Paul Ronan reporting from Djemah, Central African Republic
Last week I wrapped up my trip to southeastern Central African Republic (CAR) by visiting Djemah, a tiny town that has been an epicenter of LRA activity for over two years. As we flew there, our pilot pointed out villages abandoned by people fleeing LRA attacks, as well as a huge rock cliff where Kony reportedly gathered LRA fighters in 2009.
I was eager to return to Djemah to see how the situation there had changed since I first visited two years ago. In 2010, few people had a grasp of the situation in Djemah because it was virtually inaccessible by road and had no mobile phone service or HF radio to communicate with the outside world. With the help of an intrepid pilot we flew into the tiny airstrip, and hiked several miles into town. There, community leaders told us of recent LRA attacks, including how just months before our visit LRA forces under Joseph Kony’s command had invaded Djemah town and abducted dozens of people.
The damage could have been far worse if a Ugandan military unit, which had arrived by chance only the night before, hadn’t driven the LRA out of the town. Even so, the community was so traumatized by the attack it dared not even venture outside of town to bury some of the dead. That night in 2010, unable to find a place to stay, we hung our mosquito nets from the wing of the airplane and slept on the runway.
Last week I returned to Djemah for the first time since that trip to see how the community has fared. In many ways, little has changed. Djemah remains the heart of LRA activity in southeast CAR, with Ugandan military forces pursuing senior LRA commanders in the surrounding forests.
Djemah still has no HF radio or mobile phone service, and the mayor told us that surrounding communities write letters and deliver them by hand to tell him of LRA activity. That very morning, we met a man who traveled 30km to Djemah to deliver a letter detailing how two Ugandan women and three small children escaped from the LRA in his community just two days before. That night, we ate dinner around a fire on the runway before again slinging our mosquito nets from the airplane wing.
However, some progress has also been made. The community welcomed the presence of US military advisers, who arrived in Djemah in late 2011 and have reportedly helped motivate Ugandan troops to improve counter-LRA operations and their behavior towards the local population. Several people I talked to in 2010 who had been directly impacted by Kony’s attack in late 2009 were now involved in a community early warning group designed to help protect civilians from future LRA raids. However, much remains to be done. Community expectations for what the US advisers will do to stop the LRA far surpass their current capabilities and mandate. As I wrote in Resolve’s recent report Peace Can Be, President Obama must convince regional governments, including Uganda, to recommit to apprehending senior LRA commanders and protecting civilians. If ongoing efforts are going to succeed, he must also provide greater logistical and intelligence support to forces pursuing the LRA.
In Djemah specifically, US military advisers could play a critical role in helping the Ugandan military encourage defections from the LRA with “come home” messages distributed via mobile FM transmitters and leaflets. US officials can also be of enormous help by supporting the installation of early warning communications technology. In recent months, US officials have had encouraging discussions on how to utilize the funds authorized by Congress in the 2012 budget to ensure Djemah and other towns in CAR can benefit from HF radio, FM radio, and mobile phone projects. These projects should be implemented quickly, and avoid the delays that have plagued similar US projects in Congo. Djemah and surrounding communities have been waiting for such projects for over two years, while the LRA continues to conduct brutal attacks. They can’t afford to wait two more.