March 28, 2010

IV. Introduction

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an armed rebel group led by Joseph Kony, has been fighting the Ugandan government since 1987. Initially confined to northern Uganda, the LRA has evolved to become a regional threat operating in the remote border areas between southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic (CAR). Throughout its history, the LRA has been responsible for numerous atrocities, including massacres, summary executions, torture, rape, pillage and forced labor. The LRA’s brutality against children has been particularly grotesque: it continues to replenish its ranks through the abduction of children, forcible training and use of children in combat operations, and compelling compliance through threats, violence, and mind control. While Ugandan counter-insurgency operations brought an end to LRA attacks in Uganda in 2006, and other armed forces have conducted their own anti-LRA operations, the group has retained the ability to carry out devastating and widespread attacks against civilian populations elsewhere in the region.

In the late 1980s the LRA had some popular backing from the Acholi people of northern Uganda, a population marginalized by the central government. But the group’s support waned as its violence against civilians escalated.[1] Over subsequent years, the LRA frequently moved between northern Uganda and southern Sudan, carrying out attacks in both countries. The Ugandan army, the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), repeatedly tried to defeat the LRA through counter-insurgency campaigns, some of which also involved serious human rights violations by Ugandan soldiers,[2]but each time the LRA was able to regroup. In 2005 and 2006, renewed Ugandan military campaigns compelled the LRA to relocate its forces from Uganda and southern Sudan to the remote region of the Garamba National Park in northeastern Congo.

Attempts to negotiate peace with the LRA have repeatedly failed, either due to intransigence by the rebels or the Ugandan government. In 2006, the Ugandan government engaged in new peace negotiations with Riek Machar, the vice-president of southern Sudan, acting as mediator. The effort was supported by then UN Special Envoy for the LRA-affected areas, former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano. These talks, known as the Juba peace process, progressed further than previous attempts, but they too ultimately failed. Some claimed that LRA leaders entered talks in part to avoid prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC).[3]  The ICC prosecutor had issued arrest warrants for the LRA’s top five leaders, including Joseph Kony, in July 2005,[4] following an earlier decision by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to refer LRA crimes in northern Uganda to the court’s jurisdiction.[5]But others claimed the LRA entered the peace process only to gain time to regroup, and never intended to reach a viable agreement.[6]

Whatever the reason for entering the talks, Kony repeatedly failed to sign the Juba peace agreement in 2008. While relative calm lasted through the beginning of the peace process, from January to April 2008 the LRA carried out a series of well-organized operations from their base in Garamba National Park to abduct persons from CAR and southern Sudan. A few months later, in September and November 2008, the LRA attacked Congolese civilians in communities bordering the park, killing at least 167 civilians and abducting some 316 children.[7] On November 30, 2008, Kony was given a final chance to sign the peace agreement, but did not turn up at the agreed meeting point.

Operation Lightning Thunder and its Aftermath

With peace prospects stalled, Uganda, Congo, and southern Sudan entered an agreement to launch a joint military campaign against the LRA supported by substantial planning, logistical, and intelligence assistance from the United States military. On December 14, 2008, the campaign, called Operation Lightning Thunder, was put into action with a surprise aerial strike on the main LRA camp in Garamba National Park. The strike failed to neutralize the LRA leadership, which escaped. [8]

Using tactics similar to those it had previously used in northern Uganda and southern Sudan, the LRA attacked civilian populations in apparent retaliation for the military campaign against them. During the Christmas 2008 holiday season and in the weeks thereafter, the LRA with brutal efficiency simultaneously attacked locations hundreds of kilometers apart in northern Congo and southern Sudan, killing more than 865 civilians and abducting at least 160 children. [9] Tens of thousands of civilians fled for their lives, seeking shelter from LRA attacks in the towns, and sparking a humanitarian crisis in an already impoverished area.

