afrol News, 29 October - A new report documents the escalation of the atrocities against civilians of the LRA rebels in Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan. The LRA rebels are known as Africa's most brutal rebel group, systematically terrorising the civilian population and abducting their children.
The US-based group Human Rights Watch today published a paper, denouncing the escalated LRA conflict, resulting in "serious human rights abuses against civilians." The rebels of the so-called Lord Resistance Army had now also learned to target "displaced persons and refugees and the agencies assisting them."
The group estimates that, by September 2002, some 552,000 Ugandans were displaced or at risk of having no harvest, at least 24,000 Sudanese refugees in Uganda had been forcibly displaced, unknown thousands of southern Sudanese were displaced inside Sudan, and refugee and displaced persons' camps and supplies had been looted or burned.
After a failed Ugandan army offensive against LRA bases in Southern Sudan, the rebels seem to have regained momentum. Over the last months, attacks on both sides of the border have increased, as have the displacements of civilians.
The LRA rebel group was founded 14 years ago as a religious-ethnic reaction to the regime of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. LRA founder Joseph Kony mixed Christian and traditional spiritualism with ethnic resentments among the Northern Ugandan Acholi people against Mr Museveni's overthrow of the northerner, Milton Obote.
Spiritualism soon developed into fanaticism in the mind of Mr Kony, who still leads the rebel group. Over the years, LRA became famous for its numerous abductions of children - at least ten thousand - and brutalising them into child soldiers. Mutilations and other blind LRA attacks on civilians have also been daily events in war-ravaged Northern Uganda over the past decade.
The LRA rebels for years enjoyed a safe harbour in Southern Sudan as the Sudanese government supported them in exchange for Ugandan government support to the Southern Sudanese rebels, SPLA. Ugandan-Sudanese reconciliation earlier this year however made possible the large Ugandan offensive "Operation Iron Fist" against LRA bases in Sudan. At first successful, the operation nonetheless failed to root out the rebels.
Since July this year, LRA fighters again have operated within Uganda and attacks on civilians are increasing. Camps for internally displaced Ugandans and for Sudanese refugees have been the main targets of attack. In one raid in early August, the LRA attacked a Sudanese refugee camp in Achol-pii, northern Uganda, killing more than fifty refugees. The Ugandan army, lagging behind in Sudan, failed to protect civilians from these attacks in northern Uganda.
Some LRA soldiers have however remained in southern Sudan, where they have attacked the Sudanese army and a Sudanese government-backed militia, former LRA sponsors. More LRA troops crossed back into southern Sudan in August 2002, "in what seemed to be an endless cross-border cycle of violence," according to HRW.
In mid-August 2002, the LRA announced that all humanitarian agencies working in northern Uganda - most assigned to internally displaced persons camps - had to withdraw, or risk becoming targets of new attacks. Despite this warning, relief agencies however continue their operations, although with scaled back staff and assets and few trips to the camps.
Relief workers in northern Uganda have also observed that the LRA continues its practice of abducting children after its return to Uganda, although there had been less abductions. A 17-years-old boy told an organisation working in the area of being abducted by the LRA in August this year. Together with other abducted women and children, he was marched barefoot around the bush.
He told he was taught how to dismantle, clean, and assemble a gun, and witnessed the summary execution of two government local defence men, wounded, who were killed with an axe and panga (long knife). An abducted boy caught escaping was executed in front of all the abductees with a knife on the barrel of a gun.
The HRW report lists incident after incident where LRA rebels attack civilians and refugees on both sides of the border. The group however also forcefully criticised the Ugandan army of human rights abuses. The army had "resumed previous patterns of arbitrary arrests of civilians suspected of collaborating with the rebels, and of forcible displacement." Further, it obliged Sudanese refugees to prevail in camps located in the LRA's operative area.
Meanwhile, a peaceful solution to the conflict seems far away. Before "Operation Iron Fist", unofficial contacts had been established to negotiate a ceasefire and a possible peace. Government conditions to start negotiating were however never met by the LRA and since then, the offensive has produced the heaviest fighting in Uganda experienced for years.