World ignores death in axis of pain, terror
By Ogen Kevin Aliro
Where life is so cheap, it costs nothing to die!
For five days, Training Editor Ogen Kevin Aliro travelled more than 1,000kms along international borders in eastern DR Congo, northern Uganda and Southern Sudan.
He was shocked by the most bizarre forms of intrigue between rival rebel factions in DR Congo; and was shocked by the plight of Congolese local communities that may be in danger of extinction.
In Southern Sudan he heard John Garang’s rebel Sudanese People’s Army (SPLA) vent their venom against longtime Ugandan allies (UPDF) and "the Arabs"; then drove down to Gulu via Atiak and Pabbo – two areas that have borne the brunt of the war against Joseph Kony’s LRA rebels.
He captures all this and more in a three-part special report:
Life in DR Congo is so cheap – it costs nothing to be killed!
We were rudely reminded of that simple but bitter reality as we arrived at the Uganda-Congo border in Paidha (Nebbi) last week.
Our plan was to cross into the DR Congo through the Goli Customs post and spend the night in Mahagi (Orientale Province).
It was never to be.
We arrived at Goli at 4.00pm but could not cross over.
We instead met a fresh stream of Congolese refugees, desperately running to safety in Uganda.
The Congolese were escaping fresh violence and fighting that had broken out that morning in Mahagi. Many of those who were not quick enough had been killed. By nightfall about 5,000 refugees had crossed into Paidha in Nebbi district.
"I saw a woman cut with a machete in the ribs. You could see her heart beating through the hole [wound]," an eyewitness told me.
"It is the Lendu and Hema again," a Ugandan customs official said – in reference to an ‘ethnic’ conflict that is now so politicised and fuelled by two of Congo’s several rival rebel factions.
The "merchants of death" are Mbusa Nyamwisi’s APC (Congolese People’s Army, the fighting wing of RCD-ML) and Thomas Lubanga’s UPC (Union of Congolese Patriots).
Such is life in eastern Congo that simply being Lendu or Hema is bad enough to get you killed.
"Life of a Congolese is so cheap, even hens are valued more than humans," a newly arrived refugee said in Goli.
Things are getting worse with the direct involvement of rival rebel factions (the APC and UPC) that use the Lendu and Hema, respectively, to further their own politico-military agendas.
Mbusa Nyamwisi’s APC is using the Lendu and Ngiti communities as pawns in much the same way as Thomas Lubanga’s UPC uses the Hema and Gegere ethnic militias.
Ironically Lubanga was once Mbusa’s minister for Defence -- united in an illusory dream to overthrow the Kabila government in Kinshasa.
The two have since fallen out, with Mbusa reportedly finding new allies in President Joseph Kabila and ex-Mobutu soldiers.
Lubanga has on the other hand reportedly found new friends down south in Rwanda and the larger RCD-Goma rebel faction.
Uganda intelligence sources claim Lubanga has recently received arms from a certain "neighbouring country" (read Rwanda) and has been clearing new airfields to take aircraft arriving from Goma and Kigali.
Rwanda and RCD-Goma have reportedly also been training troops for Lubanga’s UPC, and the first contingent of 80 soldiers arrived in Aru last week.
Rwanda angrily denies the claims. Rwanda’s chief of external intelligence Col. Patrick Karegeya dismisses it all as "rubbish".
To compound the confusion, the UPC accuses some Uganda army officers like Col. Peter Kerim (of the UPDF reserve force) of siding with the Lendu.
"We have no problem with the UPDF as a whole but with some officers like Peter Kerim.
He has been supplying arms to the Lendu and he has been planning ambushes against us," UPC’s Commander Jerome told us in Aru.
For the UPDF that sees itself as "neutral" in the Congo conflict ever since the Lusaka Accord (of July 1999) came into force, it looks like a lose-lose situation.
Mbusa Nyamwisi’s APC also increasingly sees the UPDF as an enemy or "negative force" – repeatedly accusing some UPDF officers of siding with the Hema!
To add to all this confusion, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) has reportedly also jumped into the fray. It is said the SPLA are sympathetic to the Lendu and have recently offered them some arms.
