IN THE Central African Republic’s remote southeast, people are living in fear. They fear not the religion-fuelled conflict that’s been tearing the nation apart since late last year. Instead, they fear the Lord’s Resistance Army, the bloodthirsty Ugandan rebel group whose shadowy leader, Joseph Kony, is wanted by the International Criminal Court. About 250 of Mr Kony’s fighters are plaguing one of the CAR’s most remote corners, and the Ugandan, Central African and American troops deployed to the area haven’t been able to stop them from terrorizing villages and kidnapping people.
The “tongo tongo”, as the local people call the LRA in the local Nzande language, arrived in the area in around 2008 or 2009 as the group was driven out of Uganda. The CAR’s southeast has always been remote, but it is even more isolated now that the country’s government has unravelled. There’s virtually no police force, and civil servants haven’t been paid for months. Thankfully, it is free of fighters from the now-disbanded rebel group Séléka who ousted President François Bozizé last year, and likewise of the anti-Balaka militias who have been attacking Muslim communities across the CAR in retaliation for the Séléka’s bloody 10-months rule. Muslims and Christians in the southeast still do business side-by-side, a rarity in a country where religious violence has become commonplace.
The LRA is rightly feared. Operating in groups of between 10 and 15 fighters, they move in a sort of circle between the CAR and the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo’s northern frontier. Their presence has made people in the southeast afraid to venture more than five kilometres beyond major populations centres like Obo or Mboki and Zemio further to the west. Even the towns aren’t safe from the LRA. The group attacked Obo last month, destroying the sole ambulance in the prefecture just as it was heading on a mission to assist a woman who was in labour. An attack the previous month in Obo happened near a military base where American forces were stationed.
The roving bands of fighters have been known to regroup farther north near a village called Nzako, close to Bria, an important mining hub. The LRA’s presence there may indicate that the group has access to revenues from mineral wealth, perhaps in collaboration with former-Séléka fighters.
American soldiers arrived in the region in 2011 to support Central African and Ugandan troops that are part of an African Union-backed mission to hunt Mr Kony. But the soldiers have little weaponry, and aren’t there to fight the LRA themselves. International forces occasionally find themselves caught up in local disputes. In January, locals demonstrated against the mayor of Obo for using a government car for his own business. Ugandan troops protecting the mayor opened fire, killing two women in a nearby market who had nothing to do with the demonstration.