by DAVID AXE
As a military target, the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group in Congo makes other armed bands look easy, in comparison. Even the Taliban — a notoriously fleet-footed group that easily blends in among Afghan civilians — is easier to find, fix and destroy.
Congo’s terrain is a big part of the problem. Thickly forested, under-developed and ringed by porous borders, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the perfect hiding place. Not to mention, the poorly-governed country is as large as Western Europe. With three decades of experience surviving in the Central African bush, the LRA knows how to move and how to disappear.
The LRA’s elusiveness forces those combating it to constantly devise new tactics. In the town of Dungu, in northeastern Congo’s Orientale Province, members of the U.N.’s Demobilization, Disarmament, Repatriation, Reinsertion and Reintegration body — known as “DD Triple R” — struggle to make contact with LRA fighters and their camp followers … and convince them to risk quitting the group and returning to society.
The hope is that a steady drain of fighters and followers will gradually weaken the LRA. “We must get foreign armed groups to surrender so at long last there can be peace in Congo,” Guillaume Kahongya, a DD Triple R radio announcer, told Offiziere.ch.
That’s easier said than done, said DD Triple R team leader Ian Rowe. “It’s difficult to reach the LRA just because of the nature of the way they operate.” Intelligence reports indicate the main body of several hundred LRA fighters plus its followers, all under the command of founder Joseph Kony, has moved into neighboring Central African Republic, leaving scattered bands of no more than a few dozen people operating across eastern Congo under the command of Kony’s lieutenants.
“There are two main tools we use: radio and flyers,” Rowe continued. “The flyers are distributed via local communities and community leaders and also by the various military forces in operation across the region: the MONUSCO [U.N.] military contingent, the [Ugandan People’s Defense Force] and the Congolese military, the FARDC.”
There are three variations on DD Triple R’s basic message, Kahongya said. One targets camp followers — usually kidnapping victims who are held as laborers or sex slaves and forced to give up their former identities, including their native languages, in favor of the LRA’s rootless lifestyle and its Ugandan dialect. The second aims at persuading LRA fighters to lay down their weapons. The third is meant to educate Congolese civilians. After years of LRA atrocities, many Congolese are inclined to simply kill on sight anyone suspected of LRA ties. Creating a system for demobilization means persuading civilians to let people quit the LRA without fear of reprisal.
It’s difficult to measure the effects of DD Triple R’s efforts, Rowe admitted. “It’s hard to say how many people heard the radio and because they heard the radio decided turn themselves in. It’s hard say how many people see the flyers posted in the forest and whether that’s an incentive to try to escape. In addition, lots of escapees or ex-combatants who turn themselves in or surrender do so to other elements — the FARDC, the UPDF — and they have their own systems for repatriating or reintegrating them. So we don’t always know how many people are coming in.
“At the basic level, the amount of people we have received [at DD Triple R] has not been high. This year I think we received 20 to 30 people who have escaped or ex-combatants who have turned themselves in. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem like much, but there are others we don’t see or don’t have the access to know about.”
Semantics also complicate DD Triple R’s mission. As Rowe explained it, Congolese civilians terrorized by years of brutal LRA attacks have adopted the term “LRA” to describe any violent actor inhabiting the Congolese bush. Banditry is common on the region’s footpaths and potholed dirt roads. Ask an attack victim who was responsible for the crime, and more often than not he’ll simply say, “LRA.” By now, it’s nearly impossible for DD Triple R to tell highway thugs from LRA fighters.