Renewed military action against the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) risks triggering further devastation for local people in DR of Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan unless more is done to protect civilians and prevent retaliations by one of Africa's most brutal rebel groups, ten local organizations and international agencies said today.
As unprecedented global attention on the LRA builds and the African Union-United Nations joint force prepares to launch a new 5000-strong military offensive, people living in LRA areas increasingly fear the repercussions for remote communities in central Africa. The charities, including Oxfam and Conciliation Resources, today called on UN peacekeepers to strengthen their protection of civilians, while also addressing the root causes of the conflict.
Previous attempts to combat the LRA militarily have not solved the problem of the LRA and have had a devastating impact on local people, prompting retaliations against civilians and dispersing the rebels across a much larger area, to target yet more isolated villages.
Organizations working with local communities say people in DRC, CAR and South Sudan continue to live in fear for their lives. In the first three months of 2012 the UN have recorded 33 attacks in two districts of DRC, with three people killed, 16 children and 35 adults abducted.
Local organizations working in affected areas warn the number of deaths and abductions is likely to increase once the joint operation is launched.
Over three weeks starting Christmas Eve 2008, 865 women, men and children were killed and hundreds more abducted in DRC and South Sudan. The attack was a murderous backlash in response to Operation "Lightning Thunder", a joint military campaign by the Congolese, Ugandan, and South Sudanese armies, supported by the US, which failed to prevent civilian casualties.
"We really question how any military intervention now will help to protect all these people against retaliation attacks from the LRA," said Ernest Sugule, president of Congolese organization SAIPD. "The LRA is a guerrilla group mainly comprised of ruthless commanders and forcibly abducted children. The new military offensive cannot discriminate between combatants and non-combatants and will only result in further loss of innocent lives."
Aid agencies are concerned that without better civilian protection, and in the wake of renewed violence, the number of people forced to flee their homes in the region could escalate above the current 440,000.
"Millions of people across central Africa are living in constant fear of attack," said Olivia Kalis Oxfam's head of policy in Congo. "Psychological trauma and years of fear make many too afraid to farm, go to school or travel to market. Even small incidents or LRA sightings cause people to flee. Providing better security to remote villages will not only make people safer, it will help reduce the humanitarian and long-term effects of the conflict."
To include the view of the affected communities
The agencies also called on UN peacekeeping forces to actively patrol areas at risk of attack and to strengthen its work encouraging rebels to defect from the LRA, a strategy which has been shown to work and is repeatedly cited by local communities as a key solution to the conflict. Any strategy in the region should include the view of the affected communities, more particularly women who are the primary victims of the conflict.
Over the long term, communities need accountable, trained and equipped national security, the organizations said. Human rights abuses have been perpetrated not just by the LRA but also by armies in the region. Preventing violence against the local population means a commitment to army reform, more accountability toward affected communities and development of isolated areas.
Anne Street, Humanitarian Policy Analyst with CAFOD said: "Without greater support and protection for those who have escaped the LRA or more emphasis on reintegrating former combatants into communities, there will not be peace or reconciliation in the region. A sole military approach will make things very dangerous for innocent people. We cannot afford the humanitarian fall-out of hundreds of thousands more people fleeing their homes, losing their livelihoods and becoming dependent on humanitarian assistance. Instead we need a process of justice, rehabilitation and development to bring sustainable peace to the region."