Thursday, September 3, 2009

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 northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. “I was so terrified, I couldn’t talk.”

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

“For five months, they forced me to carry all their equipment,” Genekpio said quietly.

“I had no choice; they made me their slave. They kept us moving through the forests, always hard at work.”

Unlike others, Genekpio was relatively lucky.

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

Ugandan soldiers began a military operation in December on remote rebel bases in Congo after peace talks failed - triggering a wave of brutal attacks as 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 LRA, according to U.N. estimates.

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

But the attacks continue.

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

“The LRA continues to wreak havoc,” she said.

“The picture does not look very good. Violence is continuing in Congo and [the Central African Republic], raising the concern of future displacements and increased numbers of refugees,” she added.

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

The rebels appeared 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 rebels are regrouping, attacking to secure fresh recruits and to replenish supplies.

The U.N. refugee agency has warned of an “unprecedented” wave of attacks in Congo - with 55 attacks in July alone in the northeastern Orientale province.

“Some 360,000 Congolese have been uprooted in successive LRA attacks” in the province, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

“The levels of fear are incredibly high,” said Katharine Derderian, a humanitarian adviser for the French aid agency Doctors Without Borders, just back from an assessment in Congo.

“People are too scared to even send their children to school, because they fear the LRA will attack,” she said. “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 began his battle more than 20 years ago, to fight against the marginalization of the people of northern Uganda.

But 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 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 Col. Joseph Ngere Paciko, deputy state governor of Western Equatoria. Bordering Congo, it is the Sudanese region hit hardest by the LRA.

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

“Our patrols are ready, and eventually we will get them,” Col. Paciko said.

But analysts warn there will be no easy solution.

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

“They continue to do so in Congo, Sudan and [the Central African Republic] for now, and it does not preclude Uganda in the future.”

Ms. 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 harbored somewhere,” Ms. Khabure said.

“The LRA still remains a force that could be utilized by groups ranging from the Khartoum government, elements of the south Sudan government, Ugandans themselves and other groups,” she added.

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

“I just want to go home,” 16-year-old Genekpio 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 U.N. 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 said. “I just want to see my mother again.”

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