Fresh attacks by Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in Southern Sudan have forced thousands of people to flee their homes and created a worrying spike in humanitarian needs, UN officials and aid workers warn.
The recent attacks have triggered widespread panic and fear in regions bordering the DRC and the Central African Republic. In some areas, the UN has suspended humanitarian work, Reuters reports.
Aid workers and UN staff were evacuated by two helicopters last week from Ezo, close to Sudan’s border with DRC, after an attack blamed on the LRA.
The rebels appear to have timed their raid to coincide with a church service, looting stores and abducting several children.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said statement it “is deeply concerned about the fate of the large number of refugees and IDPs caught in the latest attacks in several villages along the borders of the three countries”.
Many of those fleeing had already been forced from their homes by previous LRA attacks, according to UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic.
Ugandan troops led a US-backed military operation in December 2008 against remote rebel bases after LRA leader Joseph Kony again failed to appear for a scheduled peace accord-signing ceremony. After the botched operation, the LRA mounted a wave of reprisal attacks, killing hundreds of civilians.
The LRA “continues to wreak havoc” in the region and “the numbers of refugees and displaced are rising steadily”, said Lise Grande, UN Deputy Resident Humanitarian Coordinator for Southern Sudan.
More than 180 people have been killed by the LRA in Southern Sudan since late July, Grande added.
“Altogether since late 2008, over 230 000 have been internally displaced as a result of the LRA; more than 25 000 people have entered Southern Sudan as refugees,” said Grande.
“In terms of the future, however, the picture does not look very good – violence is continuing in the DRC and CAR, raising the concern of future displacements and increased numbers of refugees.”
In addition, some 360 000 Congolese have been forced to flee successive LRA attacks in northeast DRC, according to UN estimates.
Aid workers report a worrying humanitarian situation, describing an “atmosphere of terror” in DRC.
“The people are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Katharine Derderian, a humanitarian adviser for the aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Belgium, who has recently returned from an assessment in DRC.
“They are too scared to return to the rural areas, so they are unable to cultivate their fields, or to even send their children to school because they fear the LRA will attack,” Derderian added.
“But resources are being stretched in all areas, health, food and other services within the urban areas where the people have moved to.”
Southern Sudanese officials say they are doing all they can to protect civilians – but attacks have even been made on the regional capital Yambio.
Colonel Joseph Ngere Paciko, deputy state governor of Western Equatoria, the Sudanese region hit hardest by the LRA, said the expert jungle guerrillas preferred to target civilians and avoid patrols by the Southern military, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
“They are avoiding any conventional attack they are not willing to confront SPLA forces,” Paciko added.
But analysts warn that military might not alone provide a lasting solution.
“The LRA still remain a threat not merely because of their numbers, but simply because they are a guerrilla group,” said Louise Khabure, of the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank.
“They move around in small groups and nobody knows when and how they will attack; the armies involved are using conventional means which are inappropriate for handling guerrilla operations,” she added.
With an upcoming vote for Southern Sudan on its potential full independence due in 2011, some fear the LRA may resume its role as a proxy force for those keen to block the emergence of a fully autonomous south.
Khabure said she suspected that “residual support from Khartoum is still maintained”, referring to support north Sudan gave the LRA during Sudan’s 22-year civil war against Southern forces.
Finding a solution to end the LRA insurgency will be tough, she said, but the first step would be to renew contact with LRA leaders – who have been silent for months.
“Credible contact is needed with Kony,” said Khabure.
“From there, hear him out first to get indications of what he wants. There will be a need to negotiate new terms of assembly, and then containment.”
Pic: LRA solider