Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lord's Resistance Army: LRA nurtures the next generation of child soldiers

Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN. Atati Faustin’s younger brother was kidnapped in 2010 by the LRA when he was nine and is now a child soldier

Source: IRIN

The dilemma for Atati Faustin, 13, from Faradje in Haut-Uélé District, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is that although he misses his younger brother – abducted into the ranks of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) two years ago - he is also afraid of being reunited with him.

“I want my brother back,” he told IRIN, “but if I see him I would run. I am scared of him. I feel like he has died.”

Displaced with about 1,300 people from the nearby village of Kimbinzi in 2008 following repeated LRA attacks, and relocated to Ngubu, a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) on the outskirts of Faradje, he has not yet encountered him, but others in the community have - dishevelled, with dreadlocks, and carrying an AK47 assault rifle and a panga.

Kimbinzi is about 7km from the camp and occasionally some villagers return under a military escort provided by Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) to till the fields, as crops planted on land provided for them close to the River Dungu are routinely destroyed by hippos. Only young men return (during daylight hours) to Kimbinzi in a phenomenon described by relief workers as “pendulum movement” - women and children stay in the relative safety of Ngubu.

Joseph Kony’s LRA is thought to have kidnapped more than 30,000 children from the Central African Republic, DRC, South Sudan and Uganda in a 25-year transnational conflict. Captured boys are forced into child soldiering and girls are used as sex slaves or babysitters (`ting-tings’).

Ugandan aid worker George Omoma has tracked the carnage left in the LRA’s wake across three countries, where children are not so much collateral damage, as the focus of LRA activity.

“Kony tells his people that it is not you [adults] that will overthrow the [Ugandan] government, it is the children. He wants to create a new generation of the LRA,” Omoma told IRIN.

Omoma is in Dungu helping to establish a rehabilitation centre for child victims of the LRA by the Catholic Church and NGOs Sponsoring Children and the San- Diego-based Invisible Children. When operations start later this year, the facility will be able to provide accommodation, counselling, training and education to hundreds of former child soldiers and abductees.

Joyce Neu of the Carter Center had a three-hour meeting with Kony and his senior command on 24 February 2000 in Nsitu, Sudan, and although he “did not admit to having abductees in the LRA... Sam Ottoa [now known as Sam Kolo] let slip references to `the children’ three times, each time he quickly corrected it with ‘our brothers’,” she told IRIN.

Kolo, an LRA political officer, headed negotiations with Betty Bigombe in 2004, but became a Kony assassination target. He escaped with Bigombe in a helicopter the UN provided her with to conduct another round of negotiations. He now lives in Gulu, Uganda.

A February 2004 report by the Refugee Law Project, Behind the Violence: Causes, Consequences and the Search for Solutions to the War in Northern Uganda, provides the rationale for Kony using children as “a vital resource” for his war. LRA activity in Uganda ended in 2006.

Haunted by the LRA

As in other conflicts where child soldiers have been used “they are easily malleable to whatever purpose Kony wants, and are very quick to obey his orders” and “forcing children to kill their friends or family members in front of other abductees instills fear into them and discourages them from escaping,” the report said. “The LRA views nine to 12-year-olds as the most desirable combatant age-group.”

Josephine Inopayngba, 27, a counsellor in Dungu for former child soldiers and LRA abductees, told IRIN the fear instilled by LRA methods haunt their victims long-after they have escaped or been released by the armed group.

She said an escapee from the LRA made pregnant by rape “told me she wanted to kill her child at birth. I told her the child is innocent. She said kids kill their parents and she was afraid the child would grow up and kill her.”

Inopayngba said in her experience in the past two years as a counsellor, three families had refused to accept their children back after they had become child soldiers: “They cannot understand it is the fault of the LRA, not the child.”

The initiation of child soldiers, she said, involves practices like executing other abductees. “They will ask them [porters] if they want to take a rest and if they say `yes’ they will allow one of the children to kill them.”

Justin Minanbu, 15, was kidnapped by the LRA from South Sudan 14 months ago, escaped nine months later and has spent the past five months living with a host family in Dungu while his relatives are traced. Both of his parents are dead. He was used as a porter and a servant for an LRA commander.

“I was beaten often by the commander with the flat side of a panga, for any mistakes. Like if the fire was not good,” he said. Two of the group of eight LRA fighters he travelled with were child soldiers aged about 13 and they were “good to me. Sometimes the commander would order them to punish me and they would beat me. But after that we would play like friends,” Minanbu said.

Joseph Angoyo, chief of Aba’s hospital, about 20km south of the South Sudan border, told IRIN under the supervision of an official from the DRC intelligence service, “the longer the captivity, the worse the condition”.

Angoyo said the hospital treats about 10 former abductees a month and many are suffering from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), mainly syphilis he said. The youngest victim he had treated for an STD was a seven-year-old girl.

Breeding child soldiers

Dominic Ongwen has risen through the ranks to become the LRA’s most senior commander in the DRC and is the armed group’s most notorious example of a kidnapped boy forced into child soldiering and who is now wanted for crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

Sam Otto Ladere has appeared on the radar with a similar personnel history to Ongwen. He commands a group of 17 fighters falling under the command of Vincent Okumu Binany in the DRC.

Matthew Brubacher, political affairs officer working with the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC’s (MONUSCO’s) Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration and Resettlement (DDRRR) unit, and an LRA specialist based in the eastern DRC city of Goma, told IRIN Ladere was abducted at a young age from a village west of Gulu.

“Ladere is one of the up and coming commanders. He is very trusted. This was evidenced by his being placed as chief of intelligence after Maj-Gen Acellam Ceasar was suspended following the execution of Lt-Gen Vincent Otti on 2 October 2007, even though Ladere was only a captain,” he said. DDRRR is working on a radio message on their FM network to try and lure him out of the bush.

Omoma said former abductees and child soldiers had told him of Ladere’s brutality.

Kony has taken many wives. At the Juba peace talks in 2006 it was estimated he had about 80 wives and it is unknown how many children the rebel leader has fathered.

“I don't know how many Kony kids are active in the LRA, probably quite a few. There are a few bush kids now that were born and bred in the LRA. They are pretty wild when they come out as they have never known civilization,” Brubacher said.