BANGADI, Congo — They emerged from the bush at dawn, like apparitions in ragged clothes, matted hair — and with guns.
One of them, a woman, drifted down the dusty main street of the village whistling and writhing, as if in a trance, her bare skin glowing with an oily sheen.
“She was a sorcerer who wanted to make us think they were devils,” said Nicolas Akoyo Efoda, a local leader in the village of Bangadi in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Then, he said, “we shot her and killed her and then burned her body in the center of town."
Such has been the violent response of this otherwise peaceful farming community to an increasing number of brutal attacks by Uganda’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army.
The LRA, led by the self-styled mystic Joseph Kony, has waged a 20-year war in Uganda. Although Kony maintains he is fighting to establish a world based on the Ten Commandments, he has become known for his brutality. (More on Uganda's attempts to root out the Lord's Resistance Army in the Congo.)
The LRA has abducted more than 20,000 children for use as sex slaves and front-line fighters, according to Human Rights Watch. The LRA rebels have a reputation for grisly mutilations, such as hacking off the lips and ears of their victims. Many children were forced to kill their parents, so they would have no family to return to.
In recent years the LRA has moved into the lawless wilds of eastern Congo in an attempt to elude offensives by Uganda’s army and arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
In late 2008, the Ugandan army followed them across the border at the invitation of the Congolese government. A series of attacks on LRA strongholds deep in Congo’s forest dislodged the rebels from their bases, but, like a wounded animal, the rebels became more dangerous than ever.
Hunted and on the run, the LRA has scattered into small groups of one or two dozen fighters — sometimes fewer — and is terrorizing a vast swath of Congo’s northeast, near the Sudanese and Ugandan borders.
The LRA has slaughtered more than 900 people in the last few months. Many of the victims have been hacked to death with machetes in a string of massacres in remote villages filled with thatched mud huts, according to Doctors Without Borders, the French medical aid group that has been treating injured Congolese civilians. The rebels also prey on civilians fleeing along distant roads through thick forests.
“When Ugandan peace talks failed last year in August and September, the first attacks began,” Bangadi village chief Efoda said. “Then towards the end of 2008, with the military operation against the LRA, the killings and kidnappings started and have been getting worse and worse.”
Virtually alone and cut off from the outside world, Bangadi, a village of 15,000 farmers and hunters, has forged its own ragtag self-defense force. The force includes 160 fighters — four of them women — who have twice fought off LRA attacks, on Oct. 19 and Jan. 22.
The group is armed with spears, machetes, knives and homemade hunting rifles that use match heads for explosives and buck shot made from old batteries. They would seem no match for experienced and ruthless guerrillas armed with AK-47s, but their numbers and willingness to fight has probably steered potential LRA attackers towards softer, unarmed targets elsewhere.
But despite the efforts at self-defense, the attacks did claim victims. Eleven villagers were killed during the two attacks and an unknown number were abducted — perhaps as many as 20 or 30 — and LRA fighters are frequently spotted lurking in the bushes within two or three miles of the town center and stealing local crops for food.
Some 150 Congolese soldiers have been camping in crumbling colonial-era houses on the outskirts of town since late January, but few residents expect the poorly disciplined and badly trained troops to protect the village.
The news that the Ugandan army is withdrawing from northeastern Congo has made residents of Bangadi and other communities worried for their safety.
“We can’t go to our fields, or to fish, or to hunt any more; we have to stay here,” Efoda said. “Fear has taken over. We are alive today, but we don’t know about tomorrow.”
Across the Haut Uele region, villages have emptied as tens of thousands of people flee, seeking security in bigger towns. Many have abandoned their crops, the traditional source of subsistence living. Children have not gone to school for six months due to displacement or for fear of attacks.
Aid agencies warn that the displaced will soon begin to suffer from dangerous levels of malnutrition and illness.
More than a decade of war in Congo has already led to the deaths of some 5 million people, according to the medical group, mostly from hunger, disease and lack of access to basic health care.
That deadly cycle is rolling ever onward and the LRA is as unpredictable as it is deadly.
“We thought we were already dead,” said Joseph Bikwalubi Musafiri, a 45-year-old local administrator who was abducted during the Jan. 22 attack. “They tied me at the waist to 16 other prisoners and forced us to carry their supplies of peanuts, rice and manioc.”
For four days Musafiri and the others marched all day long and slept tied together at night. At one point, an LRA soldier slashed Musafiri’s foot with a razor because he was marching too slowly. A girl among them was taken away each night and given to the commander, who raped her repeatedly, according to Musafiri.
“She was traumatized; her face was just blank,” he said.
Eventually, the captives were each asked their age, and most were released. Two teenage boys and the girl were taken away.
“They only wanted to keep the young ones,” Musafiri said.
At a small crossroads in the center of Bangadi, a pile of rocks is adorned with a red plastic traffic reflector in the shape of a cross.
“This is where we burned the LRA woman and another LRA fighter. He was young, maybe 20,” Efoda said. “It was symbolic because when it rains, water comes from two directions and washes the ashes into the bush.”
If only it were so easy to rid Congo — and the central African region — of the Lord's Resistance Army.
More GlobalPost dispatches by Finbarr O'Reilly:
A step in the right direction for eastern Congo?
Congo struggles to move from war to peace