Joseph Kony’s militia The Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, has abducted men, women and children in unprecedented numbers in the Central African Republic this year -- suggesting that the group is trying to refill its ranks with child soldiers in the wake of military setbacks, according to a new report.
The LRA has kidnapped 217 people in eastern Central African Republic in the last two months, nearly double the number during the whole of last year, according Thursday's report from the LRA Crisis Tracker.
Even more disturbingly, an “unusually high” proportion of those kidnapped were children, the report said. It found that 54 children were kidnapped in just two months, more than triple the number abducted during all of 2015.
The spike in child abductions suggests that the LRA is making a desperate bid to prolong its campaign of terror with child recruits, said Paul Ronan, director of The Resolve, which runs the LRA Crisis Tracker with campaign group Invisible Children.
"They recruit young, young kids because it's easy to train and control them," Ronan told The World Post, saying children who escaped the LRA in 2015 described their military training to the group. By contrast, adults who are abducted by the LRA are often coerced into other roles, like carrying looted goods.
The new report documents the recent surge in LRA attacks in eastern CAR, and their devastating consequences.
In late January, for example, LRA militants ransacked the Catholic mission in the town of Bakouma, threatening several nuns from El Salvador who were living there. A few days earlier, they razed most of the village of Zabe to the ground and kidnapped nine residents, including two children under 4-years-old, according to the LRA Crisis Tracker. In another attack, fighters attacked a mining camp and kidnapped a family of five children and their parents.
"Forced abductions are not new ... but the scale is increasing at an alarming rate," Ronan said.
The LRA emerged in northern Uganda in the 1980s as a nominally Christian cult and militia with Kony as its self-proclaimed messiah. It wrought terror on the region through the mass abduction of children, the use of sex slaves and child soldiers, and its brutal violence, including cutting off the limbs of its victims.
The United Nations says the group has kidnapped between 60,000 and 100,000 children, and killed around 100,000 people. Kony and several senior LRA commanders are wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The group has come under increasing pressure of late. It was pushed out of Uganda in a military crackdown in 2006, and sought refuge in a remote and largely-ungoverned stretch of Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda formed a regional task force to hunt down the group in 2012, and the U.S. sent special forces to the region to help them out.
The LRA has tried to keep a lower profile to evade these forces, and the rise in attacks in the Central African Republic contrasts with an overall shift in recent years away from the extreme violence that made it notorious. Kony ordered the militia to avoid violent attacks on civilians, defectors told LRA Crisis Tracker. Meanwhile, the group continues to sustain itself through looting and smuggling ivory, gold and diamonds.
Yet the LRA appears to have a personnel problem. While on the run, the group has fragmented and Kony seems to have lost his control over some of his men. Several high level commanders have defected from the group.
As the militia is no longer able to recruit Ugandans, it is increasingly dependent on kidnapping civilians in the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo to refill its fighting ranks, the report says.
The sectarian conflict that engulfed the Central African Republic after a 2013 military coup has provided the LRA with even more latitude to operate -- diverting attention and resources away from the anti-LRA military campaign, and leaving civilians vulnerable to attack. The group is exploiting the chaos in the country to redouble attacks, increase smuggling, and try to keep its brutal campaign of violence alive, the report says.
The toll on the people of conflict-wracked Central African Republic is "heartbreaking," Ronan said, who interviewed people displaced by LRA violence in that country last month.
"People there were already living on the margins ... now they're being forced to leave their homes," he said. "One displaced man told me, 'When the LRA comes, you grab your children and run -- there's no time to take any food or supplies.'"