7 Nov 2010

Christian extremist Lord’s Resistance Army still enslaving children in Africa

Middle East Online - August 30, 2009

Christian extremist LRA still enslaving children

Many child victims fail to escape Christian extremism of LRA amid terror that reaches south Sudan.

Former LRA child soldier: 'They made me their slave'

JUBA, Sudan - The boys were fishing when the rebel fighters struck, dragging them off for a slave life in one of the world’s most notorious guerrilla armies.

"I thought they would kill me," said 16-year old Genekpio Kumbayo, seized in December from the farming village of Faraj, in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). "I was so terrified, I couldn't talk."

Kumbayo was captured by the Christian extremist Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan-led rebel group, whose two-decades-long campaign of guerrilla raids continues to terrorise a vast swathe of land across several nations in the region.

"For five months they forced me to carry all their equipment," Kumbayo said quietly.

"I had no choice, they made me their slave - they kept us moving through the forests, always hard at work."

Unlike others, Kumbayo was relatively lucky.

He escaped into neighbouring southern Sudan in April when Ugandan troops attacked the Christian extremist rebels, but was shot in the leg in the crossfire.

Ugandan soldiers began a military operation in December on remote rebel bases in the DR Congo after peace talks failed -- triggering a wave of brutal attacks as Christian extremist LRA fighters scattered, carrying out reprisal raids.

More than 230,000 people have fled their homes in south Sudan since late 2008 as a result of the Christian militant LRA, according to UN estimates.

In addition, more than 25,000 refugees from the DR Congo and the Central African Republic (CAR) have arrived seeking shelter.

But the attacks continue.

Since late July, more than 180 people have been killed in radical LRA attacks in south Sudan and the numbers of refugees and displaced are rising, said Lise Grande, the UN’s top humanitarian official for southern Sudan.

"The LRA continues to wreak havoc" she said.

"The picture does not look very good. Violence is continuing in the DR Congo and CAR, raising the concern of future displacements and increased numbers of refugees," she added.

Aid workers and UN staff were even forced to evacuate by helicopter in early August from Ezo, on Sudan’s border with DR Congo, after LRA extremist rebels attacked the remote settlement.

The rebels appear to have timed their raid for when the community was gathered for a church service, looting stores and abducting 17 people, including several children.

Many fear that after a period of relative calm the Christian extremist rebels are regrouping, attacking to secure fresh recruits and to replenish supplies.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has warned of an "unprecedented" wave of attacks in the DR Congo -- with 55 attacks in July alone in the north-eastern Orientale province.

"Some 360,000 Congolese have been uprooted in successive LRA attacks in the Orientale province in north-eastern DR Congo," according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"The levels of fear are incredibly high," said Katharine Derderian, a humanitarian advisor for the aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) just back from an assessment in DR Congo.

"People are too scared to even send their children to school, because they fear the LRA will attack.

"It’s a fragile situation. People are being forced into urban areas where resources are stretched in terms of medical services, education and food."

LRA rebel chief Joseph Kony, who began his battle over 20 years ago, is said to have named one of his sons “George Bush” in 2006.

The guerrilla group aims to establish a theocratic government in Uganda, based on the Christian Bible and the Ten Commandments.

Their ferocious attacks, with rebels chopping off the limbs and lips of their victims, were often aimed more at the civilians they said they fought for than at the military.

The LRA's top Christian leaders -- fugitives from the International Criminal Court -- are accused of having forcibly enlisted child soldiers and sex slaves, and of slaughtering tens of thousands of people.

"They continue to threaten our people," said Colonel Joseph Ngere Paciko, deputy state governor of Western Equatoria. Bordering DR Congo, it is the Sudanese region hit hardest by the radical LRA.

Southern Sudanese troops are working closely with Ugandan forces based in Sudan, who cross into DR Congo to chase the rebels.

"Our patrols are ready, and eventually we will get them," added Paciko.

But analysts warn there will be no easy solution.

"A few LRA fighters can paralyse and scare an entire population," said Louise Khabure, of the International Crisis Group think tank.

"They continue to do so in DR Congo, Sudan and CAR for now, and it does not preclude Uganda in future."

Khabure was critical of current military operations against them, which she said were "inappropriate for handling guerrilla operations".

With oil-rich south Sudan due to vote on independence in 2011, some fear the LRA may resume its role as a proxy force for those keen to block the emergence of a fully autonomous south.

"The fact that Kony does not seem cornered is very telling, he is not calling anyone for talks. They surely are being harboured somewhere," said Khabure.

But those in the affected areas simply want the fighting to stop.

"I just want to go home," Kumbayo said softly, sitting quietly on a bed in a packed surgery ward in the southern Sudanese capital Juba, where he is being supported by the UN children’s fund, UNICEF.

The gunshot wound to his leg has healed, but he is still searching for his parents. His home village was also attacked by the rebels.

"There is no news from my family," he adds sadly. "I just want to see my mother again."

Some 125,000 flee east DR Congo rebel attacks

At least 125,000 people have fled their homes in eastern DR Congo over the past three weeks amid "large scale destruction" by Ugandan rebels, the UN refugee agency said Friday.

"The Ugandan rebel group, the so-called Lord's Resistance Army, continues to cause large scale destruction and displacement in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo," said Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"At least 125,000 people are known to have been driven out of their villages in Haut Uele district of Orientale province by the LRA in the last three weeks alone," he added.

Some 1,270 people have been killed and over half a million people uprooted from the province by the violence since September 2008.

"The rebel group is accused of widespread killings, kidnappings of civilians and raping of women," said Mahecic.

The UNHCR also lamented that the insecurity and impassable roads were hampering relief agencies' ability to access the needy.

The DR Congo, Ugandan and South Sudanese armies had launched a major joint military operation against the LRA from the end of 2008 to March 2009, but failed to quell the rebel force, which has long battled in north Uganda and retreated across the DRC border.

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