|War-displaced boys in hospital at Ngalima, north-eastern DR Congo. Thousands of Congolese have fled their villages as rebels roaming the bush carry out massacres.|
NEW YORK, USA, 13 March 2009 – The Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), has killed more than 900 people in the north-eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo since December of last year. Hundreds of children have been abducted and tens of thousands of Congolese have been displaced by the fighting.
In mid-December, joint operations by the Ugandans, Congolese and Southern Sudanese against the rebel force failed to capture or kill the group's leaders, who are wanted by the International Criminal Court. In response, the LRA has been ransacking towns, burning homes and killing civilians with guns, machetes and hammers.
Even in a part of the world familiar with atrocity, destruction on this scale hasn't been seen in years.
Remote areas affected
Most of the killings and abductions have taken place in the Dungu district of DR Congo's north-eastern Oriental province. The region is sparsely populated and thick with forests. There are no paved roads, so displaced populations are difficult to reach with aid.
"It's a very remote area – it can only be reached by helicopter, and there are risks of renewed attacks," said UNICEF Representative in DR Congo Pierrette Vu Thi.
The remote location also makes it difficult to assess the extent of LRA atrocities. "Our concern is that the increased level of fighting is causing an upsurge in the violation of the rights of women and children," said Ms. Vu Thi.
A generation of violence
The roots of the LRA can be traced back to the mid 1980s, when its leaders sought to protect the rights of the Acholi people of northern Uganda. But today, the rebel soldiers are notorious for their violent tactics and abduction of children into their ranks.
The Congolese of Oriental province are only the most recent victims of LRA violence. For years, the rebels have mainly targeted the people of northern Uganda, near the border with DR Congo. Nearly 1 million Ugandans are still displaced by the insecurity in the north, comprising one of the largest displaced populations in the world.
"A generation, or more, of violence has been committed over the course of the conflict in northern Uganda," said UNICEF Uganda Communications Specialist Chulho Hyun. "It has had a tremendously negative impact on the lives of the civilian population."
Reintegrating child soldiers
Children are among those worst affected – both as victims of violence and as forced participants in its commission. UNICEF has made the demobilization of children from the LRA, and their reintegration back into Congolese and Ugandan society, one of its chief missions in the region.
Over the years, UNICEF has helped thousands of children abducted by armed groups return to their homes. But the process is not always easy for the children or their communities.
"In northern Uganda, there are indeed cases where there is anxiety around children returning from the fighting forces," said Mr. Hyun. "There is stigmatization, there are incidents of discrimination and children feeling that they encounter difficulties in returning to a sense of normalcy."
UNICEF has been able to reunite with their families most of the children who've escaped the recent wave of LRA abductions, and it is now working to ease their transition. UNICEF is also providing health care and essential supplies to many displaced children and families in the Dungu district.