Rebel army resumes campaign of abducting child fighters in Africa
The Globe and Mail
Fri 25 Apr 2008
Section: International News
Byline: Stephanie Nolen
JOHANNESBURG -- The rebel Lord's Resistance Army appears to have begun a new campaign of abducting child fighters in central Africa, after balking at signing a peace deal earlier this month. The move raises fears that the group is planning to renew its decades-long insurgency and expand it beyond the borders of Uganda.
All of the abductions have occurred in remote bush areas. In the raid about which the most is known, rebel fighters abducted 99 men, women and children in Obo, a town in the southeastern corner of the Central African Republic, near the borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. The rebels moved into this largely lawless triangle two years ago, after five LRA commanders were indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
(Only two of those are still alive.) It is difficult to establish precisely how many people have been abducted - Amnesty International says it has evidence of "at least 350" people abducted; the United Nations has put the number near 500 during the past three months, while the Ugandan military reported 200 people abducted in DRC early this month, and 55 in Sudan in late March.
Auguste Agoude, the member of parliament for the Obo area, said in a telephone interview that 99 people were abducted on the night of March 6.
Some managed to escape, or were released as too old or infirm to be useful, but 39, all strong, young people in their early teens, were force-marched over the border into DRC and are now undergoing military training, he said.
"We know it was [the LRA] - they came from the bush on foot, and took children to carry their things, took women for their sexual pleasure and took young people to fight for them," he said. "People here are completely terrorized, and they don't know when their loved ones will ever come back."
The LRA, led by the elusive, brutal self-styled prophet Joseph Kony, has been fighting for 22 years, ostensibly against the government of Uganda - but civilians from Mr. Kony's own Acholi ethnic group have been the group's primary victims. Unicef estimates that more than 15,000 children have been abducted by the LRA to fight, or be used as sex slaves, while more than two million people in northern Uganda have been forced by LRA raids to live in squalid displacement camps, lacking schools, sanitation and adequate food supplies.
Two years of delicate peace negotiations were to have culminated in the signing of a peace deal earlier this month. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni flew to the southern Sudanese capital of Juba for the signing, but Mr. Kony didn't show up. A ceasefire that endured during the protracted negotiations has now lapsed.
Erin Baines, a University of British Columbia researcher who heads the Justice and Reconciliation Project in northern Uganda, has conducted extensive interviews with former child soldiers. She says she has been told that there are weapons caches across the north, and that in the event of a resumption of fighting, many ex-rebels would rejoin the LRA out of self-preservation. "[If] the peace talks fail, the gun will be my best friend," one child ex-fighter told her.
While there is relative calm in northern Uganda, the traditional site of the LRA's raids, the rebels' new actions pose a regional threat. "What we should appreciate at this time is that the LRA ... now is not only a problem to the government of Uganda, but a threat to regional security in the Great Lakes region," Uganda's International Affairs Minister, Okello Oryem, told reporters in the capital this week.
"It would not appear to me that they are genuinely interested in signing a deal, but that they just want to drag on the socalled peace process," said Godfrey Byaruhunga, an expert on the CAR with Amnesty. "When they have a ceasefire they only use it to boost their numbers and rearm - they were given some sort of respite to rebuild themselves and be prepared for any further armed conflict."
Nebi Ochieng, an independent Ugandan security analyst who said he has spoken to Mr. Kony several times in recent weeks, believes that the LRA was increasingly being used as a proxy force by the government of Sudan, based in Khartoum, to destabilize southern Sudan because of a shaky power-sharing agreement with the rebel movement that now forms the government there.
"It is not possible that Kony is walking those distances that easily [from Sudan to DRC to CAR]," he said. "There must be logistical support for him to move those distances - and from whom, that's one of the unanswered questions."
Regardless, he said, Mr. Kony will be feeling no pressure: "The peace process gave him the opportunity to know that there is a lot of bark and no bite - so he can now ask people to wait for him to make a decision." Neither the ICC warrants nor any military force in the area seem serious about targeting him, Mr. Ochieng said.
But Mike Otim, a leading peace advocate from northern Uganda, travelled last week to Rwi-Kwamba, where LRA fighters are meant to gather pending a peace deal, and from there he spoke several times by phone with Mr. Kony. He remains optimistic. While there were fewer than 50 LRA fighters at Rwi-Kwamba, he said, he believes the others are scattered through Sudan, DRC and CAR and "no serious re-arming is going on."
Mr. Kony asked the peace team to flesh out the specifics of how a transitional justice program would work, he said, and told them he intended to travel to Juba with all his fighters by May 10 to sign the deal. Mr. Otim believes this is still a realistic possibility.
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