March 28, 2010

I. Summary

We have been forgotten. It’s as if we don’t exist. The government says the LRA are no longer a problem, but I know that’s not true. I beg of you, please talk to others about what has happened to us.
80-year-old traditional chief, grieving for his son killed by the LRA, Niangara, February 19, 2010

Between December 14 and 17, 2009, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group, carried out a horrific attack in the Makombo area of Haut Uele district in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, near the border with Sudan. In a well-planned operation, the LRA killed more than 321 civilians and abducted more than 250 others, including at least 80 children. The vast majority of those killed were adult men who were first tied up before LRA combatants hacked them to death with machetes or crushed their skulls with axes or heavy wooden sticks. Family members and local authorities later found battered bodies tied to trees; other bodies were found in the forest or brush land all along the 105-kilometer round journey made by the LRA group during the operation. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that for days and weeks after the attack, this remote area was filled with the “stench of death.” The attack was one of the largest single massacres in the LRA’s 23-year history.

The LRA used similar tactics in each village they attacked during their four-day operation: they pretended to be Congolese and Ugandan army soldiers on patrol, reassured people in broken Lingala (the common language of northern Congo) not to be afraid, and, once people had gathered, captured their victims and tied them up. LRA combatants specifically searched out areas where people might gather—such as markets, churches, and water points—and repeatedly asked those they encountered about the location of schools, indicating that one of their objectives was to abduct children. Those who were abducted, including many children aged 10 to 15 years old, were tied up with ropes or metal wire at the waist, often in human chains of five to 15 people. They were made to carry the goods the LRA had pillaged and then forced to march off with them. Anyone who refused, walked too slowly, or who tried to escape was killed. Children were not spared.

Despite the enormous civilian death toll, the attack in the Makombo area made no headlines. Congolese and Ugandan soldiers based in Haut Uele district arrived in the area of the killings on December 18, 2009, alerted by reports of an LRA attack. But the remoteness of the region and the lack of telephone communications meant the news of the attack traveled slowly. On December 26, the Congolese army sent a small investigation team to look into the incident. After three days, the team returned, concluding that a large massacre had occurred, perpetrated by the LRA. The Congolese army sent soldiers to the area who established a base nearby, but no further action was taken by the Congolese government or army to help the affected communities. Ugandan soldiers attempted to pursue the LRA assailants but without success.

Publicly, the governments of Uganda and Congo both maintain that the LRA is no longer a serious threat in northern Congo and that the bulk of the rebel group has either moved to CAR or been neutralized. The LRA clearly remains a threat to civilians. While the LRA may have been weakened and dispersed as a result of the military campaign, the group’s ability to attack and abduct civilians remains intact, as illustrated by the gruesome operation in the Makombo area. Such public declarations by the Congolese and Ugandan governments may have contributed to the burying of information about ongoing LRA attacks. One effect has been that many people in northeastern Congo feel utterly abandoned and ignored.

At the end of December, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, received information about the attack. With its resources thinly stretched and limited intelligence on the location of LRA groups, MONUC was in no position to avert the Makombo massacre, but it took no immediate steps to follow up on the reported LRA attack and to investigate what had happened. At the time, MONUC had some 1,000 peacekeepers in Haut Uele district but its focus was on responding to rumors of a possible LRA attack on the district capital, Dungu, and other large population centers. MONUC also remained concentrated on the crisis in the Kivu provinces of eastern Congo leaving limited resources to respond to LRA-affected areas to the north. With many staff away for the Christmas holidays, no decision was made to change priorities. In January 2010, MONUC officials again received reports indicating that as many as 266 people may have died in the Makombo area, but no investigation was launched. Only on March 11, 2010, nearly 10 weeks after first receiving reports of the attack, and after briefings from Human Rights Watch, did MONUC send a team of human rights specialists to the area.

