Congolese victims of LRA attacks despair of ever returning home

News Stories, 9 May 2012

© UNHCR/M.Hofer
A woman and her son pound food for their dinner at a site near Dungu. They fled Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) attacks.

DUNGU, Democratic Republic of the Congo, May 9 (UNHCR) Jules* lies in a hospital bed in a provincial town in north-east Democratic Republic of the Congo. Recovering from gunshot wounds to the leg and shoulder, he's a recent victim of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Orientale province.

But at least he's alive and free. The LRA fighters have built up a reputation over the past two decades for random violence, including murder and rape, and for abducting people from the villages that they terrorize. In recent years they have fled their home bases in Uganda and moved to neighbouring countries, including the Congo and Central African Republic.

In Jules's case, the LRA fighters came to his village with the dawn. "They arrived [in early April] at 5am and started shooting. I tried to run out of the house, but one of the LRA rebels entered and, without saying a word, he opened fire," the 55-year-old farmer said.

The next thing he remembered was being in a UN peacekeeping base before being medevaced on a Médecins Sans Frontières plane to the town of Dungu, about seven kilometres to the south. He's been told he will have to spend several weeks recovering.

But, like many other recent victims of LRA attacks in this corner of the country, he despairs of ever being able to return home. Marie,* aged 36, had to flee her village at midnight. "I don't want to return. If the rebels come again, I will be forced to leave again," said the mother of five, whose village had also been attacked in 2009. The LRA looted and torched homes and abducted one man.

The renewed attacks by the LRA in Orientale province since the beginning of this year have targeted dozens of villages and displaced more than 2,500 people, most of whom have fled to Dungu or nearby sites for internally displaced people (IDP), where they receive help from UNHCR and its partners. At least three people have been killed and 51 abducted, including 16 children.

Attacks on Bagalupa village, related by 30-year-old Clementine,* followed a typical pattern. "We were sleeping when they arrived for the first attack. They entered from both sides of the village and started looting houses. People started crying and ran away," she said, adding that the villagers had spent a week in the bush.

But just a few days after their return, the LRA attacked again, this time at sunset. "They started shooting to scare the army. Everyone in the village fled. We spent four days on the road to Dungu. We were walking during the day and sleeping at night in the bush."

Clementine now lives with a host family in Dungu. "I don't want to go back," she said, echoing the concerns voiced by Jules and Marie and many of her fellow villagers. "I can't go back to my village," said Marcel, the Bagalupa village chief. "When I went there to check the situation, I came across LRA rebels on the road," he said, adding that they let him go.

He said he would prefer to stay in Dungu and had asked the local authorities to give him a piece of land. Most of the newly displaced civilians in Dungu are living with host families. They rely on locals for humanitarian assistance. Some work in the fields for pay and others look for firewood to sell at market, but this is dangerous as they have to venture into the forest.

"I welcomed these families into my house out of compassion. They are my brothers," said Barthelemy, who lives with his wife and four children in a single room home. They have taken in 12 displaced people from three families.

While many people remain too scared to return to their villages, some have decided to go back to areas where there is now an army presence, including Bagalupa and Nangwakaza, the village that Marie fled from about a month before she talked to UNHCR.

Simon* returned to Bagalupa, partly because he does not know where else he can stay. "We are scared," he admitted. "At night, we don't sleep in our homes, we sleep outside in the bush. When I am in the fields and I hear a small noise, I drop my hoe and run away."

But long-term security is a concern for many of the displaced, including those who have found shelter in special IDP settlements in and around Dungu. Some of the people in the Bangapili site have been there since 2008, too frightened to return, even though living conditions are tough.

"I am not happy to stay here, I would like to go back to my village [near the border with South Sudan]," said Charlotte,* who has been in Bangapili for the past four years. "But security has not returned," she added.

Many people will only go back once they know that LRA leader Joseph Kony, who is being hunted by troops from the region backed by US special forces advisers, is dead or captured and his organization destroyed. "On that day, we will go out in the streets and sing. We will be so happy," said Angelique.

LRA attacks and threats since 2008 have displaced a staggering 335,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most are still displaced.

* Names changed for protection reasons

By Céline Schmitt in Dungu, Democratic Republic of the Congo

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