The December 14 assault on Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) camps in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) surprised many.
The offensive came after LRA leader Joseph Kony had rebuffed the international community three times in 2008 by failing to sign a peace deal with Uganda that had been negotiated over the previous two years.
The latest one came at the end of November.
I was on the plane from Entebbe, Uganda, to Juba, South Sudan, on Thanksgiving Day with the delegation of some 15 elders and cultural leaders from northern Uganda who had been summoned to the jungle by Kony.
Kony had called for them for last-minute consultations before signing the agreement –or so many thought -- on Nov. 30 or Dec. 1.
I sat beside one of the elders, who smiled and shrugged when I asked if Kony would sign this time.
His doubts proved to be well founded. Sources at the elders’ meeting with Kony said that he knew little of the agreement and threatened them for pressuring him to sign it.
Kony’s latest snub gave Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who was prepared to sign the deal if Kony did, the excuse he needed –along with the blessing of the international community and cooperation from DRC and South Sudan – to launch an assault.
But it was botched, as some had feared. Uganda has only created a bigger problem for the region and the prospect of a protracted and bloody conflict repeating what northern Uganda has suffered for 20 years.
The first hint that the offensive was mishandled came when word spread that Ugandan ground forces arrived at the main LRA camp two days after Ugandan jets and helicopter gun-ships bombed it.
They found nothing but burned huts.
Only recently has Uganda found some mass graves, which some say contain the bodies of LRA fighters killed in the attack. And, only in the past week has Uganda reported accepting escaped captives of the LRA and some defecting fighters.
This, however, has prompted Kampala to claim the offensive, which is ongoing, a success.
On New Year’s Eve, some two weeks after it began, Museveni was quoted in the New Vision newspaper as saying, “Our aim was to disrupt Kony and it was successful. Our initial plan was to scatter and stop him from causing terror.”
But the assault appears to have had the opposite effect. Kony has killed more people and sewn more terror in the following two weeks than during the entire preceding year.
Museveni calls that a success?
And the killing continues, with the latest reports that Kony is headed to the Central African Republic, to yet another failed African state where he can regroup.
One of the most bloody alleged LRA massacre took place in the village of Gurba, about ten kilometres from the town of Doruma in northeastern DRC.
Details are sketchy, but according to United Nations reports, the LRA hacked to death between 45 to 60 people who’d sought sanctuary in a Gurba church.
According to witnesses, body parts were scattered in and around the church. This alleged atrocity typifies the LRA’s methods.
For me, it was particularly disturbing. I had been to Doruma in June and met and talked with people there. I’d spent a couple of hours with a young school teacher there named Raymond Rpiolebeyo, who taught third grade at the Ecole Primer Ndolomo, a Catholic school.
On Easter weekend last year, he had been cycling to Gurba to spend the holiday with his family when he was abducted by the LRA, who then proceeded to loot the village.
Raymond escaped, however, and returned to Doruma. I spoke to him at length about his experiences with the LRA. He confessed that he was nervous because he knew the LRA could come back and he didn’t want to contemplate that fate.
The UN reported that about 200 people were killed in Doruma and the surrounding villages by the LRA in the days after Christmas. It is impossible to know if Raymond is still alive, and perhaps I’ll never know. I can only hope.
While the Doruma area appears to have suffered the brunt of the LRA’s senseless slaughter of civilians, estimates are that more than 500 people now have been killed by the widely scattered LRA units.
The coming year promises to be deadly for those unfortunate to live in the region where the DRC, South Sudan and the CAR meet.
Museveni’s stated aim of “scattering” the LRA has certainly been accomplished, but that of stopping LRA terror has not. By not planning and executing an effective attack on Kony, the Ugandan leader has inadvertently fueled the rebel’s terror campaign.
And he has set the stage for the same abysmal conditions that existed in northern Uganda for 20 years.
Scattered LRA units are now operating semi-independently, and this time reportedly killing, looting and abducting villagers in three countries.
From 1986 to 2006, Museveni was unable to capture or control Kony in northern Uganda or South Sudan. Even though the LRA is now being pursued by forces from DRC, South Sudan as well as Uganda, the result undoubtedly will be the same.