At Makambo, to the south of Mahagi on the Congolese side of Lake Albert overlooking Wanseko on the Ugandan side, we met Captain Ben Matovu, the second in command of the UPDF battalion stationed there.
Capt. Matovu insists the UPDF is not a party to the conflict here.
"We are here simply for surveillance of Lake Albert to stop our enemies from using it to attack Uganda. But sometimes we also react to try and minimise civilian casualties. We stand in the middle and try to stop either side from killing civilians," he said.
He said the UPDF deployments in the Congo are largely limited to airfields near the border with Uganda, for example at Aru and Djegu.
"Air is the main means of transportation here, so we camp at airfields to cut off the enemy’s lines of supply," Capt. Matovu said.
Lendu-Hema conflicts were previously localised and reportedly date back to 1911. The conflicts are however increasingly fuelled and politicised by Congolese rebel factions that exploit the schism between the two communities to further their different political agendas.
Says Capt. Matovu: "The two forces of Mbusa and Lubanga each have different purposes. This is a rich area and each wants to control the turf. Some accuse the UPDF of siding with the Hema. Others say the Hema are not Congolese. That the Hema are from Uganda. Others say the Lendu are from the Sudan. Rebel leaders exploit this schism to get support for their political programmes – hence the fighting!"
Between the Lendu and Hema – who are the villains and who are the victims?
The answer depends on whom you meet next.
When we first arrived at Makambo after crossing into the Congo through the Djegu border post, we got the impression that the Hema were the helpless victims and a community in grave danger of extinction.
Some UPDF soldiers officers spoke of the dangers the Hema face from Lendu militias.
Lendu militias reportedly move in the night and quietly massacre entire villages. "You wake up in the morning only to find dead bodies upon dead bodies of slaughtered Hema," one UPDF officer said while still denying the Ugandan army sides with the Hema.
That would make the Lendu appear like the perpetrators of the slow genocide going on in DR Congo’s Ituri and Orientale provinces.
But moments later we met Ugandan traders who operate in this part of the Congo.
Some of the traders feel the Lendu and Ngiti are the victims of a well-planned massacre. "While the international community is looking the other side, here are a people who are in danger of total extinction," one trader – only identified as Sam, said.
He said the Lendu were being massacred by Thomas Lubanga’s UPC and their Hema/Gegere allies but there was no one to speak to them.
"Even the occasional press reports about the situation in the Ituri region are biased in favour of the Hema. But someone must speak out and the international community must act now before a whole people (Lendu) become extinct," the trader said.
The trader’s concerns seem to tally with those of a Ugandan intelligence officer who agrees that Lubanga’s plans are to hit the Lendu very hard.
The officer cited reports of UPC-backed Hema militias burning down whole villages and killing all their Lendu inhabitants.
"On December 4th, for example, they [APC and Hema militia] burnt down five villages in Mahagi and the victims of that massacre were all Lendu," he said.
He also cited massacres of the Lendu in Buba, Ndale, Mkpa, Kopingo, Chilu and Lunda.
Who does one believe? And what is the international community doing, especially MONUC (the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo)?
Tough questions, but there are only 5,537 MONUC forces in the country. Last week the UN Security Council cleared 3,200 additional peacekeepers to be sent into the eastern DRC. But 8,700 peacekeepers are still too few for this vast territory.
MONUC’s mandate is to "protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence."
But few people in eastern Congo have set eyes on any UN peacekeeper.
UPDF’s Capt. Ben Matovu at Makambo "last heard of MONUC when we were
still deployed in Bunia [further south]. We do not know whether they
are still deployed," he says.
As if to prove how helpless and vulnerable UN peacekeepers themselves are, four members of MONUC were last Saturday ambushed and assaulted by unidentified gunmen 15km south of Kanyabayonga, further down in North Kivu.
The attackers were armed with AK-47 rifles and machetes. They reportedly "relieved" the MONUC observers of their communication equipment and property, and wounded one with a machete.
On Monday MONUC issued a statement "reminding the de facto authorities in control of eastern DRC that they are responsible for the security of MONUC staff!
And this is the crux of the matter.
