Friday, December 19, 2008

New tactic with the LRA

Starting on December 14th, the governments of DRC, Uganda and Southern Sudan launched a joint military offensive (Ugandan war planes, Southern Sudanese and DRC troops) aimed at forcing Joseph Kony, the leader of the rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), to sign a peace agreement. Kony helped negotiate the agreement, and promised to sign seven times, but has not shown up at any of the four agreed-upon dates to sign.

Joseph Kony (left), leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, shakes hands with Riek Machar (center), Vice President of the Government of Southern Sudan, in a May 2006 meeting at Yambio to discuss LRA activity in the region. Vincent Otti, Kony's deputy, stands on the right of Mr. Machar. The man in the red beret is a member of the UPDF (Ugandan Government's military). Source - Wikipedia accessed 19/12/08.

Joseph Kony is a particularly nasty person - under his leadership, the LRA has systematically abducted over 60,000 children since the late '80's, and Kony has anywhere from 27 to 50 wives (mostly abducted girls). In 2005, Kony and three of his senior commanders were indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, which include murder, enslavement, sexual enslavement and rape. Despite all this, Kony declares himself a the "spokesperson" of God and a spirit medium, and that the LRA is fighting for the Ten Commandments.

The LRA believe they are protecting the Acholi people of northern Uganda from a government run by southerners. But, while in the late 1980's-2005 they focused on their campaigns in Northern Uganda, since 2005 they have been operating in DRC, CAR, and Southern Sudan.
Since I arrived in Southern Sudan a little more than a year ago, there have been countless attacks by the LRA in Central and Western Equitoria. Same tactics - abducting children and raping women. This happens mainly on the border, but reports of raids on villages (mainly for food and supplies) farther in the interior are also sporadically reported. Roads connecting Juba, Yei, Lainya, Torit and Nimule have been shut down (the Ugandan border), as have roads between Maridi, Yambio, and Tambura (DRC and CAR borders). Our programmatic operations and those of countless other agencies have been affected and costs of the mandatory armed escorts for travel along those roads around times of insecturity have soared.

Part of my job is scanning the UN/NGO security reports for trouble around Tambura county, where we have one staff member based and a peer education program running. One of the payams (equivalent to a town) the peer educators normally go to on the border with DRC and CAR, named Source Yubu, was attacked this past year, and the Payam Administrator, who did not run and hide but tried to negotiate with the rebels, was shot and killed. He was our biggest ally - he was HIV positive and talked openly about his status and experience with his people. Not one person did more to tackle stigma and discrimination, and promote understanding and compassion, than he did.

So how do I feel about the change in tactic of the international community, from peace talks and negotiations to military offensives? I have mixed feelings. Joseph Kony was not going to willingly come out of the jungle to sign an agreement and turn himself over with all of the ICC, that's for sure. And armed conflict always claims civilian lives. Neither way is perfect.

So which is the lesser of the two evils? Trying to end the LRA's guerrilla warfare with peaceful means and negotiations while the LRA kills more people and destabilizes the region, or try to force Kony and the LRA out with force while killing the child soldiers abducted from their families who are now LRA combatants, and forcing thousands of cilivians around the areas where the LRA have their bases out of their homes? What do you think?

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