By Steve Paterno
February 12, 2009 — In the face of a continuing joint military attacks launched by Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan to dislodge the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) from their DRC juggle hideouts in the Garamba National Park, the rebels are still at large and increasingly more deadly; stepping up their attacks on the level like never done before. The United Nations (UN) Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes calls the ongoing joint offensive against the LRA and the fallout of the operation “catastrophic,” acknowledging that there is lack of protections for the civilians by the authorities responsible.
In one area alone in DRC, the LRA who numbered only less than 100 managed to massacre more than 900 civilians; most of the victims were slaughtered with their heads crushed with axes or chopped off by machetes. The massacre spreads far and beyond into South Sudan, the Central African Republic and could potential spillover to Northern Uganda where it originated over two decades ago. The horror is typically representative of LRA brand, but now on a larger scale. A wave of tenth of thousands civilians already fled their homes into displaced shelters or into refugee camps, creating a humanitarian crisis of another huge magnitude in a region already bleeding from human sufferings. Hundreds more are abducted. Many are left to fend for themselves.
The initial drawn up plan by the Uganda, DRC and South Sudan militaries, to attack targeted LRA camps in the Garamba National Park was as flawed and catastrophic as the subsequent continuing offensive. This joint operation, codenamed “Operation Lightning Thunder” brought together and exposed some of the Military weaklings in the region as shown on how they are taking on the renegade LRA. The attacks on LRA camps began precisely on Dec. 14, with aerial bombardments by Ugandan air force on the perceived positions of the rebels. Alas, the aerial bombardments targeted empty LRA camps. Even worse, it took the Uganda military ground force an agonizing two days to reach and scour the empty positions they bombed. Their ailing fighter jets, MIG-21 were unable to take off and participate in the airstrikes as planned. The excuse by Uganda military for inability to reach the places they bombed in time was blamed on difficult terrains and partly on poor weather. The incident clearly underscores the poor planning and lack of preparedness as well as lack of coordination from the part of the Uganda military forces and its partners. According to one report, the attack “amounts to little more than throwing a rock at a hive of bees.”
For propaganda purposes, the Uganda military and its partners declared victory for destroying the LRA camps. However, for the LRA rebels, they took no time but to capitalize on poor planning drawn against them. Their commands were immediately divided into smaller typical guerrilla units that move stealthily in and out to perform what they do best, terrorizing the populous. It was only after the LRA demonstrated their resilience, the Uganda military and its partners then begin to acknowledge that the LRA is not actually destroyed, but planned to survive by operating much in smaller units.
Of course, the LRA division into smaller units makes it difficult to track their movements and locate their positions. However, there is still away out to track and destroy the LRA even in their smaller units.
The USA military is said to have assisted in this failed operation not in actual combat, but through planning, logistics, and providing intelligence. Not surprisingly, it is not the first time the US botched in a planned operation as in most of the cases they have no clue on what they are involved in. There are still opportunities for the US, through collaborations with Uganda and the entire joint armed contingent, to destroy the LRA once and for all.
First, the US does not need to risk a single blood in this operation. Thus far, they have already engaged in this operation by spending up to one million US dollars for logistics and intelligence, though without yielding any meaningful results. Since, their first effort was misguided and turned out to be a failure, they can now engage in what they are best at; providing signal and imagery intelligence for the operation. Through their technological gadgets, the US can now monitor and intercept any communication among the different LRA units. Given the current LRA operational status, the smaller units maintain constant communications with the general command. As such, it is easier to intercept their communications, monitor their movements and locate them. Also with satellite or any of the imagery tracking systems and devices, the LRA can be spotted. Such effort can be crucial to pin-down the units as well as understanding their intentions.
Not only that, the Israelis through their embassy in Kampala offered their assistance in getting rid of Joseph Kony. Few people will doubt Israelis capability in dealing with maniacs like Kony. The Israelis has a long history in this field. For example, they are widely believed to have snip-off, Jonas Savimbi, one of the most intelligent and enduring African rebel leaders in Angola. Thus, providing an opportunity to end the brutality of Kony, it would be a piece of cake.
