Ngilima is a sun-beaten collection of mud and straw huts set on a patch of savannah. It has a Catholic church, a school and little else.
We were told by aid workers in Dungu, the town 45 kilometers to the south that serves as a base of operations for the humanitarian community, not to set out for Ngilima before 7:30 a.m. and never to attempt heading back after 2 p.m. At the parish headquarters, contained within a slim blue notebook – a donation from UNICEF as part of a program to provide materials to schoolchildren – are the reasons why.
Carefully written by hand in tiny, neat block lettering are dates, names, places, and brief descriptions – the essential facts of LRA incidents that have occurred in or around the Ngilima. It's a fresh notebook, only reaching back to early June. But documented here are an average of two attacks per week. Most of them have occurred along the dirt and mud track that bisects the town, heading south towards Dungu and cutting its way north through ten-foot-high grass to the Sudanese border.
Ngilima, like a number of larger population centers across Haut and Bas-Uele, serves as a small pocket of relative security. More sprawling village than town despite its size, its population of 13,000 ballooned nearly two years ago when some 8,000 villagers flocked here fearing LRA attacks in the surrounding countryside. They were heartened by the presence of government soldiers, and Congo's U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as MONUSCO, now has a temporary base with 31 peacekeepers in the town center.
Yet Ngilima has an unmistakable feeling of abandonment. Relief agencies, fearing ambushes on the road, no longer come here. The LRA have grown bolder recently, and now do not hesitate to attack government positions directly. Villagers complain the U.N. soldiers emerge only rarely from their fortified compound to patrol in Humvees through the center of town.
On the night June 26th, LRA fighters entered a house on the edge of Ngilima and massacred three people. The killings sparked a slow civilian exodus from the town that continues today.
The following is the story of 46-year-old Yoris Mihidie, a husband, father, farmer and resident of Ngilima.
"The outskirts of Ngilima are unsafe. We are between two small streams. To our east there's one, and to the west there's another. Each is about a kilometer from here. If you dare cross those streams, you won't come back. Because the LRA have our town surrounded. We risk our lives just going out to find food for our families, for our children."
"I don't know what is happening in my fields, because I can no longer get there to check on them. But I've heard the LRA have taken the crops and animals. I don't know what to do now to live. More than anything else, that's why we go to the market in Nibiapa...to find something to eat and come back. Now that that's blocked, too – you see, this wound is from the LRA – lately, we don't know what we're going to do."
"We'd gone to the Nibiapa market on the border with Sudan to look for salt, because there's no salt left here. Humanitarian aid doesn't reach here anymore, so we'd gone to the market. It was August 8th."
"We were escorted by soldiers there and back. That's what is normally done. But the LRA use guerrilla tactics."
"It was around 5 p.m. On our way back, 17 kilometers from Ngilima, we were ambushed by the LRA. With my own eyes, I saw three LRA fighters. Then they started shooting at us. We were with the soldiers. One soldier was killed, and in the shooting I was hit here. (Points to a bandage covering an entry wound above his right kidney) Soon after it all started, I lost consciousness because I'd already been wounded. They looted everything."
"In all, it lasted an hour. The LRA fighters left. It got dark. And when all I heard was silence, I came out and managed as best I could to get back on my own during the night...I tried to hold the wound together until I reached the army position 12 kilometers from Ngilima. That's where I spent the night. The next morning they transported me here to Ngilima."
"When I got here, the doctors first said they were going to treat me while they waited for the plane to come and carry us out. In all, there were four of us wounded. They wanted to take us all back to Dungu. But they only ended up taking one, and the rest of us were left behind. I still don't know what's happening. They've stopped talking about my situation."
"Here in Ngilima, we live in insecurity. There aren't enough soldiers, so we don't sleep as we should. We sleep by the grace of God."
"It's unsafe. Even with the arrival here of the U.N., we're still not safe. The peacekeepers don't patrol out there. The LRA are just on the other side of the stream. When you cross over, they kill you over there. But MONUSCO stays here in the center of town."
"My future looks very dangerous. My life right now is very difficult. I have no money. I have nothing to eat. Many people are now moving to Dungu or towards Sudan. Some I know, some I don't since there are so many. After this wound heals, if I feel I'm back to normal, I think I'll leave like all the others, because I'm no longer able to understand this war. But I wouldn't be a refugee in Sudan. I'm waiting for my wound to heal, and then I'll go to Dungu."
"This is what I want to tell President Obama. Come help the Congolese people. This can't go on. We are dying day after day. We cry. We mourn. If he would like, let him come here."
"We the people of the Uele basin, our livelihood is agriculture. But now we can't move, and we are isolated. We cannot work the land of our ancestors. It's not possible anymore. If possible, let him come here and help us and, above all, send these LRA back to their own country. We've had enough. In Ngilima, our population of 13,000 is shrinking. Our children are kidnapped. Our women are abducted. Killings are happening all around us. In Ngilima, we are trapped within an area of two kilometers between two streams. All that we can ask of Obama is his help...that he comes to our aid."