By Godfrey Byaruhanga, Amnesty International’s Central Africa Researcher, in Obo
The first in a series of blogs from the Central African Republic highlights the threats posed by several armed groups that have yet to be disarmed and demobilized, as well as the ongoing suffering of their victims.
On a muggy Sunday afternoon, Félicité Mboligassie met us at her mother’s home in the sleepy town of Obo in south-eastern Central African Republic (CAR).
Like long-lost friends, we beamed with smiles. Her mother and other relatives looked rather unsure of this encounter with two strangers who spoke in a foreign tongue.
Unaffected by their suspicion, Mboligassie ushered us and local human rights defender Clement Loutamboli into a hut. We were no strangers.
We had met Mboligassie in July 2010 when she told us about her ordeal at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an armed group that has been responsible for numerous atrocities across several central African countries.
In early 2008, LRA fighters abducted Mboligassie and dozens of other civilians from Obo and the surrounding area, taking them across the nearby border into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She and other women and girls were forced into sexual slavery by LRA commanders, while boys and men were forced to fight for the armed group.
After her escape from an LRA camp, Amnesty International featured her case in an October 2011 report. On this visit, we were keen to find out how she has been adjusting to a new life after the horrors of captivity, extreme violence and sexual slavery by the LRA.
Mboligassie told us she has been fine and has a healthy baby to prove it.
She was keen to emphasize that she is getting on well with everyone, including the boyfriend with whom she had the baby. But appearances are deceptive. After several minutes of light conversation, she revealed that she often suffers from mood swings.
Occasionally, she needs to distance herself from people talking loudly and wants to be alone. She also suffers from dizziness and constant headaches – health problems she attributes to the LRA atrocities she witnessed while in captivity.
Mboligassie has not seen a physician or a psychiatrist since her ordeal – the town of Obo has neither. Like most people in the region, Mboligassie has resorted to herbs to treat her ailments, with little or no relief. State infrastructure is lacking.
The few NGOs that currently provide limited healthcare and other services to local people will likely disappear if and when LRA leader Joseph Kony is captured and his armed group – whose largely conscripted ranks are reportedly diminishing – has been dismantled.
As our visit was drawing to a close, we suggested that Mboligassie seek out counselling and medical care from some of these local NGOs.
More needs to be done to lobby the CAR government, with assistance from foreign governments and intergovernmental organizations, to provide resources to heal the physical and psychological trauma that Mboligassie and hundreds of other LRA victims have endured with no state support so far.
The international community appears to be more interested in the infamous Kony and his LRA outfit than in their many victims in CAR and other countries in the region. The LRA threat will hopefully diminish and eventually disappear – with Kony and other LRA leaders brought to justice – but the victims will remain.
Ongoing woes for LRA victims in Obo
A day earlier, we had met 19-year-old Laura (not her real name) whom the LRA had abducted and held for more than a year.
Laura, too, was sexually abused by LRA commanders. Although she is now home, her tribulations are not over. She had a young baby with a Ugandan soldier in the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF) contingent deployed in Obo to hunt for Kony and the LRA. The soldier has since left Obo and Laura has had no contact with him.
Laura’s mother is delighted to have her daughter back, but spends sleepless nights worrying about her son. Like his sister, he was abducted by the LRA and is believed to have been turned into a child soldier.
And that’s not the end of the family’s worries. Laura’s father is demanding a refund of the 10,000 CFA francs (just over US$20) he paid to the mother’s family after Laura turned seven. He accuses the mother – whom the LRA severely beat but did not abduct – of handing Laura and her brother over to the LRA.
According to local cultural norms, women who are definitively separated from their partners – regardless of who initiated the separation – must refund any payments to their families before they can start a new relationship. Too poor to refund the money, Laura’s mother now lives with the stigma of her former partner’s unfair and cruel accusation.
The UPDF may remain in south-eastern CAR for longer than envisaged by the United States or Ugandan governments, who are leading the military operation against the LRA.
Flying to Obo from the capital, Bangui, we realized just how difficult the operation to capture Kony must be.
Vast swathes of forest and other thick vegetation cover much of the sub-region, which is sparsely settled by humans. The abundant local fauna and flora could sustain an armed group for months on end.
One UPDF commander said that it was difficult to tell where Kony might be hiding.
He could be in the CAR, but just as easily he could be in Sudan, South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC government – which is tied up with fighting insurgencies in the country’s eastern Kivu regions – has opposed the UPDF extending their operations into northern DRC and leaving the population there dangerously exposed to LRA attacks.
Kony may now be infamous around the world – thanks to a YouTube video seen by more than 100 million people – but he is not nearly as well-known in the CAR.
CAR government forces based in Obo had never even seen a photograph of the LRA leader until US forces showed them one during their training for the operation to capture Kony.
While we were in Obo, we did not meet a local resident of Obo who had seen the video.
Kony could have walked with ease through Obo or even a military roadblock without being identified by soldiers or civilians. More worryingly for the locals, there is speculation in Obo that once the CAR contingent has completed its training, it may be redeployed to “more critical” duties of protecting the state and its institutions in Bangui, leaving them exposed once again to LRA abuses.
Kony and the LRA are not the only threat to the people of Obo in Haut-Mbomou prefecture and neighbouring areas.
Other armed groups in CAR
During our time there, we gathered a number of testimonies about killings of civilians that were invariably attributed to the LRA. But on closer scrutiny, the killings could as easily have been perpetrated by highway robbers known as Zaraguinas, poachers or even nomadic pastoralists, many of whom are armed.
Many of these lawless gangs enter the country from neighbouring Chad, South Sudan and Sudan – when we spoke to CAR government officials, they admitted a limited capacity to secure their extensive and porous borders.
In January and February 2012, CAR and Chadian forces were able to repel the Chadian Front populaire pour le redressement (FPR), but the armed group remains a potent threat to the population in northern and eastern CAR.
Several armed groups in northern CAR have yet to be disarmed and demobilized.
Attacks – some of them fatal – on civilians by CAR government soldiers who often enjoy impunity are a serious concern to ordinary people in northern and eastern parts of the country.
These and other concerns will be the subject of future blog postings, including from Ndele in northern CAR.
Central African Republic: Civilians bear the brunt of decades of violence and abuses (News story, 20 October 2011)
Central African Republic: Action needed to end decades of abuse (Report, 20 October 2011)
Efforts to arrest Joseph Kony must respect human rights (News story, 8 March 2012)