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The Lord's Resistance Army is alive and well

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Sister Angelique At Canberra's Australia for UNHCR Donor Briefing, there is a map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on the large screen behind the Congolese social activist Sister Angelique Namaika (pictured, left).

Dozens of small red marks are clustered on it, like flames, indicators of recent attacks by one of the world's oldest guerrilla armies.

For almost twenty years, across the settlements and subsistence farms of Central Africa the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has preyed upon civilian populations with exceptional cruelty, emerging from the bush in small units to commit unspeakable atrocities.

Like Nigeria's Boko Haram, its tactics have focused on the destruction of local villages, abducting and raping woman and young girls, sexual slavery, mutilation and the grooming of child soldiers.

For many outsiders, the LRA's endurance has proved difficult to understand. For Sister Angelique, there can only be a negotiated solution to the ongoing war through the bringing together of representatives of the fragmented and traumatised peoples across the region.

Others have pointed out that there is no longer the political will or the consensus about what exactly can or should be achieved by such an initiative. Moreover, there is the common assumption, especially outside the region, that the worst of the emergency has passed; the LRA has been decimated and scattered, its leader, Joseph Kony, in hiding and probably ineffectual.

As Sister Angelique insists, the latter assumption is much mistaken. Beyond the enclaves of Internally Displaced People who are protected by UN peacekeepers, she says, there is no security. Families have been broken apart, community connections are being lost, so that to risk returning to one's village for a funeral or a wedding is impossible. Recent history has shown that the army's sexual violence and other forms of brutality is now more widespread than ever, reaching across porous borders from the DRC into the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Initially made up primarily of the Acholi people of northern Uganda, the LRA emerged in the late 1980s as an armed reaction to what was seen as political and economic discrimination by the Baganda-dominated central government. Though small in number, it rapidly acquired a cult-like dimension under Kony's charismatic leadership. A self-proclaimed visionary, Kony appeared to convince his followers that his instructions came to him directly from the Lord himself.

Even during that first decade, the LRA targeted its own Acholi villagers, as well as the Ugandan National Army. In March 2014 a United States Congressional Report estimated that the result was that 20,000 children were abducted and almost the entire northern population of two million Acholis was displaced in what the LRA described as a campaign of tribal 'purification'.

In 2008, the failure of the Juba negotiations between the Uganda government and the LRA to create a peaceful settlement was marked by a swift resort to a military offensive aimed at Kony and his leadership group. The government also offered immunity from prosecution for defectors, an initiative that was at least partially successful.

With financial and logistical support from the Bush Administration, Operation Lightning Strike was a combined effort of the Uganda People's Defence Forces and Congolese ground forces. It was poorly coordinated, with disastrous consequences. The LRA responded with massive reprisals against civilians, then reputedly under Kony's guidance formed into small groups and disappeared like shadows into the bush. Last year's Congressional Report described its current area of activity as vast and characterised by extremely minimal government influence and a limited humanitarian presence.

These days more emphasis is placed on Kony's highly-sophisticated understanding of the stratagems of guerrilla warfare and his creation of a culture of terror, than on his alleged heavenly guidance It is also said that the LRA is now in 'survival mode'. In other words, its reduced membership has devolved into dispersed cohorts of men sustained by a warrior culture of sadistic violence, and whose political demands and economic agenda are singularly vague.

Recent reports have also suggested a new dimension of criminality with their involvement in elephant poaching and ivory trading. Above all, as with all highly-effective guerrilla armies, the question remains whether the LRA is experiencing a brief hiatus before its resurgence in the face of the weakening of international and regional efforts to contain it.

Speaking at the UNHCR Donor Briefing, Sister Angelique denies there are any conclusive reasons for yielding to pessimism about her country's future. She describes her community of women and children in her home region of Dungu as 'a village of hope'. Trauma takes a long time to heal, she says, so we needed activities that give these women a sense of self-worth and a means to make a living.

Since 2008, they have established a bakery, sewing training, a market garden and a school for the children. And the challenges? To obtain funds for a school house, an orphanage, a clinic and for clean drinking water. Nevertheless, with the courage of the women, she says, look at what has already been achieved.

Dorothy HorsfieldDorothy Horsfield is an ANU visiting fellow who has a PhD in Contemporary Russian Studies and also writes novels, must recently a title Venom, about funnel web spiders and federal politics.

Sister Angelique image by Wikimedia Commons.



Topic tags: Dorothy Horsfield, Sister Angelique Namaika, Congo, LRA, Joseph Kony



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Existing comments

I can only express my admiration for the dedication, stamina, feistiness and holiness of Sister Angelique (well named). And what a misnomer - the Lord's Resistance Army, a group crying out for profound change to its culture. It's heartening to read that women are fighting back and nurturing community spirit.

Pam | 26 August 2015  

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