Uganda’s conflict spreads to Congo, where LRA rebels massacre villagers

Lord’s Resistance Army rebels who have set up base in northern Congo hacked at Bertra Bamgbe’s face with a machete, cutting off half his left ear. Behind him is Kelele Annibetibe, who suffered a dozen stab wounds. Congolese villagers say Congo officials have failed to protect them in the face of a multination crackdown on the rebels.
(Edmund Sanders / Los Angeles Times)

The rebels targeted churches on Christmas Day.

Men were killed first, often stripped of shirts and pants, and then bound with their arms behind their backs. Rather than waste bullets, the attackers hacked victims in the back of the neck with machetes or shattered their skulls with sticks.

“It happened step by step,” said Joseph Kpayajadia, 58, a farmer who hid in the grass and saw his son being killed. “They held everyone together in a group and then took people five or six at a time into the bush to kill. Then they came back for more.”

By the time the rampage ended, 254 people were dead in nine villages in a string of attacks that lasted several days, officials in Doruma estimate.

This troubled area of northeastern Congo, where regional conflicts have left 5 million people dead over 12 years, is now home base for one of Africa’s longest-running and most insidious rebel movements: the Lord’s Resistance Army, a fearsome group from neighboring Uganda that claims to demand strict adherence to the Ten Commandments.

A surprise joint offensive last month by the armies of Uganda, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo had sought to crush the rebel militia, notorious for preying on children, in its Congo hide-out.

But rather than kill the LRA’s elusive leader, Joseph Kony, airstrikes against half a dozen rebel camps in the dense forests here appear to have only given new life to an old conflict, turning Uganda’s civil war into a growing regional crisis.

After a lull in attacks over the last two years, the rebel army -- estimated at 600 fighters -- has split into small bands, scattering in different directions and terrorizing civilian populations with the most brutal massacres by the militia since 2004.

Humanitarian groups worry this pocket of northern Congo is witnessing the same type of catastrophe that northern Uganda did a decade ago. Congolese victims say the military offensive has put them in the cross hairs of a neighbor’s war.

The rebels picked Christmas Day to launch their retaliation because they knew they’d find large groups of people celebrating.

Women and children were not spared. The father of a 4-year-old girl, lying stiffly on a filthy hospital mattress, said the attackers tried to break her neck and then threw her atop the corpses of her mother and two siblings. In nearby beds, other survivors, still shaking in pain and fear, were so traumatized that they had been unable to speak since the attack, hospital officials said.

Across the region, at least 500 people have been killed and 100,000 displaced in the last four months, mostly in Congo, but also in southern Sudan and Central African Republic. Officials say the death toll might be as high as 1,000, but it’s difficult to tally because of the inaccessibility of Congo’s dense forests and the unsafe conditions. In some villages, bodies still lie where they fell because villagers have been too afraid to return.

LRA representatives denied responsibility for the massacres in Doruma and other villages, saying they had been carried out by a rogue unit of the Ugandan army in an attempt to smear the rebels.

“On the one hand, the Ugandan military says the LRA has been wiped out, so how can LRA come back and kill in these areas?” rebel negotiator David Matsanga said.

Kony’s lofty aspirations about religious revolution and fighting for Uganda’s marginalized northerners faded long ago, and his group is best known now for kidnapping more than 20,000 Ugandan children in the last 22 years, turning them into killing machines and sex slaves through a combination of brainwashing, intimidation and drugs.

In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Kony. In the last two years, the guerrilla leader has flirted with signing a peace treaty, but talks stalled over his demand for immunity.

During most of that time, Kony’s forces have been hiding in Congo’s Garamba National Park, keeping a low profile and only occasionally attacking local populations. But in September, LRA gangs stepped up their attacks in several villages near the Sudanese border, kidnapping 90 children, including 50 from the same school.

About 350 children have been kidnapped in Congo so far, most of them taken after the Dec. 14 offensive, aid groups said. In some Congolese villages, frightened children refuse to go to school and they leave their homes at night -- preferring to sleep alone in the bush.

“They feel that if they are more dispersed, they can’t be as easily targeted by the LRA,” said Genti Miho, head of UNICEF’s office in Bunia.

So far, the multinational campaign has received praise from the United Nations, United States and others in the international community, who say they’ve grown tired of Kony’s broken promises.

But Congolese say they are suffering as the Ugandans pursue a longtime foe, and blame their own government for failing to provide better security.

“We are innocent,” said Bertra Bamgbe, 35, a farmer from Faradje who was hacked in the face with a machete. He lost half his left ear and has a 4-inch gash in his cheek. “Why isn’t anyone protecting us?”

Felicien Balani, a civic leader in Dungu, where many displaced families have gathered, said the LRA is “a Uganda problem. So why are the Congolese dying? The governments didn’t plan this very well and we are the ones paying the price.”

Prospects for a quick military success appear to be dwindling after some initial missteps. Ugandan forces did not follow the bombing of the rebel camps with ground troops for more than a week, giving LRA fighters time to flee.

Congolese troops failed to deploy to civilian areas to stave off retaliatory attacks. According to one LRA abductee, who survived an airstrike, the rebels had advance notice.

“We’d heard that there might be an attack,” said the young woman, 20, who was kidnapped in early 2008 from her village in Central African Republic. Now eight months pregnant, the woman, whose name was withheld for her protection, narrowly escaped because she was fetching water when Ugandan helicopters attacked.

Her “husband” and other LRA fighters had left the camp earlier in the day, leaving behind abductees and children who were being forced to tend nearby crops.

“There were many people in the camps when it was bombed,” she said.

Her story underscores the need for military restraint, aid workers say, because most LRA fighters are abducted children who have been forced into battle.

“The perpetrators here are also the victims,” said Margarida Fawke of the U.N.'s refugee agency

Ugandan army spokesman Maj. Paddy Ankunda defended the campaign, saying it had netted LRA weapons caches, food stocks and other supplies. “We have been able to deny the LRA’s capacity to make war,” Ankunda said.

But the campaign has left Congolese villagers bitter and bewildered. Most had never even heard of the LRA and were unaware of the airstrikes until the rebel group turned its anger on them.

Leontine Imipavulu was bathing her week-old son on Christmas Day when a gang of men in uniforms descended upon her family’s mud hut. She cowered in the bush a few yards away, clutching the infant to her breast to keep him from crying out, as the strangers killed her parents and husband with an ax.

“I was the only one in my family to survive,” she said quietly. “Just me and the baby now. I still don’t really know who they were or what they wanted.”