National armed forces’ planners had not prepared for the attacks on civilians and had failed to make adequate contingency plans in the event that their strike on the LRA base in Garamba National Park failed. The 2,000 Congolese army soldiers who had been deployed to the area in the months before the strike were largely based in the Haut Uele district capital of Dungu and were unable to prevent or effectively respond to the LRA Christmas attacks. The 200 peacekeepers from the UN Mission in Congo, MONUC, present in the area at the time of the strike, had been excluded from the planning of Operation Lightning Thunder and were in no position to provide protection to communities at risk. [10]

Operation Lightning Thunder was intended to last only a few weeks. On March 15, 2009, the operation officially ended following pressure from the Congolese government, which found it politically difficult to support a continued Ugandan army presence on Congolese territory. [11] The Ugandan and Congolese governments both maintained publicly that the LRA were no longer a serious threat in northern Congo and that the bulk of the rebel group had either moved to CAR or had been neutralized. [12] The Congolese government said it would continue to conduct “mop-up” operations with the support of the remaining Ugandan military advisors and MONUC against the few LRA groups said to be present. [13]

Despite the official end of Operation Lightning Thunder, the Ugandan army continued military operations in the LRA-affected areas of northern Congo. Quietly approved by the Congolese government, this new phase of military operations has been largely covert, possibly to allow President Kabila to continue claiming publicly that Ugandan troops had withdrawn from Congo. The Ugandan army moved its main base from Dungu, in northern Congo, to Nzara, in southern Sudan, and opened up a series of smaller and less visible bases in Nambia, Doruma, and Bangadi in Haut Uele district, and in Banda in Bas Uele district of northern Congo. [14] The Ugandan army also established new bases in Obo and Djema in CAR. [15] Military experts estimate that some 3,000 to 5,000 Ugandan soldiers still operate in the three countries against the LRA, of which some 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers are based in northern Congo. [16] Since the operations are covert, the objectives and timescales for ongoing Ugandan-led military operations against the LRA are not known.

Strength of the LRA

The number of LRA combatants who remain is difficult to estimate accurately. Following the aerial strike on the LRA’s main camp in Garamba National Park on December 14, 2008, the LRA dispersed into multiple smaller groups divided up among Congo, southern Sudan and CAR. Since September 2009, a number of LRA commanders have surrendered, including the director of operations in the Faradje area, Lt. Col. Charles Arop. Ugandan army records state that since December 14, 2008, 305 LRA combatants have been killed, 50 captured, and a further 81 have defected, [17] but these figures could not be independently verified. In interviews with Human Rights Watch, Ugandan army officers and UN officials estimate that between 200 to 250 Ugandan LRA combatants remain in the three countries. [18] These estimates do not take into account the number of abductees still held by the rebels nor how many children abducted over the recent years may have become LRA combatants.

The LRA’s three most senior leaders—Joseph Kony, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen—remain at large and are still believed to direct and coordinate the group’s activities. The LRA leaders previously communicated via satellite telephone and Motorola radios, but military experts and former LRA combatants say that since Operation Lightning Thunder, the communication between the groups of LRA combatants is conducted through “runners,” to minimize any possible tracking of their locations, as well as through face-to-face meetings at pre-determined meeting points.[19] Kony and Odhiambo are presumed to operate along the CAR/Sudan border, with some reports claiming that Kony may have moved to southern Darfur under the protection of the Sudanese military.[20] Ongwen allegedly remains in northern Congo with an estimated 80 to 120 combatants.[21]

Contrary to a December 29, 2009 statement by the Ugandan military spokesperson that “the LRA’s capacity to create havoc is no more,”[22] the continued military operations have not weakened the LRA’s ability to conduct attacks against civilian populations. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in 2009 the LRA killed 1,096 civilians and abducted 1,373 adults and 255 children in Haut and Bas Uele districts of northern Congo. While all reports of LRA attacks have not been independently verified, it is clear that the LRA maintains its capacity to kill, abduct, and terrorize the civilian population. By January 2010, OCHA estimated that 282,661 people were displaced from their homes in these districts, including 224,594 people in Haut Uele and another 58,067 in Bas Uele.[23] These figures and the brutal attacks against civilians carried out by the LRA documented in this report undermine the claims made by President Kabila of Congo and President Museveni of Uganda that the LRA threat has substantially reduced. For the people of northern Congo, the LRA remains a constant and dangerous threat, one that requires an effective and coordinated strategy to better protect civilians and bring those responsible for these horrific abuses to justice.


