Friday, December 17, 2010

The War on Terror-Christmas at the Forgotten Front

Almost ten years ago, President Bush announced the global War on Terror… Since then  hundreds of thousands of soldiers and mercenaries have been dispatched to Central Asia and the far corners of the globe, and hundreds of billions, probably trillions, of dollars have been poured into the effort.

But over that same period, the lot has only worsened of some of the most terrorized people on the planet, millions of people across a huge swathe of Central Africa, living in constant fear—of a horde of bloody marauders known as the Lords Resistance Army.

At Christmas time, the threat is only worse.

One survivor of  the LRA’s bloodlust is Josephine, [not her real name] an eighteen year old girl, who was having lunch with her family when a group of men stormed into her village.

 “They tied us up and then shot and then killed my grandfather right in front of me.” Two of her brother were led off.  She never saw them again. She was forced to pack heavy loads for her captives, repeatedly raped, then  assigned as a “wife” to one of her captors, a young boy.  “They sometimes would take one boy,” said Josephine, “Tie him up, then force another boy to kill him by hitting him on the back of the head with a heavy stick or a machete.”

Another young man who was kidnapped was tied to other boys from his village, then forced to carry the loot the marauders had stolen, as they continued their attacks. 

“We walked three kilometers to the next village, where the LRA men did the same thing, kidnapping more than 100 people. This time though, they counted out 20 people, tied them up, and killed them by hitting them on the back of the head. .

Every few kilometers we would stop and they would count out another 20 people and walk them into the bush. After a while, I was among the group that the LRA separated from rest. They tied our arms together behind our backs and forced us to kneel down. They took hammers, machetes and heavy sticks and began killing people one by one. One of the LRA men took a big stick and hit me hard on the back of my head. I blacked out.”

“When I woke up, I was still tied up and had several dead bodies piled on top of me. I spent four days drifting in and out of consciousness, tied up and bleeding in that stack of bodies. When people arrived to bury us, they discovered that I was still alive’. They untied me and carried me to the nearest hospital, where I took six months to recover.”

Over the past few years across a huge expanse of Central Africa, such tales have become commonplace:  thousands of civilians have been hacked, stabbed and bludgeoned to death; thousands of girls have been raped, young boys kidnapped and murdered or  forced to commit heinous atrocities themselves, turned into criminal outcasts, so they will never be able to return to their tribes. Instead, they have come to fill the ranks of the LRA.  

What’s remarkable is that, despite the widespread savagery and terror across the region, the LRA probably has only a few hundred ragged men and boys under arms.

Their leader is a demented despot by the name of Jospeh Kony, a character out of Conrad-- a faith-healer, self –styled revolutionary and Christian fundamentalist, who launched the LRA more than twenty years ago in Northern Uganda with support from the Sudan. Over the years, the group has morphed into an increasingly bloody band of killers, intent on rape, plunder and murder.

Two years ago, U.S. troops aiding the Ugandan Army, helped organize an attack on the LRA but failed to capture the major leaders. The result was catastrophic. Determined to exact bloody vengeance, the IRA metastasized, carrying out hundreds of raids again isolated villages, not just in Uganda, but across the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and the Sudan as well.

No one seemed to give much of a damn except the usual NGO’s desperately trying to cope with the situation in the field, often at the risk of their own lives. Trying to get the attention of world leaders who claim to be in an all-out war against terrorism. Problem is, the LRA are not the right brand of terrorists.

If their leader was a radical Muslim instead of wacky Christian fundamentalist, things would be different. Sophisticated spy satellites, high-flying Predators or gung-ho mercenaries and Special Forces killer teams would have taken them out long ago.

Instead, UN peacekeeping forces have more than 80,000 troops stationed in the area trying to end the chaos that has wracked Central Africa for decades. It’s the largest U.N. contingent anywhere, but only 850 of them are in the area where the LRA is active.

As Marcel Stoessel, the Swiss head of Oxfam for the Congo told me by phone, “those figures show that the priority is not here, and it should be here, because the IRA is the most active and deadly of all the groups active in this region.”

But it’s hard to blame the U.N. commanders. Their troops are poorly armed, mostly poorly trained, (often feared themselves by the local population)  and woefully underequipped; lacking for instance, a modicum of helicopters to patrol a huge region where decent roads are virtually non-existent.  Their annual budget it more than  $1.3 billion. Which sounds impressive, until you remember that the U.S. spends that same amount in Afghanistan every four days.

The International Tribunal issued a warrant for Joseph Kony’s arrest more than five years ago,  and world leaders have at various times pledged to take action. Yet Kony and his rag tag forces are more feared and deadly now than at any time in the LRA’s twenty year history—particularly feared as Christmas approaches.

Perversely,  Christmas is the season when the LRA has  carried out some of their most barbarous acts.

According to a press release just put out by Oxfam and other NGO’s operating in the region: 

“On Christmas Eve 2008 and over the following three weeks, 865 women, men and children were savagely beaten to death and hundreds more abducted by the LRA in north-eastern DRC and southern Sudan. Last year, between 14 and 17 December 2009, LRA commanders oversaw the killing of more than 300 people. These attacks have largely gone unnoticed by the outside world.”

Says Marcel Stoessel, “It is unbelievable that world leaders continue to tolerate brutal violence against some of the most isolated villages in central Africa and that this has been allowed to continue for more than 20 years”

Fortunately, over the past few years, the depredations of the IRA and the plight of young people in Central Africa also stoked the outrage of thousands of high school and university students in the U.S., who, through their organizations “Invisible Children” and “Resolve”, launched a massive  lobbying campaign. In response, last Spring the U.S. Congress called for the Obama Administration to develop a plan to deal with the IRA scourge. In November, 2010 a special task force announced a plan of action.

But so far, it is just a plan, long on promises, short on funding and action.

And now it’s Christmas again.

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