Sunday, June 29, 2008

New War Looms in DR Congo

Just returned from two weeks in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The place still has a ways to go before it's listed on the Conde Nast Traveler's top destinations. Unless you're an unemployed war lord, gold smuggler or diamond merchant.

Joseph Kony falls into the first category, but he could get busy soon, and may be distracted from his solar powered video projectors.

Doruma, Democratic Republic of Congo -- On the morning of Good Friday, March 21, third-grade schoolteacher Raymond Rpiolebeyo rode his bicycle down the dirt track leading to his home village of Gurba, expecting to spend the Easter weekend with his family and friends.

But his trip was cut short when a group of heavily-armed rebels emerged from the jungle, ordered him off his bicycle and took him captive.

The fighters were members of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, the Ugandan rebel group that for the past two-and-a-half years has occupied remote areas in and around the Garamba National Park in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC.

After two years of relative quiet, and as peace talks with Uganda continued in Juba, South Sudan, the LRA went on the rampage in the remote region where the park is located, with a campaign of looting, abduction and killing.

In a major extended raid, rebel forces left the Garamba park at the beginning of February and crossed first into South Sudan and then into the neighbouring Central African Republic, where the rebels kidnapped more than 100 people and pillaged the town of Obo before returning to their base camp in DRC.

Along the way, the group used captured civilians to act as porters for looted goods. Some of the captives were then pressed into service, forced to undergo military training to boost the ranks of a group that has survived over many years by abducting and forcibly conscripting civilians including children.

Recent reports suggest the situation is about to intensify. United Nations sources say units of the DRC army could begin arriving by the end of June in Dungu, the area’s main town, located less than 100 kilometres from the Garamba park. Their mission would be to keep the LRA forces in check, if not drive them out of the park altogether.

Such a move could, however, herald a protracted war against the LRA, which currently numbers about 700 seasoned guerrilla fighters with a cult-like devotion to their leader Joseph Kony, making them one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most feared militias.

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