As ICC convicts Ongwen of war crimes, 108 children and youth abducted by the LRA remain missing

On February 4th, the International Criminal Court (ICC) convicted Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) with 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. While the world reflects on the verdict, an early warning system (EWS) managed by international aid organization Invisible Children and its local partners has documented a spree of abductions by remaining LRA commanders in eastern CAR and northern DRC, including indicted LRA leader Joseph Kony. The rebel group has abducted at least 138 children and youth since January 2018, including 27 since January 2020. 108 of the children and youth are still missing and presumed in captivity, including 20 of those abducted since January 2020.

This briefing was also issued as a press release by Invisible Children, Bria Londo, CDJP, and SAIPED on February 2. The press release is available in French as well.

LRA abductions decrease, but continue to pose threat:
The LRA has been active in northern DRC and eastern CAR for over a decade, abducting more than 8,300 Congolese and Central African civilians since 2008. LRA abductions have decreased significantly in recent years as the number of combatants under the command of LRA leader Joseph Kony has dwindled. Since January 2020, the LRA has abducted 180 civilians. A majority of these abductees have been adult males forced to temporarily porter looted goods to LRA camps in the bush before being released or escaping within days of their abduction.

LRA abducts at least 138 children and youth since 2018, 108 of whom remain missing: Though the LRA has abducted fewer children than adults in recent years, the rebel group has been more likely to keep them in captivity. Of the 138 children and youth abducted since 2018, 108 remain missing and presumed in captivity. Children abducted by the LRA are often held in captivity, with females being subjected to sexual abuse including forced marriages with LRA combatants. Both boys and girls are forced to do dangerous and difficult manual labor for highly mobile LRA groups, such as portering looted goods, collecting firewood and water, farming, and setting up camps.

Joseph Kony’s location: As of mid-2020, LRA leader Joseph Kony was operating in the Sudanese- controlled Kafia Kingi enclave along the border with South Sudan and northeastern CAR. His group reportedly survives primarily via subsistence farming and bartering goods, such as honey, in local markets. Kony was also indicted by the ICC in 2005 on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including forced enlistment of children. Multiple LRA escapees have reported that in January 2018 Kony gave renewed orders to his commanders to abduct children so that they could be integrated into the LRA. Kony’s orders were reportedly motivated in part to forcibly recruit laborers that could work in fields in Kafia Kingi.

LRA splinter groups torture children: Several LRA splinter groups led by Ugandan commanders that no longer report to Kony are currently operating along the border between eastern CAR and northern DRC, periodically abducting both children and adults. Recent evidence points to violent punishments within the factions, including executions by some splinter group commanders, highlighting continued grave abuses against children by the LRA. These groups include one led by a commander who was formerly allied with Dominic Ongwen, and who split from Joseph Kony’s command shortly before Ongwen’s defection in 2014.

EWS used to warn communities and reunify LRA escapees: The 141 communities connected to the CRCA EWS utilize it on a regular basis to share information on LRA movements, issuing alerts to reduce the vulnerability of children and other vulnerable groups to LRA attacks. The EWS is also used to document the identities of children who have been abducted. The LRA transports abducted children across vast distances, meaning that abductees escape hundreds of kilometers from their homes, sometimes in a neighboring country. Upon their escape, communities utilize the EWS to contact the families of escaped children, after which Invisible Children and its CBO partners, such as SAIPED and Bria Londo, coordinate to transport them back to their homes and reunify them with their families. Since 2018, Invisible Children and its partners have reunified 73 children, as well as 39 adults, who have escaped from LRA captivity.

Lack of reintegration services: After they are reunified with their families, returnees need support in order to address psychological trauma, resume their education, establish a livelihood, and contribute meaningfully to their communities. Funding for such services has reduced considerably in recent years, leaving escapees with uncertain futures. Girls and women are particularly vulnerable due to the stigma of being associated with LRA commanders and/or having children fathered by LRA commanders.

Defection messaging best strategy to end LRA threat:
From 2010-2016, “Come Home” defection messaging initiatives helped encourage hundreds of LRA fighters and captive women and children to defect. Since 2017, defection messaging targeting the LRA has effectively halted due to a lack of funding. Rejuvenating “Come Home” messaging via FM and shortwave radio, fliers, and direct outreach to LRA groups represents the most effective strategy for reducing Kony’s fighting force and ending LRA violence.