholly underprepared. They have to come to this office to get money for fuel before they can go off on an operation.”
Augeboti said people were now setting up special prayer cells, asking God to deliver them from the LRA. “We have used our fetishes against them, we have used our gris-gris, but they have been no match for Kony.”
News has filtered through to Zémio of President Barrack Obama’s stated intention to deploy at least 100 military advisers as part of a commitment to enforce the 2009 Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. Obama’s pledge has been accompanied by a 30-page strategy paper and a promise “to help bring an end to the brutality and destruction that have been a hallmark of the LRA across several countries for two decades”.
|We have used our fetishes against them, we have used our gris-gris, but they have been no match for Kony|
In a paper entitled Ending the Lord’s Resistance Army, Enough, the Washington-based Project to End Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, applauded the deployment of observers, but stressed that much more concerted military action was needed. Enough urged the US “to provide a surge of military, intelligence, logistical, and diplomatic support”, enrolling special forces from European nations and giving strong backing to AU initiatives to eliminate Kony.
But there is still considerable scepticism and confusion regarding Washington’s intentions, particularly among the displaced.
“The Americans have let us down for two years,” said Moise Wodouaia, president of the IDP community at one of the four IDP sites in Zémio. “They said they were coming to help us push Kony back, but we have watched in vain. Do they want us all to die before they come to our aid?”
Wodouaia and others said the US had the technology available to locate Kony and eliminate him if necessary. “That is something we could never do ourselves. Our own army doesn’t care about the southeast, while we have only spears to use against the Tongo-Tongo and they have AK-47s.”
Justin Rabby is also convinced Joseph Kony is at large in the CAR. Now a nurse in Zémio, Rabby spent two years as an LRA hostage, kept alive because of his medical skills, moving from base to base and regularly treating Kony himself. Having escaped his captors, Rabby now heads an association for survivors of the LRA.
He warns against underestimating Kony’s military capability, pointing out that the LRA has in the past used its captives as human shields, deterring military strikes. Rabby says Kony himself should be captured not killed. “If the man dies, we the victims lose out,” Rabby told IRIN. “It would be far better to have Kony before the International Criminal Court.”
For more, visit IRIN's in-depth: On the trail of the LRA