TAPILI, Congo — Depleted by an American-backed offensive and seemingly desperate for new conscripts, the Lord’s Resistance Army, one of the most infamous armed groups in Africa, has killed hundreds of villagers in this remote corner of Congo and kidnapped hundreds more, marching them off in a vast human chain, witnesses say.
The massacre and abductions are a major setback to the effort to stamp out the remnants of the group, a primarily Ugandan rebel force that fielded thousands of soldiers in the 1980s and ’90s. But in recent years it has degenerated into a band of several hundred predators living deep in the bush in Congo, Sudan and the Central African Republic with child brides and military-grade weaponry.
The United States is providing the Ugandan Army with millions of dollars’ worth of aid — including fuel, trucks, satellite phones, night-vision goggles and contracted air support — to hunt the fighters down. It is one of the signature programs of Africom, the new American military command for Africa, which is working with the State Department to employ what officials call “the three D’s” — defense, diplomacy and development — to help African nations stabilize themselves.
These efforts appeared to be succeeding, eliminating up to 60 percent of the Lord’s Resistance Army fighters in the past 18 months, American officials said. But that may have been why the fighters tore off on their raid, late last year, to get as many new conscripts as possible, along with medicine, clothes and food. They also kidnapped nurses from hospitals, witnesses said, and stripped blood-splattered clothes off corpses for themselves, a sign they are increasingly desperate.
Human Rights Watch, which sent a team to investigate the killings in February, said the L.R.A. killed at least 320 people in this area, calling the massacre one of the worst in the group’s 23-year, atrocity-filled history.
Witnesses said that the number of dead could be several hundred more, and that most victims had been taken from their villages, tied at the waist and forced into the jungle, often with enormous loads of looted food balanced on their heads. Along the way, fighters randomly selected captives to kill, usually by an ax blow to the back of the head.
“They only scream once,” said Jean-Claude Singbatile, a high school student who said that he spent 14 days in captivity and witnessed dozens of killings.
What the attack shows, said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a Human Rights Watch researcher who was recently in Congo, “is that whether they are weakened or not, the L.R.A.’s capacity to kill remains as strong as ever.”
The events expose another troubling reality: Even as Congo’s leaders are pushing the United Nations to begin withdrawing peacekeepers, partly to make the government look more independent from the West, this immense nation of nearly 70 million people remains as vulnerable as ever.
This particular patch of northeastern Congo is so cut off from the rest of the country — there is no electricity, no cellphones and no roads, save 18-inch-wide footpaths barely passable by motorbike — that only now, more than three months later, is the scale of the massacre becoming clear. Human Rights Watch is planning to release an extensive report on the killings soon.
Residents here said that they had heard warnings for months.
“ ‘We are going to feast with you for Christmas’ — that what’s the L.R.A. kept telling people,” said Papa Adam Matsaga, the leader of a local human rights group that also documented the recent killings. Mr. Matsaga keeps a notebook log of the dead, including Merci Zunane, a 3-year-old. The list, in neat capital letters, covers page after page.
The massacre also had a clear precedent. Nearly a year before, more than 800 civilians were killed in revenge attacks after an American-backed air raid that went awry.
At the time, the American military had sent advisers to Uganda to help plan an attack on the headquarters of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Garamba National Park, in northeastern Congo. Ugandan helicopters strafed the camp, narrowly missing Joseph Kony, the group’s leader, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on crimes against humanity. Afterward, the fighters scattered and vented their outrage on nearby villagers.
This time, the L.R.A. seemed to have had a different strategy.
Instead of storming into villages and burning down huts (as it did in 2008 and early 2009), the group sent in relatively clean-cut soldiers dressed in proper military fatigues.
“They came in saying they were the national army and they wanted to know where were the churches and schools, so they could protect them,” said the Rev. Joseph Nzala, a priest in Tapili.
Eastern Congo has been a dumping ground for various armed groups for years, so it is not surprising that the villagers might have been confused. But as soon as they gathered, the roughly two dozen fighters roped them up at gunpoint and took them away. The band repeated the ruse in village after village, steadily expanding but eliminating hundreds along the way.