The UN peacekeeping, both in Sudan and DRC, equally have their shares of blames for letting the LRA loose and to terrorize the civilians with impunity. For example, one of the humanitarian agencies in the region, the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has officially accused the UN peacekeeping in DRC (known by its strange nickname as MONUC) for failing to protect the civilians from the LRA ongoing atrocities. In one incident the agency cited MONUC peacekeepers staying in their bases while the LRA rebels were attacking the town of Dungu in DRC. At another incident, the agency alleged that MONUC failed to evacuate the wounded although it has the capacity with enough logistical support. Moreover, MONUC was already in the vicinity where the wounded were. More demeaning to MONUC, the Ugandan President Yuweri Museveni, who fumbled on his own plans to deal with the LRA, condemned MONUC for “seating for three years in DRC living side by side with terrorists.”
One entity to take more shares of the blames is the government of South Sudan (GOSS); particularly it’s Vice President Riek Machar for appeasing the LRA in such a long time. For years, the South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar has maintained mutual relationships between the LRA that at one point both ended up being the stooges of Khartoum government. They kept the relationship, and followed it through under a bogus Juba Peace Talks—a supposedly negotiation between Uganda government and LRA where Machar imposed himself as a sole mediator for the talks, posing a neutral entity. More troubling, amidst the LRA killing, abductions, burning of the villages and looting, Machar still stands alongside the LRA. The latest is that he is offering the LRA a safe passage to travel, settle and eventually plunder through a swath of land within the sovereignty of South Sudan—the corridor which can lead the LRA all the way to Northern Uganda. This is not the first time Machar has given such an offer to the LRA. He did it before by providing the LRA to stay freely in strategic locations in South Sudan, more specifically at OwinykiBul in Eastern Equatoria and also at Ri-Kwangba in Western Equatoria. The growth and strength of the LRA today can largely be attributed to the two years Machar has nurtured them.
In all settings, the LRA inflicted heavy damages on local populations. At some points, the LRA brutalities became worse that Machar turned into being their apologist; denying their atrocious activities and attributing them to some invisible armed groups in the region. At one time he accused the Uganda military for the brutalities committed by the LRA.
Now that the LRA is invited back into the same areas it once terrorized, the locals there have no options but to take their own securities into their own hands. The areas that will be affected run from Western Equatoria through Central Equatoria into Eastern Equatoria as well as Uganda. Civilian centers on these routes will be the targets. The places include Nabanga, Yei, Lainya, Kajo-keji, Lirya and Magwi in Greater Equatoria as well as Kitgum and Gulu Districts in Northern Uganda. The commercial activities and transportation systems along the Nimule and Juba road will once again be in great jeopardy. It is worth to remember that the LRA has their hidden cache of arms in Eastern Equatoria region. Any opportunity for it to retrieve and recover those arms will prolong their atrocities. It seems that opportunity is now. If anything, they must be stopped on the Westside of the River Nile and denied crossing into the East.
The safe passage given to the LRA is done under a false pretext that some of its combatants are ready to surrender. The reality is that, if there are LRA combatants ready to surrender, they could have done it from wherever they are. Why should they be given a free passage to plunder through as a pretext to have them surrender? And the talks regarding Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen preparing to surrender through a safe passage offered in South Sudan is a phony pretext as well. Both LRA commanders are indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and have no safe passage, but to face the court in The Hague or get killed in the battle field. There should never be any safe passage in South Sudan for marauding armed groups. The South Sudanese in the areas in which such passage is located must raise up to challenge any armed group that passes by. Even if they are faced with the alternative of using sticks for defending themselves, it will be better off than getting bludgeoned to death, burned inside their own houses, getting abducted or enduring rape.
Steve Paterno is the author of The Rev. Fr. Saturnino Lohure, A Romain Catholic Priest Turned Rebel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org