This weeks meeting was at Centenary Park in a lounge with a thatched roof surrounded by a gardened area. Today, not only did the volunteers of the CAD committee share their plans for our Community Action Day for next Saturday, but there was also a vote for our Mid Programme Review. The options were to go to Queen Elisabeth Park or to visit the Murchison Falls, which are both stunning national parks with a wide variety of wildlife. Exciting!
After sitting down with all of the committees we had the pleasure to welcome Camille Marie-Regnault. Camille took part in an ICS - VSO programme in Kenya a couple of years ago, worked for the UN in Cambodia and then ended up back on the African continent to work with Invisible Children (IC).
Invisible Children is active in breaking up a rebel group named Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) - responsible for Africa’s longest running armed conflict. After sharing the history of this long-lasting conflict, I would like to show you how Invisible Children is contributing to ending it, and discuss what more could be done. To end this blog, as Camille has lived and worked in cross-cultural environments - including with the ICS programme - I would like to share a couple of her tips with (future) volunteers and travellers.
What is the LRA?
The LRA began in 1996 as an evolution of ‘the Holy Spirit Movement’ - a rebellion against President Yoweri’s oppression of the north of Uganda, led by Alice Lakwena. When Alice Lakwena was exiled, Brutal Warlord Joseph Kony took over, changing the name of the group to the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA. As the group lost regional support, he quickly started a trend of self-preservation that would come to characterise the rebel group, stealing supplies and abducting children to fill his ranks.
As The Ugandan government were unable to stop the LRA, the people of northern Uganda were forced to leave their villages and enter government-run camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). At the height of the conflict, 1.7 million people lived in these camps across the region. The conditions were squalid and the camps were rife with disease and violence. It can be said that a generation of Acholi people were born and raised in criminal conditions.
The LRA terrorized northern Uganda for over 20 years when, in 2006, they indicated an interest in peace negotiations. These were hosted by Juba, Sudan (now South Sudan), and dubbed the Juba Peace Talks. Meanwhile the LRA set up camp in Garamba National Park in northeastern Congo, gathering its strength and stockpiling food. There is significant evidence that Kony ordered his fighters to attack villages and abduct children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) during the Peace Talks. It is believed that Kony may have entered peace talks as a means of resting and regrouping. The entire time that the LRA was involved in peace talks, they were provided with food, clothing, and medicine as a gesture of good faith.
In December 2008, when it became clear that Kony wasn’t going to sign the agreement, Operation Lightning Thunder was launched. It was the coordinated effort of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Sudan, with intelligence and logistical support from the United States.
The operation failed. Joseph Kony somehow learned of the attack in the hours before the air-raid and was able to escape. In retribution for the attempted attack, the LRA, led by ICC-indictee Dominic Ongwen, attacked villages in the DR Congo on December 24, 2008, killing 865 civilians and abducting 160 more over the course of two weeks. The LRA fighters were reportedly instructed to target churches, where people would be gathered with their families for Christmas Eve services.
A year later the LRA reprised the Christmas massacres in the Makombo region of northeastern Congo as a reminder of their powers of destruction. These attacks took place over four days, from December 14-18, 2009. This time they killed 321 people and abducted 250. Because of the remote location of the Makombo massacres in December 2009, the outside world knew nothing about the attacks until three months later. Human Rights Watch broke the news internationally on March 28, 2010.
Since Operation Lightning Thunder, the LRA has functioned in small, highly mobile units across the porous border regions of DR Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. They’re sneaky and dangerous and their priority is self-preservation
For almost three decades, Joseph Kony and his rebel army have gotten away with murder, with kidnapping over 30,000 children to strengthen his army, forcing the boys to become soldiers and the girls to become sex slaves. Kony instructs the members of his LRA to abduct, threaten, destroy, and murder in the name of his spiritual powers. They have no clear political motivation, but take advantage of whatever turmoil is affecting central Africa for their own survival.
In 2002 when the International Criminal Court in The Hague was set up, their job was to find and demand the arrest of the worlds worst criminals. Although there are a lot of warlords, murderers and dictators in the world, the perversity of Kony's crimes made him the number 1 on the list. It is clear that Kony needs to be stopped. However 99% of the world does not know who he is! [IC, 2014]
Three filmmakers, the founders of Invisible Child became friends with Jacob, a boy who had escaped the LRA. He was mourning the loss of his brother – who had been murdered by the group – and feared for his own life. They promised Jacob that they would do everything they could to stop Kony and end the war. So they made the first of many films that would spread the word about the war nobody knew about. I suspect you might have already watched this video a couple of years ago, as it was spread on social networks and caused quite a bit of commotion.
