Congo's other killing corps

DORUMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — On the day after Christmas, young men wielding machetes hacked to death 45 people huddled in a church in Doruma, a peaceful community of mud and thatch huts in the verdant reaches of the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Body parts were scattered about the church, in a scene reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide, according to witnesses. Some of the victims, mostly women and children, had been clubbed to death.

In a nearby village, the rebels reportedly slaughtered villagers during their Christmas feast, then finished off the meal and slept that night among the corpses. The death toll around Doruma topped 200 and the victims were among the nearly 900 killed since mid-December.

These massacres were the work of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a militia-cult led by self-proclaimed prophet and spirit medium Joseph Kony, who claims to fight for a world based on the Ten Commandments but is considered responsible for these atrocities and many others.

The Lord's Resistance Army has developed a fearsome reputation for kidnapping children and forcing them to commit brutal acts such as chopping off people's arms and killing entire communities. 

After 20 years terrorizing northern Uganda, the LRA decamped in early 2006 to this primeval forest where northeastern Congo meets South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Congo already had the rebels of Rwanda's genocidal Interahamwe lurking in its eastern forests. Now the Kony's Lord's Resistance Army has moved into the northeastern areas, taking cover in its remote corners.

Kony has quietly morphed his militia into a regional killing machine that crosses borders and lives amid communities with no apparent purpose other than its own demonic existence. He has repeatedly refused to to sign a peace deal with Uganda, which in mid-December launched an attack on Kony's camps, apparently provoking the rebels to commit the spasm of holiday atrocities in Congo.

The Ugandan army’s assault on Kony’s camps in Congo's Garamba National Park was assisted by U.S. military advisers, who helped train the thousands of Ugandan soldiers and gave them $1 million for fuel, according to The New York Times.

The assault was botched. First, the early morning aerial strike was delayed by fog. Then Ugandan ground forces arrived two days late, allowing Kony and his army of killers to scatter and launch the militia’s bloodiest rampage in 22 years.

Last June, I looked down at the thatched huts clustered below the canopied forest as the single-engine plane I was in descended to Doruma’s gravel airstrip, the town’s only access to the outside world.

On the back of a small motorcycle, I splashed through puddles and dodged chickens and goats to find Raymond Rpiolebeyo, a teacher who had been kidnapped by the LRA during a similar attack earlier in 2008. He had miraculously escaped and was again in front of his third-grade class at the Ecole Primer Ndolomo.

Looking much younger than his 28 years, he sat stiffly in the stifling heat of the brick and tin-roof principal’s office, and haltingly described his ordeal.

On Easter weekend last spring, Raymond had been cycling to Gurba, his home village about seven miles from Doruma, to spend the holiday with his family. Rag-tag fighters sporting cropped dreadlocks and carrying weapons stepped from the bush and grabbed him, then looted the village and forced him and more than 100 other abductees — some from the Central African Republic — to carry heavy bundles for several days back to their camp.

He was nervous as he recounted this tale, and when I assured him that I was not the LRA, he barely smiled. He said the LRA fighters knew him and that he had escaped. He feared the fighters would return. He was right.

Gurba was one of the villages that the LRA attacked again this past December. Raymond was probably there for the Christmas break. It is impossible to know if he is still alive and perhaps I’ll never know.

Kony and his top commanders have been wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague since July 2005 for dozens of counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, mutilation, rape, sexual slavery and the use of child soldiers. Two of the commanders are now dead.

Kony alone faces 33 criminal counts, all of them in connection with atrocities committed during the LRA’s guerrilla war in northern Uganda that primarily victimized Kony's own Acholi ethnic group, the same people he claimed to be liberating.

Critics have asked why Uganda thought it could capture Kony in the remote regions of Congo when it couldn’t while he was in northern Uganda from 1986 to 2006. With the aid of the U.S. military, Uganda tried to answer that question, but again has come up empty-handed.

The good news is that Kony’s remaining two top commanders, Okot Odhimabo and Dominic Ongwen, reportedly want to surrender. It would be a major coup for Uganda. But, Kony would still have the bulk of his force, estimated to be about 500 fighters, under his command.

The disastrous results of the well-intentioned but poorly executed assault on Kony’s rebels show that it will take more than good advice and gas money to capture them.

A United Nations-sanctioned, multi-national force is needed if Kony is to be brought to justice. Only then will the LRA’s hapless victims throughout this remote swath of east-central Africa breathe free.

(Peter Eichstaedt is the author of "First Kill Your Family: Child soldiers of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army.")

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