Rebel massacre uncovered in DR Congo

Evidence of the massacre of at
least 321 people in Democratic Republic of Congo has been uncovered by the BBC.

The killings took place last
December but have not previously been reported.

Fighters from the notorious Lord’s
Resistance Army raided several villages in a remote part of north-eastern DR
Congo, killing and abducting children.

Human Rights Watch said this is one
of the worst massacres carried out by the LRA, whose fighters roam across several
countries after spreading from Uganda.

The rebel leaders initially claimed
to be fighting to install a theocracy in Uganda based on the Biblical Ten
Commandments, but they now sow terror in Sudan and Central African Republic, as
well as DR Congo.

In the latest attack, the rebels
hacked to death villagers and made others carry looted goods. Some 250 people
were abducted.

Jean-Claude Singbatile, 17, was
captured with a group of friends and spent days carrying bags of salt.

“As we marched, the LRA killed
people – two at one village, three at the next and then four at the next,”
he told the BBC.

“They wanted to kill me, but
the leader said I should be kept alive, as they needed strong soldiers.”

Eventually, one of the rebels
warned him that he would also be killed and should take his chance and run for
it.

“He warned me because he is an
Azande, like me,” said Jean-Claude, referring to his ethnic group.

Posing as soldiers

The United Nations had heard
rumours that an attack was to be launched around Christmas and reinforced their
troops in the area.

But they were deployed to towns
like Dungu and Niangara rather than the remote villages where the killings
finally took place.

On 13 December, a contingent of LRA
rebels crossed the Uele river, before arriving at a market in the village of
Mabanga Ya Talo.

Dressed in military uniforms, they
pretended to be Congolese soldiers who had spent months in the forests and
asked local people for food and other goods.

They then asked people to carry the
goods back to where they had crossed the river and when the villagers refused,
the rebels turned on them.

Adults were attacked, captured,
imprisoned in huts, then taken out and made to act as porters.

Anyone who was unable to keep up
with the pace of the forced march was “left behind” – a euphemism for
being tied up and battered to death with wooden stakes or killed with machetes
and axes.

Those who refused or tried to
escape were also brutally killed.

It was a pattern repeated in
villages all the way to Tapili, some 45km (30 miles) away.

Shallow grave

Lt. Jeanvier Bahati, a Congolese
army commander in the Tapili area, was one of the first to arrive at the
massacre site and helped to bury the dead.

“I saw with my own eyes 268
dead bodies, because we buried them – there was no-one else to do it,” he
said.

Jacques Akoba, a Red Cross
volunteer, said he buried seven bodies in a shallow grave 2km south of Mangada,
along with nine skulls he found by the side of the road.

“We were scared as we were
burying them, but the son of our chief was among them, so we felt we had to
give them a burial,” he said.

Human Rights Watch, working with
local groups, has verified 321 deaths, but other activists have given far
higher estimates.

Witnesses say the stench of death
hung over the area for weeks.

Children were a particular target
of the LRA.

At least 80 were taken by force –
boys to become fighters, girls to be used as sex slaves by LRA combatants.

Quite why they killed so many of
their victims is a mystery.

Fear remains

“We don’t understand what
their strategy really is, but they clearly like killing, like destroying
things,” said Father Joseph Nzala, the Catholic priest at Tapili.

Many villagers are still too
frightened to go home, and they continue to live in a makeshift camp on the
edge of Niangara.

Local people question why the UN,
Congolese and Ugandan forces do not co-operate more closely to halt the LRA,
who have now returned to their camps north of the Uele river.

Ugandan army commanders claimed
they had all but eradicated the LRA after launching a joint operation with
South Sudanese and Congolese troops in December 2008.

With logistical and intelligence
support from the US, the operation was meant to kill LRA commanders, including
its leader, Joseph Kony.

But the attack failed to achieve
its aims and the LRA dispersed, attacking churches and villages during
Christmas 2008.

Uganda continues to maintain
substantial forces on Congolese territory, sometimes conducting joint patrols
with the army.

The Congolese soldiers receive
support from UN troops who have a number of small peacekeeping bases in the
area.

But Anneke van Woudenberg of Human
Rights Watch said the massacre provided “clear evidence” of the LRA’s
ongoing capabilities.

“Rather than
ignoring the facts, the governments of the region and UN peacekeepers should
co-ordinate their efforts to protect civilians and develop a comprehensive
strategy to resolve the LRA problem once and for all,” she said.

WORLDsoldiersSTORY

Many children, like this group of former child soldiers, are abducted and forced to fight for the rebels.
Photo: USAID
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