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Brutal retreat of LRA rebels in Congo

The joint mission to finish off the notorious Lord's Resistance Army has led to more than 900 deaths and displaced more than 1,330 civilians since it began nearly two months ago.

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The Congolese Army is stationed in the town and is conducting operations against a suspected group of fighters to the north. One needs an Army escort of eight heavily armed soldiers to travel the 45 kilometers along a mud track from the main army base to the town. Beyond Ngilima there is just bush and fear.

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As she is brought into town on the back of an army motorbike, the fresh machete wound above Charlotte Lipayi's right elbow marks her as one of the most recent victims of the LRA's attacks.

The night before, she had left the relative safety of Ngilima to return to her village 25 kilometers away to forage for food for her family. At 9 a.m. she was on the road back. That was when six heavily armed LRA fighters found her.As she fled, a fighter hacked at her arm. A 22-year-old woman she was with was caught and violently raped, she says. Remarkably though, both survived.

Their lives were spared, she says, so that they could go back to their villages to warn the people and Army troops there that the LRA was still around and still able to attack.

The swirl of terror that the LRA systematically leaves in its wake is fueling a mounting humanitarian crisis. Swathes of territory are cut off by a deadly combination of insecurity and inaccessibility.

The handful of nongovernmental organizations still working in the region make only infrequent and highly risky airplane journeys to the various bush outposts.

In the few islands of relative security like Ngilima, food supplies for the displaced people are running precariously low.

It is harvest time but people are trapped in the towns, too scared to go to their fields. In the health centers around the region, medicines are running out.

Where's the UN?

The $1 billion-a-year UN mission to Congo, MONUC, does have a base nearby. Around 400 Moroccan troops and 50 Indonesian engineers are stationed in a heavily guarded camp by the airstrip outside Dungu, the largest town in the area.

Their main job, it seems is to provide logistical air support for the operations of the Congolese army.

Apart from that, MONUC appears to be too understaffed to be effective in this part of Congo.

Doctors Without Borders, one of the few NGOs still working in the area, has officially attacked the UN mission for not doing enough to defend the population, an accusation that MONUC denies. The feeling of betrayal among locals is undeniable, however. Many say that if the UN is not fighting against the LRA, they must be helping them.

Rumors of complicity are rife and MONUC's previous base in the center of Dungu was attacked by thousands of angry inhabitants after the UN troops failed to respond during a previous raid by the LRA in early November. On that occasion, UN staff had to be rescued by the Congolese Army they are meant to be supporting.

Just over 15 kilometers from the UN base, 13 men in the village of Kakado have taken matters into their own hands in a bid to protect their families and the population of more than 1,000. As he lowers the dirty length of rope that serves as an improvised road-block, Jean-Pierre Namuchamo introduces the self-defense unit he heads.

Most carry little more than a slingshot, bow and arrow, or spear. At best, they can muster a home-made rifle, built to hunt monkeys and stuffed with used shotgun cartridges filled with ball bearings. In other villages around the region, similar self-defense groups have sprung up.

Crouching in the bushes by the side of the road, Mr. Namuchamo shows how he hides his men at night. If the LRA attacks however, he admits that his group could not put up much resistance. "But we are tired of running away," he explains. "If no one else will defend us, we decided that we would have to do it ourselves."