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Lord's Resistance Army terrorizing people of Southern Sudan

By Alan Boswell, For CNN
Southern Sudanese wait for food, shelter, security and medicine at the village of Nzara, Sudan.
Southern Sudanese wait for food, shelter, security and medicine at the village of Nzara, Sudan.
  • The LRA emerged in northern Uganda in the late '80s
  • The guerrillas have been on the run since a U.S.-backed operation
  • They roam in a weakly governed three-country area

Nzara, Sudan (CNN) -- Albert Abuda might never see his children again.

Long-haired, dirty men emerged from the dense bush around his village one day. They spoke a language he did not understand, fighting in a conflict equally as foreign and incomprehensible.

They were members of the notorious Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA.

They left with more than the year's harvest. His son is now likely training as a ruthless guerrilla warrior, and his 13-year-old daughter might be forced into commanders' harems.

Meanwhile, Abuda wastes away in a makeshift camp with others telling similar tales and living on the generosity of nearby villagers who sometimes provide cassava leaves to boil.

"Since I arrived here, life has become miserable to me. As you can see, my body keeps shrinking because there is no proper food," he said in the town of Nzara in Southern Sudan, where he and the rest of his community have fled.

The LRA, which follows the self-proclaimed spiritual powers of leader Joseph Kony, arose as a rebel movement in the late 1980s among the Acholi people of marginalized northern Uganda. But Kony and his men are no longer in Uganda, and little remains of any group ideology.

Instead, the LRA are known for their seasoned survival skills and brutal tactics of terror, roaming within a weakly-governed nexus where Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Sudan's autonomous region of Southern Sudan meet.

The guerrillas have been on the run since being scattered from their temporary base in Congolese territory by a botched U.S.-backed December 2008 attack on Kony's position, dubbed "Operation Lightning Thunder."

Although forced to adjust to life on the run, little else about its tactics have changed. Known for hacking off the lips or ears of victims, the LRA kills without remorse, leaving behind a scattered trail of missing children, looted villages, and burned huts.

Its bands of bush fighters now appear and disappear across the three troubled nations, traveling in elusive small groups and ravaging local communities for food, clothes, and medicine.

They also seek another sort of booty. No longer able to recruit for an armed movement that long ago lost a coherent goal, Kony's men must replenish the ranks through alternative means. The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch estimates the group has abducted 700 people -- a third children, like Abuda's -- in the last 18 months.

The group's victims are flooding the region as hapless squatters. Those who cross the area's porous international borders are fortunate enough to receive some help from the United Nations as refugees, but a loophole in international humanitarian law means that Abuda and the 25,000 other southern Sudanese internally displaced by the LRA this year are left mostly to fend for themselves.

Any end to the conflict appears as distant as ever. Internationally-sponsored peace talks collapsed in 2008, and Kony appears wary of taking his chances with terms of surrender. The International Criminal Court at The Hague has put out an arrest warrant on his head, indicting the Ugandan warlord on 33 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Amid youthful anti-LRA lobbying in Washington, President Barack Obama signed a law in May giving his administration 180 days to complete a new strategy for ending Kony's reign of terror and protecting civilians in the LRA's wake.

Here in Southern Sudan's fertile Western Equatoria state -- where LRA activities have turned the region's breadbasket into a hungry community relying on outsiders for help -- there is confusion among officials as to what the new legislation means.

"The American government gave Obama six months to fight and root those people out of the areas they are operating," says Robert Bandi, the adviser for political affairs in the Western Equatoria state government. "I think the six months are about to expire. We don't know how, [but] the Americans should have come in."

"Up to now the international community has left us alone to fight this war imposed on us," he said.

Local county commissioner Elia Richard Box says that financial support is what he and other authorities could use most.

"Apart from money, I don't know what the international community can do," he said.

If funds are provided, there is no guarantee the aid would find its way here. Financial oversight is poor in Southern Sudan's nascent government, which came to power in a 2005 peace deal after a 21-year rebellion of its own.

The Southern Sudan army, the SPLA, is still learning how to operate as a professional military and is focused on a number of other internal and external threats as well.

"The LRA is a very weak guerrilla movement," says Lt. Gen. Kuol Deim Kuol, SPLA's spokesman. "They operate in small groups of three, and when you try to confront them they don't stand in front of you."

"They behave like rats. A rat comes out of a hole, it comes and picks what it wants," he said. "It is difficult for you to trace it back to the hole."

Instead, the Southern Sudan government is relying on the assistance of neighboring Uganda's military, the UPDF, to do most of the chasing of the LRA themselves.

Even if Kony is finally killed or captured, hundreds of former abducted boys have now grown into men. They have learned to operate in mostly autonomous cells far distanced from their leader, and know no life apart from their guerrilla existence.

Abuda, appearing thin and weary, most now live with the knowledge that his son and daughter could soon grow up into Kony's next generation of followers.