Eastern DRC is fast degenerating into a "no-man’s-land". There is no real civic authority to speak of, especially with the multiplicity of factions; as old ones splinter and new groups come up.
Such groups are hardly accountable to regional or international bodies in the sense that established central government authorities would.
"Poverty, desperation and lack of civic control combine to make this place [eastern DRC] a time-bomb. And that is something the international community must deal with," says Capt. Matovu.
Indeed Uganda is caught up in a rather unfortunate position. Her western borders run along the eastern DRC. But different Congolese rebel factions control every 200 or so kilometres of that border.
Army Commander Maj. Gen. James Kazini says it is a great challenge for the UPDF: "It means a lot more must be done to stabilise the Congo and bring it under central government authority … because as of now there is no control."
Kazini too feels the international community could do a lot more.
"It is a challenge for the UPDF. We had thought the international community would [take charge of the situation] …after the Lusaka Accord. Today there are several factions ...
Tomorrow another faction will come up," Kazini said in an interview.
Congolese refugees arriving in Nebbi bitterly complain of total neglect by the international community, especially UN agencies like the United High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme.
"The UN used to bring food for us refugees, but we no longer see them. Now helpless refugees have been left on their own to fend for themselves both in eastern Congo and here in Paidha [Uganda]," a malnourished refugee complained as she watched her baby wasting away from thirst, hunger and exhaustion.
Inside the Congo itself displaced people are already starving in places like Kpandoroma (on the road to Bunia) because the fighting has closed off food supplies from Uganda.
"How can the international community simply look the other way when thousands of people are either starving or are being massacred?" a Lendu local community leader asked me on phone.
He had walked five miles to access the MTN Uganda mobile telephone network nearer the Congo-Uganda border.
He does that everyday between 9.00am and 11.00am; hoping to keep his community in touch with the rest of the world!
Only that the rest of the world doesn’t really seem to care.
Tomorrow the author walks our readers through the dangers posed by an international border that has literally become a no-man’s land; and the planned assassination of "the most dangerous" Congolese rebel leader!
When Training Editor Ogen Kevin Aliro followed the Sudan-Uganda-DR Congo border trail over five days, he found a long, "porous" frontier that is literally no-man’s land. In DR Congo and the Sudan sides of the borders there is no central authority – rebel factions are in charge. Rival rebel factions that control different parts of eastern DRC don’t feel they are accountable to any regional or international body.
In Part II of our special report on "Africa’s most dangerous borders" Ogen Aliro examines the potential dangers in the context of modern day terrorism.
A senior Ugandan army officer for example told The Monitor that it was possible for a terrorist to carry "anything" all the way from the Chad/Libya border to East Africa without being stopped by security agencies under a central authority:
Following the latest attacks in Mombasa, Kenya, the American-led campaign against international terrorism is watching the Red Sea and East Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline.
The United States and mostly western allies fear that the long "porous" coastline is an "open gate" for terrorists targeting American interests in the region.
But as we followed the DR Congo-Uganda-Sudan-border trail for five days, there was that feeling that the unsettled military situation in central Africa and the Great Lakes Region is also a potential haven for terrorists.
In this part of the world formal border controls hardly exist. Rival rebel militias loosely control border points in DR Congo, but many are more interested in extracting bribes from travellers than in security.
Even where border checkpoints are a little bit more orderly as at Aru, corruption makes it theoretically possible to across these international borders with such deadly merchandise as uranium.
"Corruption in Congo is worse that HIV/AIDS … every Congolese has caught the bug and there is no cure for the corruption here. You give money and no one cares what you are carrying," said a UPDF officer we found at Aru airfield.
Passports and visas mean very little here. "What are visas? Visas have no meaning here!" another UPDF officer had said earlier before helping us to cross into Congo through Djegu.
UPDF Army Commander Maj. Gen. James Kazini agrees terrorists could exploit the vacuum created by the lack of central authority in such a vast region.
"That is possible … In theory you could carry anything all the way from Chad through eastern Congo up to the shores of Lake Albert or Lake Tanganyika because there is no central authority or control. And once something can reach Lake Albert, it can be taken into Uganda or anywhere else in East Africa," Kazini said during an interview in Gulu.