[1]In March 1991, the Ugandan Army launched “Operation North,” a campaign to eliminate the LRA threat and end support for the LRA among the local community. Both sides committed abuses against the civilian population and the campaign failed. For more on abuses committed during the 1990s, see Human Rights Watch, The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, September 1997,

[2]Human Rights Watch, Abducted and Abused: Renewed Conflict in Northern Uganda, vol. 15, no. 12(a), July 14, 2003,

[3]After unprecedented consultations throughout Uganda on accountability and reconciliation, the parties agreed in February 2008 to establish a special division of the Ugandan High Court to try war crimes committed during the conflict. This option could satisfy LRA demands to avoid trial in The Hague, while meeting requirements under the ICC statute. See Annex to the Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation between the Government of the Republic of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army/Movement, Juba, Sudan, June 29, 2007, February 19, 2008, paras. 7, 10-14. For more detailed analysis of the justice issues in the Juba talks, see Human Rights Watch, Benchmarks for Justice for Serious Crimes in Northern Uganda, September 2, 2008,

[4] The five wanted on arrest warrants are: Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo, Raska Lukwiya, and Dominic Ongwen. Lukwiya died in 2006 and Otti is believed to have been killed on the orders of Joseph Kony in late 2007.

[5]“Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court opens an investigation into Northern Uganda,” ICC press release, July 29, 2004, (accessed March 24, 2010). Once the court exercises its jurisdiction, it has the authority to prosecute crimes by any individual, regardless of affiliation, provided the crimes were committed after 2002. Despite evidence of serious abuses by Ugandan army troops, the ICC has not issued warrants for any Ugandan government officials or military officers.

[6]Human Rights Watch interviews with international analyst and diplomats, Kampala, January 20 and 23, 2009.

[7]DR Congo: Protect Civilians From Brutal Rebel Attacks  Killings, Abductions, and Pillaging by Lord’s Resistance Army Continue,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 13, 2008; Human Rights Watch, The Christmas Massacres: LRA Attacks on Civilians in Northern Congo, February 2009,

[8]For further details on the strike and its failures, see Human Rights Watch, The Christmas Massacres.

[9] Ibid.

[10] MONUC Public Information Division, Transcript of MONUC Press Conference by Alan Doss, Kinshasa, December 17, 2008.

[11] “Uganda to End DR Congo Rebel Mission,” Agence France-Presse, February 20, 2009.

[12] President Joseph Kabila, Address to the Nation, December 7, 2009. “LRA is history, says President Museveni,” State House Online, February 2, 2009, (accessed March 24, 2010); “Ugandan President says Rebel Chief is Likely in Darfur,” Agence France-Presse, March 13, 2010.

[13] Ibid.

[14]Human Rights Watch interviews with Ugandan army officer, Haut Uele, February 2010, and UN officials, Dungu and Goma, February 24 and 28, 2010.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Military experts estimate four UPDF battalions are based in northern Congo. Human Rights Watch interviews with Congolese and international military experts, and UN officials, northern and eastern Congo, February 19-28, 2010, and the United States, March 18, 2010.

[17] General Summary of the Achievements Against the LRA, December 14, 2008-February 22, 2010. Records obtained from the Ugandan Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence, Kampala, February, 26, 2010. On file at Human Rights Watch.

[18]Human Rights Watch interviews with Ugandan and UN military officials, northern and eastern Congo, February 19-28, 2010.

[19]Human Rights Watch interviews with Ugandan and UN military officials, northern and eastern Congo, February 19-28, 2010; Human Rights Watch interview with former LRA combatants who surrendered in late December 2009, Goma, March 16, 2010.

[20] “Lord’s Resistance Army Finds Safe Haven in Darfur,” Enough Press release, March 11, 2010, (accessed March 24, 2010).

[21] In DRC, the LRA mostly operate in the areas north of Dungu around Duru towards the border with Sudan; north of the Uele River around Bangadi, Ngilima, and Diagbe; and in Ango Territory (Bas Uele) around Banda and Dakwa. Human Rights Watch interviews with Ugandan army officer, Haut Uele, February 2010; Congolese army officer, Haut Uele, February 2010; and UN official, February 28, 2010.

[22] “Army Lists Gains Against LRA in 2009”, The New Vision (Kampala), December 29, 2009, (accessed on March 15, 2010).

[23] UN OCHA Statistics, February 2010. On file at Human Rights Watch.