By David Alton
In 1960, the year in which the Congo became independent, I was a boy attending the local parish primary school. The good Sisters of Mercy who taught me had links with the Congo and the entire class had been enlisted to raise money to support Congolese children, whose harrowing plight had been made real to us by vivid television and newspaper reports. Its when I first woke up to Africa.
I thought how little had changed when, last week, I met Juliet, at a meeting organised by Warchild.
Juliet, from northern Uganda, was just 12 when she was abducted by the Lords Resistance Army. The LRA, led by Joseph Kony, originated in Uganda and are now pursuing a murderous campaign in the Congo.
After her abduction Juliet was raped and lost a child in childbirth. On the day I told her story in the House of Lords she delivered a letter to the Prime Minister, describing her experiences and asking for more help for young people like her; children who escape from the LRA, and who need education and assistance. Juliets is not an isolated case. There are thousands upon thousands of children like Juliet andÂ teenagers like a boy called John.
John was abducted by the LRA when he was in his early teens. Beaten, force-marched, kept hungry for days, trained to use weapons, he was told to use other children as target practice. A friend who tried to escape was recaptured and staked out on the ground. John and other teenagers had to trample their friend to death.Â John did eventually escape and the LRA killed his father as a punishment.
Stories like these illustrate why the LRA is such a major force for instability in the DRC and across the region.Â They have inflicted indescribable horrors on young people who desperately yearn for education and who want to build a future for themselves and to put the past behind them.
Â Failure to help former child soldiers risks the long term development and stability of the whole regions. When young people are left unemployed, psychologically traumatised and vulnerable, they are especially open to re-recruitment to the militias.
It is a popular western myth that the LRA is close to elimination.Â This year, more than 600 people have been abducted, about 360 killed and more than 30,000 displaced. Human Rights Watch recently defined the LRA as the â€œgreatest civilian threatâ€ to the population of the DRC. There are signs that the LRA is regrouping in the ungovernable reaches of Northern Congo with the apparent aim of returning to Uganda as well as carrying out a campaign of destabilisation in neighbouring Southern Sudan.
It has already disrupted the elections in Sudanâ€™s Western Equatoria State, with people too frightened to leave their homes to cast their votes, and has prevented the distribution of vital aid to the region.
There are now concerns that the LRA will attempt to disrupt Sudanâ€™s January 2011 southern secession referendum.Â Well resourced and well armed, believing itself to be above capture and above the law, the LRA appears to act as a proxy army. It is alleged that forces in the north of Sudan, hostile to southern independence, have colluded with the LRA leadership.Â Â Â Â Paymasters and facilitators in Khartoum are bent on undermining Southern Sudanâ€™s fragile new democracy. The LRA are a useful tool in the hands of Khartoum; and from this ungoverned no-manâ€™s land in the north of the Congo they wage their brutal attacks.
After the death of countless numbers of people Konyâ€™s LRA continues to kill, rape, abduct and enslave children â€“ who become its fighters.
Kony is wilier than some imagine and he sees the impenetrable tracts of northern Congo as a safe haven. This territory has become the LRAâ€™s new killing fields with chilling reports emerging of massacres perpetrated by the LRA. It is said that Kinshasa doesnâ€™t give a damn about the depredations caused by the LRA. It is an ungoverned territory but failure to confront the LRA does not directly threaten the central government so they turn a blind eye. The UN peacekeepers also stay clear of the north, only one twentieth of their Congolese force is deployed there, yet the violence there has reached a fever pitch, with the outside world frequently unaware.Â Â
There has been a pathetic lack of co-ordinated, sustained interest and action by the security forces of the regional government, by UN peacekeepers and by the international community, to stop the LRA. Consequently, more than 23 years after it first emerged, the reign of terror instigated by this most vicious of rebel groups continues to terrorise a vast swathe of Africa and its innocent inhabitants.Â Â Â Â
Since 2008 Joseph Kony, has regrouped and the LRA has sought to systematically recruit new children. It is a shocking indictment on the UN that Kony â€“ against whom there is an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court – is still at large and still a major menace in the region.
In December 2009 the LRA carried out one of their largest ever massacres in the Makombo areas of north-eastern Congo, killing over 300 Congolese civilians in a four day orgy of violence.
Earlier in the year, in August 2009, a marauding band of LRA guerrillas invaded the town of Ezo, on the border of Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The group stormed into Our Lady Queen of Peace church and abducted 17 young people, mostly in their teens and 20s, and mutilated one leaving him dead. Three have returned safely, but 13 of the 17 abducted are still missing.
Â Less than a week after this incident, six individuals were found nailed to pieces of wood in a crucifixion-like scene in a forest in the nearby city of Nzara.Â 20,000 Christians gathered for three days of prayer and walked more than two miles barefoot in sackcloth and ashes in protest.Â The Catholic bishop of Tombura-Yambio, Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala appealed for international help to stop the attacks by the LRA but his words have fallen on deaf ears.
We clearly need a much more coherent military campaign to hunt down the LRA leaders and bring them to justice.
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it is surely incumbent on the United Kingdom to be as effective as possible in securing support for the UN missions working in the LRA-infiltrated areas. The UK, as one of the largest aid donors in the region needs to be more effective in mobilising African governments and international peacekeepers in eradicating the LRA.Â We owe it to children like Juliet and John to end this blood-letting. There can be no stability, no peace, no development, while LRA warlords like Joseph Kony can operate with arrogant impunity.
Prof. David Alton, 59, was for 18 years a Member of the House of Commons and today is an Independent crossbench life Peer of the House of Lords.