A few years ago Osama bin Laden exploited this same axis of lawless to infiltrate western Uganda and set up al Qaeda cells in Buseruka and the Rwenzori Mountains that straddle the Congo-Uganda border, in a loose alliance with the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
al Qaeda operatives had been trained in Sudan and Afghanistan by Osama
And, that was long before September 11 (2001)!
Documents the UPDF recovered from ADF’s mountain camps suggested there was a well-planned, long-term al Qaeda design for this part of the world. With the Americans sniffing them out from their more prominent cells, al Qaeda planners may renew their interest particularly in eastern Congo – where lawlessness abounds and the international community doesn’t seem to be looking at all.
Moreover Congolese rebel factions are increasingly desperate for weapons and other supplies. Terrorist organisations such as al Qaeda could target such factions, while at the same time exploiting Congo’s minerals to fund their operations in the region and internationally.
In Aru, for example, soldiers of the rebel Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) carry machine guns with less than six rounds of ammunition. Their commanders loudly complain about the shortage of arms – a visitor quickly gets the impression they would accept supplies even from terrorist groups.
Al Qaeda operatives could easily disguise themselves as "traders" – dealing in gold or diamonds in eastern Congo. Congolese rebels may have no qualms about exchanging gold or diamonds for arms, and would by extension turn a blind eye to international terrorists that may set up in their areas of control.
Even if the main rebel groups did not succumb, there is a growing problem of deserters from both the Sudanese Liberation Army (SPLA) and the various Congolese rebel groups.
At one point UPC and SPLA deserters had taken charge of the entire area where the borders of Uganda, the DRC and Sudan meet.
"Deserters from both the SPLA and the UPC have become a big problem, and they were causing insecurity in the region," SPLA’s Commander Dok Micar told us when we met him at Bazi (Sudan) hardly 100 metres from the borderline with Congo.
The outlook is worrying because Congolese rebel factions have little regard for human rights and international law in general.
Thomas Lubanga’s UPC recently impounded two planes chartered to deliver merchandise from Uganda to rebel-held Congo.
The rebels accused the pilots – one Ugandan (one Kiryowa) and an Israeli – of doing business with UPC’s enemies (flying to areas held by the rival factions of Mbusa Nyamwisi’s APC – the Congolese Peoples Army) and RCD-Goma.
The pilots were detained in sub-human conditions. The rebels may kill civilians or impound planes, but they know they don’t risk any international sanctions.
The border trail had taken us to Makambo near Mahagi Port on the Congolese side of Lake Albert. We crossed back into Uganda the following morning – driving through Paidha and Zeu; and re-entered Congo via Vurra customs post and Aru.
Aru is the seat of Commander Jerome, the sector commander of rebel leader Thomas Lubanga’s UPC (Union of Congolese Patriots).
Commander Jerome seems to be the law, and the law is Commander Jerome.
We arrived just days after he had ordered the killing, by firing squad, of two of Lubanga’s bodyguards.
Lubanga had been touring the sector and two of his bodyguards reportedly wondered off – apparently to trace old girlfriends.
That sealed their fate.
When they returned Commander Jerome charged them with passing on to the enemy information about their boss (Lubanga’s) movements.
Jerome ordered their execution.
Thomas Lubanga’s life remains in real danger, though.
There is a fresh split even within his own UPC ranks. His former allies like Chief Kahwa, a fellow Hema, was planning to defect with some UPC fighters.
Lubanga’s enemies are plotting to assassinate him because they claim he is the "main stumbling block" to peace in the Ituri region. Critics claim that Lubanga for example opposes all attempts at "peace talks" to end ethnic killings between the Lendu and his Hema communities.
"There are advanced plans to kill him [Lubanga]. It is going to happen … That man must die before peace can be restored in eastern Congo," said one of Lubanga’s critics who claimed he was close to the "patriots" who have ordered the assassination.
But can the death of one rebel faction leader be the real solution the complex problems in eastern Congo?
Ordinary Congolese are wary of all the violence and killings, but remain voiceless. Civilians we spoke to want the international community to militarily intervene and bring the whole country back under one central authority in Kinshasa.
"That young man [Congolese president Joseph Kabila] is after all not bad," is what many say when you ask them about the way forward.