The attack on the Makombo area was led by at least two LRA commanders: Lt. Col. Binansio Okumu (also known as Binany) and a commander known as Obol. According to abductees who later managed to escape and Ugandan military sources, these two commanders report to one of the LRA’s senior leaders, Gen. Dominic Ongwen, sought on an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes committed in northern Uganda. Ongwen is believed to command the LRA’s forces in northeastern Congo. According to escaped captives of the LRA, Ongwen met with his commanders, including Binany and Obol, during the 2009 Christmas period to celebrate the “success” of the Makombo attack, including the large numbers of people killed and abducted. Following the celebrations, the new abductees were divided up among the LRA commanders and separated into multiple smaller groups, each heading in a different direction. Human Rights Watch calls upon the ICC and the Congolese government to investigate the three LRA commanders – Ongwen, Binany and Obol–for their role in committing or ordering alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Makombo massacre may not be the only unreported large-scale attack. Human Rights Watch has also received reports of LRA attacks in remote regions of Central African Republic (CAR) that have received little attention or follow-up from the CAR government or the UN.

The Makombo massacre is part of a longstanding practice of horrific attacks and abuses by the LRA committed in four countries in the central African region: Uganda, southern Sudan, CAR, and Congo. Initially restricted to northern Uganda, the LRA has evolved into a regional threat. Pushed out of northern Uganda in 2005 by the Ugandan army, the LRA now operates in the remote border areas between southern Sudan, Congo and CAR. Despite successive military operations against the group over the years, the LRA has proven remarkably resilient and able to regroup to continue their attacks against and abductions of civilians. In December 2008, the governments in the region led by the Ugandan military, with intelligence and logistical support from the United States, launched another military campaign against the LRA’s bases in northeastern Congo, known as Operation Lightning Thunder. It too failed to neutralize the LRA leadership, which escaped. In retaliation for the military campaign, the LRA attacked numerous Congolese villages over the 2008 Christmas period and into January 2009, slaughtering over 865 civilians and abducting hundreds more.

On March 15, 2009, Operation Lightning Thunder officially ended, following pressure from the Congolese government, which found it politically difficult to support a continued Ugandan army presence on Congolese territory. But the military campaign continued, moving into a covert stage, with the quiet approval of the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila. This new phase of military operations permitted limited coordination, planning and intelligence sharing between the national armies of the region and the various UN peacekeeping missions on enhancing protection for civilians at risk of continued LRA attacks.

Military commanders from the affected countries hold meetings every few months to discuss the LRA and some steps have been taken to improve coordination between the four UN missions operating in the central African region, but these efforts are far from adequate. The Makombo massacre, and other atrocities by the LRA documented in this report, illustrates that the LRA’s ability to attack civilians is far from over. More focused and directed efforts are required by the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and regional government to establish an effective coordination mechanism for civilian protection in LRA-affected areas across the UN missions, including coordination with all relevant national armies. 

One source of hope has come from the US government. On March 11, 2010, the US Senate unanimously passed the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which if enacted into law, requires the administration of President Barack Obama to develop a regional strategy to protect civilians in central Africa from attacks by the LRA, work to apprehend the LRA leadership, and support economic recovery for northern Uganda. The bill is currently pending before the US House of Representatives.

On February 24, 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the LRA. She said, “I have been following the Lord’s Resistance Army for more than 15 years. I just don’t understand why we cannot end this scourge. And we [the US government] are going to do everything we can to provide support we believe will enable us to do that.”

The US and other concerned governments should work together with regional governments and the UN to urgently turn this commitment into action. High-level attention, bold steps and courageous leadership are necessary to develop and implement a comprehensive regional strategy that resolves the LRA threat, with a focus on protecting civilians from further attacks, rescuing abducted persons, and apprehending LRA leaders wanted by the ICC.

The people of northeastern Congo and other LRA-affected areas across the central African region have suffered for far too long. They are waiting for strong, effective action to end the LRA’s atrocities, to see the safe return of their children and other loved ones who remain with the LRA, and to let them know they are not forgotten.