Ten years ago, on 23 January 2006, at least eight peacekeepers from the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), were killed by fighters of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in DRC’s Garamba Park. The peacekeepers were part of a Guatemalan contingent called Kaibiles, reportedly some of the most able special forces in the world (often hired by drug cartels to act as security and enforcers of drug trafficking in Guatemala and Mexico.) There is no public record of the events despite at least two separate UN investigations.
I interviewed four former LRA combatants who claimed to have been present during the attack on the Kaibiles. Their version of events seems to contradict some of the facts presented in various media articles at the time. Only two LRA fighters died during the firefight. The four denied mutilating the peacekeepers’ corpses as reported on Le Monde and other outlets. There was no long battle of many hours, but rather a hit and run operation carried out by a small LRA group of about 12, called a ‘standby.’ The LRA rebels took weapons and hats of some of the slain peacekeepers, and retreated hastily, leaving behind two of their own, including the group leader, Major Taban, Vincent Otti’s chief security officer.
Early the morning of 23 January 2006 , the group of about 80 Kaibiles came across the outer defense of the freshly set up camp of Vincent Otti, Kony’s deputy, who had crossed to Garamba from South Sudan’s Eastern Equatoria at the end of 2005. It is unclear whether the Kaibiles acted with the knowledge or approval of the UN mission’s top brass, but their mission was to capture Otti, who had been indicted months before by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. There were reports that the Kaibiles acted on British intelligence, which was fairly accurate about the location of Otti and his group of 130 people, including women and children.
The LRA camp guards thought the incoming group of men with painted faces were American soldiers, like the ones they had seen in pirated Hollywood movies, stolen in Northern Uganda and South Sudan, and viewed on Kony’s laptops powered by solar panels or car batteries. The guards alerted Otti, who retreated, and dispatched a standby to attack ‘the Americans’ from the rear. After hours of walking and a brief firefight, standby members met Otti late in the day. One of the fighters boasted that he ‘had killed Rambo,’ still believing that the Kaibiles were American special forces. Otti and the rest would only find out the men’s true identity a few days later when it was reported on the BBC.
The effects of the January 2006 encounter were significant. It became clear to many that the LRA was not a rag-tag group but rather well-trained and disciplined. The UN mission in DRC seemed reluctant to deal with the growing LRA presence in the northeast. By February 2006 Kony, using Otti’s old route, had arrived and set up camp in Garamba. Otti, concerned that the apparent US involvement would be deleterious to the LRA, convinced Kony to participate in a peace process, the so-called Juba talks, that started later that year. The talks ended officially in December 2008 when the Ugandan army attacked LRA based in Garamba, but they were likely finished by November 2007 after Kony had Otti killed.
Otti and Kony might have never agreed to peace talks had it not been for the January encounter. The talks ensured a relative peaceful period of about 18 months where the LRA largely refrained from killing the Congolese civilians living near Garamba Park. I would like to think that in helping bring about the peace talks, the deaths of the eight peacekeepers were not in vain.