For several years, Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have targeted communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR), and South Sudan with violent attacks. Since 2011 we’ve been tracking the group through our LRA Crisis Tracker. This unique and innovative mapping tool uses information collected through our Early Warning Radio Network and other sources to map the activities and movements of armed groups in central Africa, including the LRA.
We originally created the LRA Crisis Tracker specifically to document crimes against central African families committed by the LRA. In the years since then, we’ve been able to use this tool to provide up-to-date information and analysis to policy makers and protection actors which has helped reduce LRA killings by more than 90 percent.
Despite significant decreases in LRA violence, the LRA continues to pose a real threat to the safety of thousands of central African families. At the same time, these communities have also become the targets of other armed groups and criminal networks. As intercommunal violence spreads in southeastern CAR and as illegal wildlife trafficking increasingly brings violence to communities in the region, we’ve updated the LRA Crisis Tracker to track and analyze trends in violence from a multitude of sources beyond just the LRA. In fact, when the UN Security Council met in June 2017 to discuss how to address violent conflict in eastern CAR, we were able to use information from the LRA Crisis Tracker to provide analysis on trends of armed group violence in the region and provide recommendations for the Security Council and other international leaders.
Even as we expand the breadth of the LRA Crisis Tracker to include information on other armed groups in the region, we continue to track the LRA. Over the years, we’ve become experts on distinguishing LRA fighters from other armed groups. Here are some of the ways we do that:
Recognizing an LRA fighter
The LRA was born in 1986 in northern Uganda when Joseph Kony took over a rebellion against the Ugandan Government called Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) from it’s exiled leader, Alice Lakwena. At the time, Kony also incorporated members of another rebel group active in northern Uganda at the time, the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA), which was much more militarized than Alice Lakwena’s HSM. The LRA has also been in the habit of stealing uniforms from other groups including the Ugandan and Congolese armies. These uniforms are usually easy to recognize as they are tattered from being worn in the bush for so many years. Typically, groups of LRA fighters are seen wearing a mix of various uniforms and civilian clothing.
In the past, dreadlocks were a common identifying feature of LRA fighters. When fighters entered the LRA, they would begin growing out their dreadlocks to represent the length of time they had remained in the bush. However, in recent years, many LRA fighters have cut off their dreadlocks in order to avoid being recognized as easily.
Because most long-term LRA fighters and commanders come from Acholiland in northern Uganda, the primary language of the LRA is Acholi and captives are forced to learn Acholi. Since Acholi is not a language used in communities in DRC and CAR where the LRA operates today LRA fighters sometimes also use a mixture of Zande, Lingala, and Sango, the local languages of the region. If a report comes through our Early Warning Network of a group speaking Acholi and broken Lingala, often with an abducted interpreter speaking Zande or Sango, that’s a strong indication that the attackers were LRA fighters.
Recognizing an LRA attack
LRA attacks have been characterized over the years by the abduction of children to fight within LRA ranks or to become “wives” to combatants. However, in more recent years, the LRA has shifted away from these kinds of long-term abductions to short-term abductions, during which civilians are forced to carry goods that have been looted from communities. LRA attacks may also involve the destruction of property and the death of civilians. LRA groups also still do periodically abduct children and youth with the intention of integrating them into the LRA.
More recently, LRA attacks have become less violent and more focused on looting food and supplies – in fact, since 2011, LRA-related killings have decreased by more than 90 percent. This is a testament to a shifting culture within the LRA; many fighters are now looking to simply survive until the opportunity to escape arises.
Although there are only about 80 to 120 active LRA fighters today, our LRA Crisis Tracker has recorded over 100 LRA attacks, nine LRA-related deaths, and over 300 abductions, just this year. That doesn’t include the incidents we’ve recorded involving other and unidentified armed groups. Despite this, in April 2017, United States and Ugandan forces pursuing LRA leaders and who were carrying out incredibly successful ‘Come Home’ messaging campaigns, each made decisions to end counter-LRA efforts in the region. Now that U.S. and Ugandan forces have left, communities in LRA-affected areas of eastern CAR have virtually no protection. In addition to the LRA, other armed groups have carried out increasingly bold attacks on communities in areas of eastern CAR where U.S. and Ugandan forces once provided some level of security. Hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced by this spread of violence.
As we continue to use information from the LRA Crisis Tracker to track armed groups and advocate for international action, we’re also working alongside affected communities to help reduce threats against their safety and prevent violence. We are equipping the most isolated and vulnerable communities with access to live-saving information through our Early Warning Radio Network and helping to strengthen the resilience of vulnerable communities through support for Local Peace Committees and trauma healing workshops. At the same time, we’re helping to dismantle the LRA from within, by broadcasting ‘Come Home’ radio messages, which encourage LRA fighters to lay down their weapons and come home.
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