March 10, 2009

Thousands in DRC's Northeastern Haut Uélé province receive little assistance as the Lord's Resistance Army spreads terror

DRC 2009 © Marcus Bleasdale / VII

Members of a local defence force in Dungu make their own weapons to protect their village against the LRA.

Some 900 people have been systematically murdered in a string of brutal attacks across northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since the end of 2008. The attacks were carried out in the country’s Haut Uélé Province by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group active in Uganda and Sudan for over two decades.

DRC 2009 © Marcus Bleasdale / VII

The LRA cut off this man’s ear during an attack on Faradje on Christmas Day.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams were able to provide emergency care to small numbers of people north of the town of Dungu, in the northeast of the province, in Faradje, Doruma, and Bangadi, by landing helicopters just long enough to treat wounded people and airlifting seriously injured patients to hospital. The attacks left few survivors and MSF was able to treat 17 people.

“When we arrived in Faradje two days after the attack, we found only four wounded people,” said Mathieu Bichet, an MSF doctor. “They were so gravely hurt that they had certainly been left for dead.” More than 140 people had been murdered. The LRA used bats, machetes, and knives to systematically murder children and elderly, women and men. They abducted hundreds of children into their group and looted and burned villages.

The series of attacks was in response to a joint military operation conducted since December 14, 2008, by the Congolese army—FARDC—the Ugandan military, and troops from southern Sudan to track down Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA. The operations and attacks have displaced tens of thousands of Congolese civilians in recent months, many of whom are cut off from assistance. Thousands have fled into southern Sudan, where MSF teams are assessing their needs.

Christmas Attacks

The brutality and destruction of what have been termed the “Christmas killings,” between December 24 and January 13, reached terrifying levels. On December 26 MSF received a radio call from a nurse in a small town south of Faradje reporting that thousands of people were streaming into the town, fleeing attacks. Unknown numbers of people had been killed and kidnapped; the head surgeon in Faradje had been killed and the hospital looted; the market and homes had been burned to the ground. This was reportedly in response to military targeting of LRA bases in Garamba National Park.

As soon as security conditions permitted, an MSF team of Dr. Bichet, a nurse, and a project coordinator arrived in Faradje, bringing with them medical equipment for the hospital. A second plane from the nongovernmental organization Mission Aviation Fellowship arrived to evacuate the most seriously wounded. The team discovered only four people, barely alive.

MSF gathered rare testimonies from survivors who tell extremely disturbing stories of the Christmas attacks, including one man, called M.B., who witnessed the massacre of 60 to 70 people in a Batande village church on December 24. Six days later, he described what he saw to MSF staff at a clinic in Doruma, four and a half miles south.

DRC 2009 © Marcus Bleasdale/VII

A displaced girl sits in a makeshift home in Dungu, Haut Uélé province.

According to his testimony, M.B. was working in his farm when he heard screaming and followed the sound to its source, where he witnessed his father being clubbed to death. He watched as a group of some 60 unknown men entered the village and surrounded a small church. “Although most of the men were surrounding the church, many others were taking the villagers out of the building one by one. They were quickly taken into the long grass and systematically executed, mostly by having their skulls smashed, but sometimes with an axe or a knife. This went on for what seemed like hours. Nobody was spared. Children, babies, pregnant women, old people, all of them were killed. More than 60 people.” Later, M.B. discovered that his own son and pregnant wife were among the dead. “There was nothing I could do.”

A Human Rights Watch team investigating the Christmas attacks reported more than 600 men, women, and children killed and 500 youths kidnapped.

MSF Calls for Protections

In February MSF called for MONUC—the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC—to uphold its role under a UN Security Council resolution mandating that its peacekeepers protect civilians. “MONUC must…take up its responsibilities and can no longer continue to be so absent among the inhabitants of Haut Uélé when they are being systematically attacked,” said Marc Poncin, MSF operations manager for DRC.

MONUC responded by saying that it needed reinforcements from peacekeeping troop-contributing countries because its resources were stretched thin in DRC’s North Kivu province and unable to protect the population in Haut Uélé, an area roughly the size of California. The majority of its troops are based in Ituri and Orientale provinces. Some 250 troops are in Dungu, Haut Uélé.