While hundreds of Southern Sudanese have been forced into the ranks of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) against their will, others are joining self-defense units in Western Equatoria State to repulse attacks launched by the infamous rebel group against their towns and villages.
The units have sprung up in response to a decree issued by Western Equatoria Governor Jemma Nunu Kumba earlier this year, urging civilians to confront LRA insurgents who have targeted rural communities in retaliation for a joint military offensive against the rebels that began on 14 December 2008.
Popularly known as “arrow boys,” these young men get their nickname from the bows, arrows and other traditional weapons they use to fend off LRA marauders.
Their arsenal includes clubs treated with thick, black powder that is supposedly poisonous. The use of such weapons dates back several generations, according to Maridi County Commissioner Mathias Boyi Onzi.
“We thought we could use our boys instead of the army to stop the killing of our innocent people,” explained Onzi. “The arrow boys are very effective because they can move at night and go to locations where the soldiers can’t go.
The commissioner said that arrow boys have been deployed at 18 different locations inside Maridi County in groups of up to 35, adding that they do not fall under the command of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
It’s not just youngsters who are heeding the state governor’s call to arms. Mboroko village elder Jima Gbandi has ordered his neighbors to rise up against the ruthless foot soldiers of LRA leader Joseph Kony.
“Our people were attacked and killed like dogs, and a baby was taken and thrown into a fire,” said Gbandi. “That is why I have organized our youths and armed them with machetes, axes and knives to face the LRA.”
Among their successes, arrow boys fought off rebels on 12 March in Andari, killing three and scattering the rest, noted Charles Kifanda, worldwide Chairperson of the Zande community. And state driver James Ezadin attested that the vigilantes clashed with the LRA on 28 March in Sangua village, Nzara county, killing four of them.
But although the self-defense units have driven off small groups of rebels in some instances, the menace posed by the insurgents continues to disrupt life in Southern Sudanese state.
Hundreds of Ibba County residents uprooted by LRA attacks now live in the bush under mango trees with little or no access to clean water and toilet facilities.
“Food is a problem,” says John Venasio Gala, the Southern Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission deputy secretary for Ibba County. “There is too much suffering in Ibba due to displacement by the LRA.”
Over 1,300 internally displaced Sudanese have poured into the town of Ibba since last February, nearly two-thirds of them coming from the nearby payam (township) of Nambia, which is located five kilometers away from the county seat.
One of the homeless is Zanjia John, a Nambia resident who witnessed the abduction of seven children from neighboring houses during an LRA raid on his village earlier this year.
“Our house was burned down,and we survive on cassava leaves,” said Zanjia. While he wants more protection from security forces to ward off future rebel forays, Zanjia is prepared to fight the LRA with the traditional weaponry already in his possession.
“I have bows and arrows to protect myself and my family from the tong tong,” he said.