BREAKING: LARGEST LRA DEFECTION SINCE 2008
On the 6th of December, nineteen LRA defected en masse near the community of Zemio in the Central African Republic. This is the single largest LRA defection since the group moved into central Africa in 2008, and an enormous victory for African Union led counter-LRA efforts.
The group was comprised of nine adult males, four adult females and six children. Most significantly, six of the nine males were Ugandan, including a lieutenant and a lieutenant colonel , representing a severe blow to the LRA’s strength and command structure. The group’s leader, Lieutenant Colonel Okello Okutti was abducted by the LRA in 1989 and had risen to prominence within the group over the past 24 years.
We are encouraged to see the non-violent removal of LRA from central Africa and this mass defection is a testament to the commitment of African Union forces to achieving a permanent end to the LRA. Additionally, U.S. military advisors, local civil society leaders, and Invisible Children, with its partners and supporters, played a significant role in these recent events.
“This is the single largest LRA defection in five years and is more evidence that the comprehensive strategy to stop the LRA is working,” said Ben Keesey, Invisible Children CEO. “It required the collaboration of all partners to achieve this huge victory.”
A civilian from the small village of Tabane (20 km west of Zemio) was approached by a group of LRA while fishing on the bank of a river. The nineteen LRA came out of the bush with their weapons over their heads and called out to the fisherman in Swahili. They explained to the fisherman that they were LRA and wanted to defect, then asked him to take them to the UPDF (Ugandan military).
The fisherman demonstrated great bravery by taking them across the river in his boat to his village. The LRA waited just outside of town while the fisherman reported the information to Invisible Children’s Early Warning Network operator in the area who immediately called the incident into the Early Warning Network hub in Obo, CAR. Invisible Children’s Obo team alerted the UPDF who quickly dispatched a helicopter to receive the LRA group and took them to Obo where they immediately received health treatment and are being well cared for as they prepare for their return back home.
“The UPDF are very happy that such a significant LRA group has returned, said Colonel Kabango, UPDF Commander and operational head of counter-LRA efforts. “We welcome others to make the same choice to come out.”
Once in Obo, African Union (AU) forces along with the U.S. advisors and Invisible Children staff spent time with the group, interviewing them in order to understand the group’s motives for defection, their recent history within the LRA, and any information that could be used to encourage additional defections. During this debrief the group identified a separate LRA group that they believe may also be looking to defect. With this information, Bridgeway Foundation, in collaboration with the African Union, U.S. military advisors, and Invisible Children, led defection efforts targeting this group, including helicopter speaker missions and flier drops.
The members of the group cited Invisible Children’s defection messaging as one of the strongest influences in their decision to escape. Every week they listened to Invisible Children-produced radio programming that was hosted by Lacambel and broadcasted through the UBC Shortwave radio, a station constructed by Invisible Children. Lt. Col. Okello Okutti shared that the messaging helped the group “to lose the fear they had of coming out of the bush.”
The group also spoke about the defection fliers they had encountered over the past year and said they were encouraged by seeing the pictures of other LRA who they then knew had returned home safely. The deciding factor for the group as they deliberated on whether or not to surrender was that they were no longer afraid of being killed during or after their escape. They pointed to their treatment by the UPDF as proof that the risks they took were worth it and that the lies they were told within the LRA were in fact just lies. Disseminating information about secure surrender is a significant part of Invisible Children’s defection messaging.
“A defection of this size represents a significant portion of the LRA’s remaining fighting force,” said Adam Finck, Invisible Children’s Director of International Programs. “This is a huge win for the AU forces, along with the U.S. advisors and civil society groups working to restore peace in the region.”
We’re so proud of everyone involved in the efforts to peacefully disarm the LRA. Invisible Children will continue it’s “come home” efforts to see more groups like the Zemio 19 defect.
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