The third and last part of this Special Report series shall run in The Monitor on …..
The author brings voices from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA); their quarrel with Ugandans in Koboko and what they think of the UPDF.
SPECIAL REPORT - Koboko shines, but it is weakest link at border
This is the third part of our special report on "AFRICA’S MOST DANGEROUS BORDERS" by Training Editor Ogen Kevin Aliro, who followed a five-day trail along the Uganda-DR Congo-Sudan borders. The first and second parts were published in The Monitor Dec. 12 and Dec. 16, 2002, respectively. The final leg took Aliro to Koboko and Kaya on the Uganda-Sudan border, and finally to Kajo Keji and Nimule in southern Sudan:
Koboko is the new ‘dream town’ of West Nile.
A few years ago it was a tiny, shabby affair of rusty huts and bombed out military barracks. Today it is a neat little town, developing relatively faster than Arua and Nebbi – the major towns in the region.
Koboko is near the Uganda-Sudan border and owes its good fortune to the refugee influx – thanks to the civil war in Sudan.
The war between rebel leader John Garang’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and President Omar Bashir’s government just across the border brings many Sudanese refugees to Koboko.
But the war has also brought lots of money from Sudan to Koboko. The national power grid does not yet extend to Koboko but most stores and lodges get power from own generators.
Where does Koboko get all the money?
A local hotelier says from the ‘Dinkas’ – meaning Sudanese. "They have the money, and usually pay us in dollars," he said.
In fact it is mostly the SPLA, refugee-support NGOs and traders from Kampala that occupy hotel beds in Koboko.
Other key players are Sudanese cattle traders, who bring in whole herds from across the border to Koboko. They take back clothes, sugar, soap, sodas, cigarettes, beer, cooking oil and other Ugandan goods.
Everyday huge trucks from Kampala download goods in Koboko. The goods don’t stay long on the shelves. They end up on smaller trucks – which deliver to the final consumers in Sudan.
Ugandan traders then laugh all the way back to Kampala where they return to get more goods…
With Ugandans getting so much money, and the Sudanese having the goods that would otherwise not be readily available in SPLA-controlled areas, a visitor would be forgiven for expecting only warmth and platitudes from either side of the border.
Not so in Koboko.
Instead there is tension between the local population and Sudanese, especially those from the Dinka community that tends to dominate SPLA ranks.
Sudanese complain of systematic harassment by LCs, the police and UPDF [it’s actually LDUs] in Koboko.
"Why do they harass our people yet Ugandan traders are not harassed on the Sudan side?" SPLA’s Commander (Cdr.) Mac Paul complained when he we met at his Kaya base, a short ride from the Oraba border post.
Cdr. Mac claimed nine Sudanese, including an SPLA officer, had been killed in Koboko since 2001.
"Do you want to see the graves?" he menacingly asked – pointing at the mounds on the edge of his compound.
An SPLA military intelligence officer at Kaya, Amol Dac, and the rebels’ liaison officer in Koboko – one Lt. John – all complain about robberies and the harassment of their people.
Even Sudanese booked into lodges are harassed, they claim. "They come and harass Sudanese traders in their hotel rooms and demand for Shs 50,000 from each every night," SPLA officers complained.
According to the SPLA, local authorities in Koboko seem to have "a thing" [sic] against the Dinka.
The SPLA says Sudanese arrested in Koboko [they claimed up to 400] only days before we arrived were only Dinka. "They call us Dinka. But there are many Sudanese [ethnic] communities in Koboko. How is it that only Dinka get arrested or killed by Ugandans?"
Cdr. Mac Paul said the SPLA had no immediate plans to revenge but were beginning to run out of patience.
"For the Dinka if you kill my brother I must kill you too. And one of those [nine people] killed was my brother. But we don’t want to rush into fighting our brothers in the UPDF because we really have no other problem with them. Our enemies are the Arabs in Khartoum, because they are different and can never allow a black person to become a president. With Ugandans we are all the same. We are Africans and therefore brothers," Cdr. Mac said.
From Kaya we drove further north into SPLA territory to Bazi, where we met Cdr. Dok Micar, a former MP.
