The LRA experienced a significant blow yesterday: senior LRA commander Opiyo Sam surrendered, along with two young women, two men and a boy. The young women and boy had been held captive for a combined total of 14 years.
The Ugandan military (or UPDF), who are the largest contingent of the African Union’s regional counter-LRA force, announced the news. Opiyo Sam’s surrender marks a significant victory in the effort to end LRA violence, as he was historically an influential commander within the LRA and a highly trusted officer under Joseph Kony. He reportedly led several key missions on behalf of Kony, including an assignment to intercept an LRA group led by the brutal ICC indicted senior LRA commander Dominic Ongwen in May 2009, after Kony received internal intelligence that Ongwen planned to surrender.
Invisible Children had been specifically targeting Opiyo Sam with ‘come home’ messaging for eight weeks leading up to this surrender. His family and members of his community have recorded messaged asking him to leave the battlefield, which we’ve been broadcasting through our partner shortwave radio station UBC in Kampala, Uganda. Shortwave stations have vast coverage, and are able to reach the entire LRA affected region. Our team on the ground in Central African Republic (CAR) is now investigating if Opiyo or any of other defectors heard these messages, and if they played a role in the group’s decision to surrender. Needless to say, we’ll keep you posted on what they find out.
On Sunday, this group of six LRA fighters and captives escaped during a UPDF attack on their unit, in area near Mbago, CAR. The LRA group scattered but these six individuals, including Opiyo Sam, managed to reunite in Mbago, where they spent two days with the local community. They were then sent to Obo, CAR in order to begin the process of returning to their homes in Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and CAR.
The six escapees include three Ugandan male combatants – Opiyo Sam, Okello Lissen and Odjoor Wolbe. They also include two girls abducted from DR Congo: 14-year-old abducted in 2010, and a 17-year-old abducted in 2008. The final escapee is a 12-year-old boy abducted from CAR in 2010.
In recent years, Opiyo Sam has been a somewhat mysterious figure, operating further west in CAR than the LRA has traditionally been. It’s a region where it continues to be extremely difficult for African Union forces to track down LRA groups due to the remoteness of the area and the presence of other armed groups like Seleka rebels. Opiyo and his group may be responsible for several large-scale LRA attacks in CAR, including near the town of Bangassou in 2012, the looting of a French uranium mine near Bakouma in June, and the abduction of 49 people near Zobembari.
This surrender demonstrates the exponential, positive impact that can result when high-level LRA officers peacefully surrender. Not only has a key leader within the LRA left the battlefield, but five others – including a child abducted at age eight and held for multiple years – are now able to return home to their families. We’re celebrating this as a significant win for communities in central Africa.