The nightmare of Africa’s rebels
by John Fleming
Editor at Large
Jan 31, 2010 | 4386 views |  0 comments | 32 32 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Associated Press
Joseph Kony, the leader of the Sudanese rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony’s group has wreaked havoc in many of that nation’s southern villages.
The Associated Press Joseph Kony, the leader of the Sudanese rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony’s group has wreaked havoc in many of that nation’s southern villages.
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MUNDRI, Sudan — Repent Ligyi squats before his decrepit hut in the middle of a clearing surrounded by his failing sorghum crop.[Watch the Video]

The only thing living around him — and perhaps the only thing keeping this broken man alive — is his family, his four sons and his wife, Joy.

He has almost nothing to call his own except the tall, dried stalks of grain waving behind him. He has nothing to look forward to but hunger.

Yet, he is the first to say that things could be worse for him and his family. It is, he insists, nothing short of a miracle that he and the others sit here today.

His modest but comfortable life in the small Sudanese village of Diko, close to the Uganda border 70 miles to the south, turned nightmarish nine months ago when men came in from the countryside, shooting, killing and burning everything in their path.

“They came into our village, shooting without warning,” said Ligyi, a pastor when he is not trying to farm or sell charcoal in the nearby market. “When they arrived, they surrounded the houses and took everything we owned. They forced people to carry what they stole.”

By the time it was all over, he said, 15 of his fellow villagers were dead. Many others were kidnapped.

Then plumbing the debts of his own misery— with Joy hovering close by, eyes downcast — Ligyi relates the loss of his most valuable possession that evening so long ago. He knows good and well that his 15-year-old daughter Teresa has in all likelihood been forced not only into the role of porter and servant, but also into the role of sex slave.

The misery of the Ligyi family has come complements of a shadowy rebel group that prowls this part of Africa. It calls itself the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Sadly, what the LRA did to this family and their village has been typical for a couple of decades now. Although born from the ashes of Uganda’s civil war in the 1980s, the group now drifts like an airborne plague out of that country’s north and into southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, killing, maiming and kidnapping seemingly at random, seemingly with little strategic meaning to anything it does.

Except that in this part of Africa, there is a sick logic to the modus operandi of the LRA.

A region’s tragedies

It was more than 20 years ago that Joseph Kony, the self-declared head of the LRA, came into being. His stated goal has been to overthrow the government of Uganda and replace it with a theocratic state based on Kony’s bizarre biblical interpretations.

He and his scheme are, people familiar with the man will tell you, as nutty as a fruitcake.

What stands behind this madman, however, fits into the tragic geopolitics of the region.

Kony and his assembled peddlers of destruction have long been associated with the Sudanese government, an oppressive regime seated in the capital of Khartoum in the north. On and off since the mid-1950s, that regime has fought its own insurgency in the nation’s south, an insurgency that has been aligned with the government of Uganda.

In the past, Khartoum has wished for nothing more than to cause trouble for its neighbor to the south for causing trouble for Khartoum.

That support likely continues, some experts say, even in this time of fragile peace for Sudan. (As part of a peace agreement, Sudan’s government and the south’s rebels reached an accord in 2005 that calls for a referendum on independence in 2011. Though the two sides have stopped fighting, the situation on the ground is tense, with many looking for a return to hostilities before or after the scheduled referendum on self-determination.)

Nelson Kasfir, a professor of government at Dartmouth who has written extensively on Uganda and the LRA, believes Sudanese government support for the LRA continues, though he stresses his is mostly an educated guess.

In an e-mail exchange, he wrote that most likely the Khartoum government is continuing to support the LRA “as part of its now-evident policy to support militia to disrupt the south in order to make the referendum in 2011 impossible. However, I haven’t seen solid evidence to back that up.”

Kasfir went on to say that he considers the LRA both dependent on Joseph Kony and self-perpetuating.

The LRA, he wrote, “can live simply off predatory raids on villages, so long as it has a supply of weapons and ammunition.

“I think,” he continued, “the LRA or its offshoots are likely to continue to operate, possibly even if Kony is captured ... It will continue to disrupt the [regional peace].”

The LRA’s recent brutality in southern Sudan is aggravating an already precarious situation made more serious by a widespread crop failure, escalating ethnic infighting and growing political quarreling between the north and south that are sending troubling signals that war may return.

It is, to say the least, a dangerous time for Sudan and anyone who, like Ligyi and his family, falls into the line of fire of the LRA.

“The LRA is a big problem,” said James Phatalo, a secretary for the West Mundri District of the Southern Sudan Rehabilitation and Relief Commission in this market town approximately 100 miles west of the regional capital, Juba.

Using statistics for 2009, he said, “this year we have 8,261 people displaced in Mundri alone. This, as you can imagine, has disturbed a lot of activities.”

It is an especially dangerous situation, Phatalo stressed, considering the background of what is going on in the region.

Secretary Phatalo, as he makes clear, could do without the distractions provided by the LRA.

Help from U.S. Congress

While the LRA’s ability to cause regional instability has brought it the most attention, its penchant for low-level, grotesque, terrorism tactics have caught the attention of those who see it first-hand — human-rights groups who have taken the message to power centers around the world.

Leader Kony is currently under a multi-count indictment from the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, including murder, enslavement, sexual enslavement and rape.

His movement also has abducted thousands of children and forced many of them to fight. His men also frequently mutilate the living (lopped off noses, ears and lips are trademark LRA signatures) and the dead (Ligyi buried such corpses — teeth pulled out, ears cut off, heads smashed in — on his retreat from Diko nine months ago, he says).

In the U.S. Congress, a bipartisan bill dubbed the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which aims to step up U.S. efforts to quash the rebel movement, appears to have widespread support. Additionally, scores of members of Congress have signed on to a letter to secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging more focus on stopping Kony.

The trouble, however, is how does one reason with a person who leads a movement that would visit such horrors on the innocent.

Kony, says Richard Lobban, a professor of African politics at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., has little incentive to stop what he’s doing with indictments from the International Criminal Court hovering over his head.

Lobban, like many who follow the LRA, would simply like to see the group “put out of business.”

Meanwhile, Repent Ligyi and his family wait until it is safe to return to their village. They hope that by some miracle Theresa will return to them.

“I am very, very sad,” Joy Ligyi says. “Even now as I speak of her, I am so worried. Since I came here, I am sickly because I am so worried. Sometimes I think I am gong to die, also.”

John Fleming is a former southern Africa correspondent for Reuters.

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Editor at Large

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