(Washington, DC) - The Ugandan rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) slaughtered 96 civilians and abducted dozens more between January and early April 2010 in a brutal killing campaign in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Human Rights Watch said today. There has been no letup of LRA atrocities since Human Rights Watch reported on a deadly LRA rampage that took place in December 2009.
Human Rights Watch urged the US government to swiftly implement the new legislation to develop a comprehensive strategy to protect civilians in Central Africa from LRA attacks, to ensure the rule of law, and, together with regional governments, to take steps to end violence by the rebel group. Last week, the US Congress passed the bill, the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, with broad bipartisan support. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it soon.
"The LRA is killing civilians and abducting children at an alarming rate," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "President Obama can play a crucial role by moving quickly on the new US law to help find solutions that will end LRA violence once and for all."
A recent Human Rights Watch research mission to the LRA-affected areas of northeastern Congo found that from February 1 to13, a group of about 20 LRA combatants killed at least 74 civilians during a series of organized attacks on the small fishing and farming communities of Munuku, Kpanga, Mapi, and Kpuru in Manziga chieftaincy of Niangara territory. Many of those killed were elderly people who had been unable to flee, and 14 were children.
One of the first communities attacked was the village of Munuku, 50 kilometers from the town of Niangara, where at least 24 civilians were killed on February 1, including 15 elderly men and women. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said the LRA killed most of their victims by crushing their skulls with large wooden sticks. Others were shot, including a 70-year-old man who was shot and then stabbed to death in the chest with a bayonet.
The LRA then moved on to the neighboring village of Kpanga, attacking it on February 2, and continued toward Mapi and Kpuru in the days that followed. In each village the LRA killed civilians, abducted children and adults, and then looted and burned down homes. A young man interviewed by Human Rights Watch who arrived in Kpanga just after the attack found his grandmother and grandfather tied up and shot dead outside his home. Nearby, another 70-year-old woman had been tied up and beaten to death with a wooden bat.
During the same series of attacks, the LRA abducted at least 75 civilians, many of them children. As they did in the mid-December massacres in the Makombo area, the LRA tied their captives at the waist in human chains and forced them to carry looted goods back to camps in the forest, killing anyone who appeared tired or who was deemed to be too old to be useful.
In addition to the series of attacks in early February, the LRA killed 22 civilians during smaller attacks throughout the Manziga area this year. On January 20, for example, in the village of Nabo, the LRA tied up a 74-year-old man, then crushed his skull and stabbed him in the back with a large wooden stick. His brother found his body a few days later with the stick still stuck in his back.
On April 13, the LRA abducted and mutilated a 31-year-old woman from Quartier Zande, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Niangara. After clasping her lips together with pliers, the LRA combatants forced a 16-year-old Congolese boy, abducted during a previous attack, to slice off her lips and her right ear with a knife.
Human Rights Watch research, including interviews with those abducted who later escaped, found that the killings and other atrocities were carried out by LRA commanders who report to Gen. Dominic Ongwen, one of the LRA's top commanders. Ongwen, along with two other LRA leaders, is sought by the International Criminal Court under an arrest warrant issued in July 2005 for previous crimes committed in northern Uganda. All three remain at large.
"The arrest warrants for LRA leaders have been outstanding for nearly five years," Van Woudenberg said. "Meanwhile, heinous abuses continue to be committed."
The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUC) has a base in the town of Niangara, just south of the Manziga chieftaincy. With few troops and poor roads in the area, the UN peacekeepers rarely leave the town and have been unable to prevent or respond to the recent attacks.
The Congolese and Ugandan armed forces also have a presence in the town and the surrounding area but with poor logistics and communications capabilities, they too have been unable to provide adequate security for civilians. In recent weeks, Congolese officials have been more active in documenting LRA atrocities. In April, a high-level team from Kinshasa was sent to Niangara to investigate and report on LRA crimes against Congolese civilians.
"Both the peacekeepers and the Congolese government need to increase their presence in northeastern Congo with forces equipped to protect civilians and to respond quickly to LRA attacks," Van Woudenberg said. "Increased humanitarian assistance to victims and civilians forced to flee the attacks is also urgently needed."
Human Rights Watch called on the Obama administration and other donor governments to work with Congolese authorities to improve communication systems in LRA-affected areas to permit UN peacekeepers and others to respond quickly to attacks and to find out where LRA leaders are hiding. This could include funding the expansion of cell phone networks and community radio stations.
The killings in the Manziga chieftaincy followed a four-day massacre in the nearby Makombo area in December 2009. LRA combatants, also operating under Ongwen's command, attacked numerous villages, in one of the single largest massacres by the LRA in its 23-year history. Local leaders interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported they have recently uncovered another 24 bodies from this LRA attack, bringing the death toll to at least 345.
The recent killings are part of a longstanding practice of atrocities and abuse by the LRA. Pushed out of northern Uganda in 2005, the LRA now operates in the remote border area between southern Sudan, Congo, and the Central African Republic.
In December 2008, the governments of the region, led by the Ugandan armed forces and with intelligence and logistical support from the United States, opened a military campaign against the LRA in northeastern Congo, Operation Lightning Thunder. But the military campaign has failed to end the violence or to apprehend the LRA's leaders.
"The US government has depended on the Ugandan army to end the threat of the LRA, but this strategy is not working," Van Woudenberg said. "The Obama administration, together with governments in the region and other concerned states, should go back to the drawing board and develop new policy options to end the LRA's violence, including a more effective strategy to apprehend LRA leaders implicated in atrocities."
On May 19, human rights defenders in Niangara issued a public appeal to President Obama: "We live each day in fear that there will be more attacks by the LRA...We know that you alone can bring a concrete, rapid, and decisive response before our women and children are wiped out."