Micar was more measured in his words, but he too complained about "that problem in Koboko".
We returned to Koboko – driving to Moyo and re-entered the Sudan on our way to Kajo Keji.
In Kajo Keji we met another SPLA brigade commander, Cdr. James Kong.
He too complained about "the situation in Koboko". Only that Cdr. Kong apportions some of the blame to "our own people" – the Sudanese.
"You see many of our people haven’t been to school, and that is a big problem. When they reach a place like Koboko they behave like it is their village [and not another country] and that may complicate the problem," he said.
But Kong still repeats the "prepared text" that almost every SPLA commander has on Koboko. The SPLA claim Koboko hates them because they are seen as allies of [President Yoweri] Museveni and UPDF who Koboko denied votes in the 2001 presidential elections.
"You see those people in Koboko deceived Museveni … when it came to voting they gave the votes to [Col. Kizza] Besigye, who is Museveni’s enemy," Kong said, using almost the same words his colleagues in Bazi, Kaya and Nimule had used.
I felt it was so cheap of the SPLA to try and play the UPDF against Ugandans in Koboko simply because they "refused" to vote for Museveni in 2001. After all, no serious elections have been held in SPLA territory for 19 years!
LCs on the other hand accused the ‘Dinka’ of carrying guns into Koboko, and keeping them in their hotel rooms. LCs said they acted tough because insecurity and violent crime had become rampart in Koboko – in part because of poor discipline from the SPLA and refugees.
Whatever the case Koboko seems to be the "weakest link" along the rebel-controlled stretch of the Uganda-Sudan border. If not carefully managed the rumours and growing tensions could spark off violent clashes between the SPLA and the UPDF.
The more urgent task however may be how to manage the ethnic undertones fuelling tensions to avoid violent clashes between Dinka refugees and the host communities in Koboko.
The SPLA also seems unhappy that the UPDF no longer fights alongside them since Khartoum and Kampala signed a protocol allowing Ugandan forces into southern Sudan to fight Joseph Kony’s LRA rebels who have camps there.
The SPLA consider all southern Sudan their territory and loudly complain about not being involved or consulted when Uganda chose to sign a protocol "with those Arabs" [Sudanese government in Khartoum].
"This is our territory in which the UPDF are operating. If they had involved us, we could have solved this Kony problem together," Cdr. Kong said.
The SPLA claim the Sudan government gave Uganda a raw deal since Khartoum still supports Joseph Kony and never disclosed to the UPDF the presence of some LRA camps in southern Sudan.
"Even on November 26 we intercepted a message from the Arabs in Juba to Kony’s forces instructing him to mine the roads and stage ambushes in northern Uganda to stop the UPDF… reinforcing its troops in southern Sudan," Cdr. Kong said.
SPLA also claims even Gen. Ali Bamuze’s National Rescue Front II that
has been talking peace with Museveni’s government maintains links with
Khartoum and communication with the LRA.
Kong then adds with undisguised sarcasm: "One day when the UPDF is tired of their business with the Arabs, they shall maybe come and we see how to solve the Kony problem together!"
The Sudanese rebels are obviously trying to prod Uganda into once again actively [through the UPDF] supporting their own war against Khartoum.
For the moment the UPDF seems to be reluctant.
"We have to try and work with the Sudanese government. But if the protocol fails to deliver, we may think of other ways to get Kony," one UPDF officer said following Kong’s criticisms.
Interestingly, while the SPLA thinks the UPDF is "not serious", Ugandan soldiers generally dismiss the SPLA as "arrogant and lacking discipline".
My own quarrel with the SPLA is different. The rebels have held a chunk of territory since 1983 yet they have done nothing to develop the land they proudly call ‘New Sudan.’
Roads hardly exist and there are no serious plans to develop and expand education. The Church and other NGOs run hospitals and other public services, where they exist.
The irony is that SPLA commanders appreciate the value of a good education. They have conveniently placed their own children in Ugandan schools in Adjumani, Arua, and Gulu – and Kampala too!
But if the Eritrea liberation struggle be any yardstick, it is not too much to demand that rebels who have held territory for 19 years develop some basic public services and state structures.