- January 30, 2015
- News & Analysis
This week various media outlets have reported on an January 25 attack in South Sudan’s Western Bahr el Ghazal State in which an armed group ambushed a convoy of vehicles, killing 11-13 people and wounding several others. The best reporting has been done by Radio Tamazuj, which reported on several attacks in Raga county earlier this month that may be linked to the January 25 ambush:
- January 15: An armed group ambushes two SPLA vehicles, killing one soldier and wounding another.
- January 21: An armed group attacks fishermen near the village of Sopo, south of Raga, killing one.
- Unknown date: An armed group attacks and kills four fishermen near the village of Dolo.
- January 25: An armed group attacks a convoy of vehicles including government officials and journalists that were returning to Raga from Sopo after investigating the attacks on the fishermen. 11-13 people were killed, including five journalists and at least one child. The bodies were reportedly mutiliated and burned.
Several Raga county officials have blamed the LRA for the attacks, citing the mutilated bodies and the mixed uniforms (SPLA, UPDF, and SAF) the attackers reportedly wore during the January 25 ambush as evidence. This claim should certainly be taken seriously. The LRA committed a series of attacks in this same area in 2011, including a bold attack on a police station near Raga (see image above). I drove the Wau-Raga road in 2012 and visited several of the communities who had been attacked by the LRA, and the testimonies I heard left little doubt the LRA was responsible. The LRA also has a history of attacking and burning government vehicles, near Dembia in the CAR in 2011 and near Ezo in South Sudan’s Western Equatoria State before that. The LRA’s history of mutilating victims is also well-documented.
However, I’m still skeptical the LRA was responsible for these attacks. The LRA’s modus operandi has shifted in recent years, away from large massacres and “statement” attacks like the January 25 ambush. With some notable exceptions, nearly all LRA attacks in recent years have been small-scale looting raids in which a handful of people might be abducted. The LRA killed a total of 13 people in 2014, and has only killed ten or more people in two attacks over the past four years. I’ve also never heard of an LRA attack in which they burned and mutilated bodies.
Other details about the attacks also indicate another group may be responsible. There has been no LRA violence in Western Bahr el Ghazal for over three years, and with LRA fighting capacity shrinking it seems strange they’d decide to re-enter the area. Interestingly, the vehicles ambushed on January 15 were reportedly carrying SPLA salary money, which makes me wonder if the attackers had insider information (information the LRA would very unlikely to have).
In some ways, it seems that these attacks are the work of an armed group intentionally mimicking the more violent LRA of the past. At least one government official has stated they suspect SPLA in Opposition soldiers to be responsible for the attack, and perhaps they wanted to target SPLA and government officials in Western Bahr el Ghazal without drawing international condemnation. Bandits have also mimicked LRA patterns of attack in northern Congo.
Or perhaps the SAF, SPLA in Opposition, and LRA are all in cahoots, and the LRA is attacking Western Bahr el Ghazal on the orders of its old allies, Machar and Bashir. Given all the twists and turns the LRA conflict has taken over the past several decades, very little can surprise me anymore.