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Living in fear after LRA atrocities

28 January 09 00:02 GMT

By Peter Martell
BBC News, Mundri

It was just after dawn when the rebels seized Josephine Munda, grabbing the schoolgirl and her two sisters from their sleepy farming village in South Sudan.

All night they had lain hidden in the thick surrounding forest, after Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) guerrillas shot a policeman in her village of Bangolo.

The girls had been laughing as they made their way home.

Then the rebels struck.

"We thought it was safe, that they had gone," the 11-year old says softly, looking to the ground.

She puts her arm around her eight-year old brother protectively.

He escaped in the long grass when the rebels came.

"They tied us tightly, around the waist," Josephine adds.

"There were eight of us children - both boys and girls. I was very scared - they made us march for hours and hours."

But Josephine, the smallest of the group, was lucky.

Exhausted at the long trek and unable to keep up, the rebels abandoned her a day later.

Grim reputation

The LRA began fighting in northern Uganda two decades ago, but later spread to surrounding countries.

Its ranks now include fighters from across the region.

The leadership - men wanted by the International Criminal Court on war-crimes charges - enjoy a grim reputation for abducting children.

Many are taken to be porters to carry what the rebels loot.

Boys are then forced to become fighters. The girls become sex slaves for the commanders.

Josephine is now safe and staying with relatives in the town of Mundri, where some 8,000 others fleeing the attacks have gathered.

But there is still no news of her sisters - one aged 12, the other 14.

Her uncle shakes his head.

"We have heard nothing," he says grimly. "We just have to hope."

Cost of military action

Rebel fighters have scattered across the region following a joint offensive that began in mid-December, by troops from Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But they are far from beaten.

Some 130,000 people have since fled their homes in fear and 900 people have been killed across the region since the operation, according to United Nations' estimates.

Many have also been abducted.

Roaming in small units far through the bush, the LRA's speciality is gruesome attacks that deliberately target civilians.

It is a brutal warning of the cost of military action against them.

"They are burning down homes, they are killing people, hacking down people with machetes or other heavy tools, throwing people into the fire," said Jemma Nunu Kumba, governor of Sudan's Western Equatoria state.

Those fleeing to Mundri bring with them horrific reports.

Two young boys speak of how who were forced to watch as rebels hacked the legs and arms off their father and a companion who had come to rescue them.

The LRA then beat the men to death with a stick.

Only then did they release the boys.

"People are terrified, women and children running in chaos," said Bismark Monday Avokaya, the Bishop of Mundri.

"Some of those fleeing the attacks were helped by two tractors coming here. But the LRA were waiting in an ambush, and they set fire to them, killing a baby on her mother's back. Why? What do they want?"

Analysts claim most rebels escaped after a tip-off before last month's assault on their jungle hideouts in north-eastern DR Congo.

They estimate that the LRA has around 1,000 fighters, with some 100 to 300 in south Sudan.

Most fighters are thought to be shifting to remote forests in the Central African Republic (CAR), establishing secure bases from where they can raid the region.

But few know what the secretive and shadowy force really plans.

Community militias

Many fear those keen to destabilise oil-rich South Sudan ahead of an independence referendum in 2011 could use the group as a proxy force.

In Mundri, people are terrified, and community militias with bows and arrows patrol the villages.

But it's harvest time now, and people need to gather in their crops or face hunger in the year ahead.

"Many are at places even without water," said Bullen Abiatara Ariwari, the commissioner of Mundri West county, where several villages were attacked.

"They are very afraid to go far to fetch water, because they think that LRA are there."

Local officials are doing what they can with limited means, while the United Nations have conducted assessments ahead of the expected provision of emergency supplies.

Louise Khabure, of the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank, warned of a looming "humanitarian crisis in an area inaccessible to aid and assistance".

"The security situation is bound to worsen," she said.

For those who have fled the attacks, the questions are what the rebels want - and if they can be stopped.

Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the identities of those quoted.

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