Religious ask Congo to quit downplaying violence

DUNGU, Congo -- Religious from the Diocese of Doruma-Dungu have asked the government to quit downplaying the threat posed by the Lord's Resistance Army in the far reaches of northern Congo.

They also asked the government to establish a special commission to investigate the murder of Augustinian Sister Jeanne Yengane. The Congolese nun, an ophthalmologist, was the victim of an LRA ambush Jan. 17 as she traveled by car toward the village of Ngilima, near Dungu, in the northern part of the country's Kasai-Oriental province.

"For the love of our people, we can no longer remain silent about the central government's policy of playing down the gravity of the LRA and its attacks," said the statement, signed by Bishop Richard Domba Mady of Doruma-Dungu and 38 priests and nuns.

The religious said the Congolese and Ugandan governments and the international community maintain a "deliberate and ongoing confusion" regarding those responsible for acts of violence against the civilian population in the remote area. It said the government deliberately attributes the crimes of the LRA to other groups and claims that the LRA in the region number only 18 rebel fighters, when they are actually far more numerous. The government also falsely accuses civilians of being spies for the LRA, they said.

"The LRA are there. The facts speak for themselves. There have been murders, people wounded and people have disappeared," they said.

In reference to the millions of dollars in aid money that other countries send to reinforce the Congolese government, the religious said the international community should "concern itself more with the displaced and the victims of the atrocities of the war rather than develop a lavish bureaucracy, to the detriment of the suffering people."

The religious said several armed groups -- including the LRA and the Congolese and Ugandan armies -- operate in the diocese. They said some former LRA fighters have been integrated into the Ugandan army, and the chief of army operations against the LRA is a former fighter, a fact which, the religious said, raises questions about the real will of Uganda to put an end to the rebels' activities.

The identity of those responsible for crimes against the civilian population is further confused by the presence in the forests of nomadic cattle breeders known as the Mbororo, who are often accused of crimes.

In the statement, the religious also urged the international community to establish a special international tribunal to try the perpetrators of crimes against civilians and to try the LRA leader, Joseph Kony.

"We are convinced that the international community knows the whereabouts of this rebel chief and has the means to arrest him and stop his capacity to turn our region into a theater of notorious atrocities and bring him to justice," they said.

International human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have reported on massacres and atrocities -- including grotesque bodily mutilations -- carried out by the LRA in northern Congo. Violations include a massacre of some 200 civilians in the village of Faradje, close to the Sudanese border, on Christmas in 2008; 96 civilian killings in the same area; and dozens of abductions between January and April 2010.

In 2009, the U.S. Congress passed the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which calls for the arrest and trial of Kony.

In November, the U.S. government announced a new strategy for the areas of northern Congo and Southern Sudan and the Central African Republic where the LRA maintains its campaign of terror. The strategy, whose stated aims are protecting the civilian population and working with the Ugandan army to apprehend Kony, has been criticized for being short on details of how to actually achieve those aims.

The U.N. stabilization mission in the Congo, MONUSCO, has said that it does not have enough troops to protect the civilians of this vast country, which is the size of Western Europe. It says that remote areas such as the Diocese of Doruma-Dungu -- an area of nearly 17,000 square miles -- are particularly difficult to cover effectively.

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