Film by Invisible Children
I find it very difficult to watch this. It is hard to believe that this is happening today. The way the US treated this issue is ruthless. You would have thought that knowing about this conflict the US government would have done anything to stop Kony. However, it seemed as if they could not possibly engage in this conflict. Washington responded to the issue with:
"There is no way the US will ever get involved in a conflict where our national security or financial interest are at stake[IC, 2014]."
It was simply not an important enough issue on the US agenda. As Invisible Children could not wait for institutions or governments to react, they began campaigning. They started to share Jacobs story and created awareness across America, especially among the youth. There was a huge movement and a lot of money was raised to support the set up of several IC programmes across Central Africa. It is inspiring to see how innovative IC has been to create awareness about this issue and to hear from Camille what they have been achieving.
Due to increased awareness and global efforts to stop the group, the entire fighting force of the LRA has been reduced from approximately 1,000 at the end of the Juba peace talks in 2008 to an estimated 200 fighters in 2014, not counting the abducted women and children who are used as “wives’ and porters. While their numbers have diminished over the years, their capacity for destruction continues to be disproportionately large, with hundreds of thousands in central Africa currently displaced because of the group [IC, 2014]. It is therefore important to keep this mission alive beyond 2016.
The African Union is leading counter-LRA efforts, with a large military contingent from Uganda. These efforts are assisted by U.S. military advisors, who have been present in the region since 2011. This advisor mission was expanded in March 2014 to include the use of four V-22 Ospreys, and the cap on U.S. personnel tripled from 100 advisors to a maximum of 300 [IC, 2014].
Even though the US Army cannot engage in this fight, the UPDF can. The government can help by extending US army missions in Central Africa by sending more advisors and by cotrolling the lack of logistics. Since their deployment in October of 2011, U.S. military advisors have significantly contributed to the progress of regional counter-LRA efforts through creative defection programs, intelligence gathering and analysis, and cross-border information sharing. Still, the work of the advisors has been consistently hamstrung due to things like a lack of sufficient mobility assets and uncertainty about their duration of their mission.
How is Invisible Children helping today?
Apart from creating awareness about the conflict in other parts of the world, Invisible Children is now working with local communities that are closest to the conflict to establish Community Defection Committees (CDC), throughout central Africa. By facilitating locally-led community workshops, IC is ensuring that communities in LRA-affected regions are empowered to be central players in the regional effort to peacefully dismantle the LRA from within. IC also equips these communities with a basic communication infrastructure, so they are able to report LRA attacks to other communities, receive warning when LRA groups are active nearby, and alert security and humanitarian groups. Invisible Children, in partnership with Discover the Journey, developed a film specifically for LRA-affected communities that details the life of a child who is abducted by the LRA and the difficult process he must go through to defect. After the film, the community is encouraged to discuss what they witnessed on the screen and the implications the narrative has for their own encounters with LRA defectors. On the other hand, through “come home” messaging - radio and helicopter broadcasts, as well as fliers - they give abducted soldiers the motivation and information they need to escape from the LRA to one of the CDCs. If you are interested in learning more about their current programmes, I would advise to visit the Website of Invisible Children.
Invisible Children is continuously looking for funding for their programmes so maybe if you could miss a couple of pounds monthly or even make a one time donation that would be awesome! Your donations really help children who have lived in horror under Konys rule. You can help them by Donating to Invisible Childrentoday.
What more could be done in the region?
As Kony and his army are moving across borders in Central Africa, the regional governments of Uganda, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Sudan and DR Congo, as well as international peacekeeping forces operating in LRA-affected areas, need to work together more closely in order to find him.
Concerning Uganda, long before the LRA conflict started, there were tensions between various ethnic and political groups in Uganda. The way that the Ugandan government responded both capitalized on and exacerbated these tensions. While the LRA is no longer active in northern Uganda, the peace and reconciliation conversations need to continue and be built upon to sustain the relative peace that Uganda knows today. Northern Uganda faced a severe humanitarian crisis for more than 20 years. The LRA conflict disrupted the livelihood, social structures, and education of a generation. Access to quality education and economic opportunity has the potential to aid in the transition to sustainable peace and development as well as reduce the probability of the start of a similar conflict. Similarly, the international community must commit to supporting the recovery needs of LRA-affected communities in South Sudan, DRC, and CAR.
On another note, LRA returnees are currently often reunited with their communities months later without proper counseling and treatment, leaving the individuals with high levels of trauma and making reintegration. LRA returnees need more support.
Apart from learning about Camille’s fascinating time at Invisible Children, she shared with us some tips about working within our programme of ICS – Challenges Worldwide in a cross-cultural environment. We have all noticed that volunteering in Africa is not easy, and that this is not something that you could have learned about before heading out. Camille advised us to turn all negatives into positives. There will be a lot to complain about, but turning those complaints into something positive is part of your learning process. Be open to learn from others and be tolerant of other cultures.