Smoke from hundreds of cooking fires curled upwards through the rain, creating a bluish haze that hung in the air just as the sky began to darken at dusk. It was dinnertime in the refugee camp where Elie Nvoutou Kama has now lived for over a year. But there wasn't much to go in the cooking pots tonight.
I met Elie on my first walk through the camp – a congregation of low-slung shelters cobbled together from sticks, palm fronds and bits of plastic sheeting located on the edge of the town of Obo in southeastern Central African Republic. As I made my way down the muddy track that bisects the sprawling site, it soon became clear that all was not well. The people I passed seemed distracted. My greetings – the only two words I'd managed to pick up in the local Zande language and usually a guaranteed conversation starter – were acknowledged only halfheartedly and sometimes not at all. Then I came across Elie.
As I approached, he grinned, displaying a set of teeth so crooked they rendered his speech nearly indecipherable. But that by no means kept him from talking, and soon he was explaining that the tension in the camp was due to a distribution of rations from the World Food Program that had degenerated into a riot earlier in the day as local residents looted food intended for those displaced by the LRA.
"We're the ones who are displaced. They still have their houses. We have nothing," he said. "This has already happened three times. This is the third time. We want to contact the people in charge, but we don't have their numbers."
At that moment, a man stomped by, yelling, and began to scuffle with a much larger man standing a few yards from us. Elie said the dispute was over a bundle of rations that had disappeared during the earlier clashes. Far from galvanizing the camp dwellers, it appeared the day's confrontation had divided them, spawning opportunism in some and paranoid suspicion in others.
Technically, Elie is not a refugee, and neither are any of the thousand or so others living in the camp. He is an internally displaced person, or IDP in the parlance of the humanitarian community. The home he fled lies just 25 kilometers away. The Lord's Resistance Army attacked their village eight times before Elie and his neighbors finally abandoned it. (You can read the story of their exodus below.)
According to the United Nations, LRA attacks have killed over 2,000 civilians since Joseph Kony's rebels began their latest campaign of terror in December 2008. More than 2,600 abductions have been recorded during that same period.
As shocking as these figures might seem, they almost certainly underestimate the real toll of LRA violence. This is due largely to the remoteness of the areas under attack and the fact that the people hunkered down there have no way of communicating with the next village much less the outside world. As one village chief in Congo put it, "We have no idea how many bodies there are out there in the forest."
And the fact that the villagers in question are constantly fleeing from one place to another, often in small numbers, doesn't make keeping tabs on them any easier.
The resulting lack of data creates a problem for those struggling to gauge the true impact of the LRA presence across the region. But one statistic is, indeed, telling.
According to the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, over 440,000 people have fled their homes since December 2008. The breakdown is as follows: Democratic Republic of the Congo, 268,000; Western Equatoria in southern Sudan, 120,000; the southeast of Central African Republic, 30,000. These are the internally displaced. Another 24,000 civilians have fled across an international border and are, therefore, considered refugees.
Why is this figure important? First of all it is more verifiable than death tolls or kidnapping figures, since the displaced tend to flee towards population centers in search of security and assistance. This makes them easier to count, which humanitarian agencies do on a regular basis in order to apportion assistance.
Secondly, all of these displaced must live somewhere and often end up settling in towns already in trouble. In Obo, for example, food production has plummeted since the LRA arrived in CAR. Farmers are simply too afraid to work in fields located beyond a small, irregularly-patrolled security perimeter. And so, to Obo residents already struggling to feed themselves, the thousands of starving refugees who arrived in their midst were like passengers boarding a sinking ship. The resulting tensions are entirely predictable.
"Five hundred and twelve from our village are in this camp, but not all of us were there," Elie said, recounting the fight with the townspeople. "There are old people among us who aren't able themselves to go. They stayed at home. So of our 512, a little over 300 got food. And of those who did, the people from Obo came and attacked them and took everything. They looted us. It's just like what the LRA did. And we couldn't fight them off, there were too many of them."
It's been estimated that nearly 6 million people have died in Congo's giant, convoluted war since 1998, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II. Yet only a fraction of those deaths can be directly attributed to combat. The vast majority succumbed to starvation and easily preventable diseases – cholera, malaria, and diarrhea – linked to the massive displacement of civilians.
The same is now happening on a smaller scale across the remote borderlands spanning Congo, CAR and southern Sudan.
"It's been a disaster. You're looking at 600 fighters impacting 600,000 people," is how one senior humanitarian official summed it up.
Six hundred thousand. That's a population roughly equal to that of Denver, Nashville, or Washington D.C. essentially being bullied to death by a group not much bigger than a street gang.
Of course, no one understands better just how untenable the situation is than those who live it daily. As we said goodbye, Elie began to despair at the thought of returning to his wife with his meager take from the day.
"I was able to get out with two liters of cooking oil, six bars of soap, and some corn meal. But with seven people in the family, I don't know how we are going to live off that. This happens every time...You know, the last distribution was six months ago."
Elie came by the next evening – as indeed he did every evening until we left Obo ten days later – and told me his story. Towards the end of his time in the village as the attacks became more and more frequent, he'd taken to riding his bicycle through the night to alert the Ugandan troops – a kind of jungle Paul Revere. Elie now shares two small shelters with six relatives and his heavily pregnant wife. What follows is a brief explanation of how he got there.
"My village, Ligoua, is on the road that leads to the Sudanese border. It was the 12th of August 2009 when we left our village to come to Obo – for good. There was no longer any way to go back that time.
"The eighth attack was too much for us. They came with a large force. They rounded up 60 people. They tied them up, beat them. They took everything – the clothes, the goods... They smashed the cooking pots. Then they left.
"It was the next day that a woman came on her own and told us that the rebels had come the day before around 3 p.m. and taken all the families who'd been in the fields. So we only learned about it on Saturday. Sunday we went there. We had to find out what was happening, because, if these people had once again surrounded our village, I was going to have to head back to Obo. So Sunday we began to understand the situation.
"Monday, another person escaped, came out of the forest and said (the LRA) were still there. By Tuesday they'd killed three people in the group – a boy, an old man, and a woman. That Tuesday, after they'd killed those people, they disappeared. They left and freed some of the others.
"I gave the order to send someone to Obo and bring back the Ugandan army. But before they arrived, we found the bodies. They'd been beaten with clubs. They'd not used guns. They'd smashed their heads...they also used bayonets. They'd been tied up...we even found the clubs they'd used.
"There were three bodies, but we were too afraid take all of them. So we only brought out one body. We buried it at 7 pm that Tuesday. On Wednesday we left our village.
"We realized we were too far from town. It took too long for me to ride to Obo (to fetch the Ugandans) and come back. It was better just to move our village to town. That's how we took the decision to move the whole population to Obo. There were 480 of us left by then as some had already begun to leave after the fourth attack...Everything I had I left behind. There just wasn't time."