Sudan's 'Arrow Boys' Challenge Militants For the past four years, a group of militants has pillaged, murdered and raped its way through the forests of Central Africa. Tired of waiting for help, villagers in South Sudan are trying to fight back. The ad hoc commandos call themselves "Arrow Boys" after their most popular weapon — arrows dipped in poison.
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Sudan's 'Arrow Boys' Challenge Militants

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Sudan's 'Arrow Boys' Challenge Militants

Sudan's 'Arrow Boys' Challenge Militants

Sudan's 'Arrow Boys' Challenge Militants

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128803831/128923366" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Since being displaced from Uganda four years ago, a vicious group of militants -- known as the Lord's Resistance Army -- has pillaged, murdered and raped its way through the remote forests of Central Africa and southern Sudan.

A new bill in Congress calls on the United States to come up with a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the cult-like group's leader, Joseph Kony, and helping bring an end to the horrific violence. But civilians continue to suffer. Tired of waiting for help, many villagers in South Sudan are trying to fight back.

To protect themselves, residents of Western Equatoria state have formed self-defense forces in dozens of villages. The ad hoc commandos call themselves "Arrow Boys" after their most popular weapon -- arrows dipped in poison.

The Conflict's Toll

In Yambio, the small capital of Western Equatoria, the wailing starts when Land Cruisers appear at the end of a red dirt lane.

The first vehicle is full of soldiers bristling with AK-47s. The next car holds the bodies of a star education minister and his driver. The cars inch into a packed courtyard between low concrete houses, as a sobbing crowd presses up against the windows.

Displaced residents of Zangia, which the LRA recently attacked, gather in Tambura. A recent flurry of LRA attacks in South Sudan has forced thousands of families to flee from their homes to larger towns and roadsides. Trevor Snapp for NPR hide caption

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Trevor Snapp for NPR

Displaced residents of Zangia, which the LRA recently attacked, gather in Tambura. A recent flurry of LRA attacks in South Sudan has forced thousands of families to flee from their homes to larger towns and roadsides.

Trevor Snapp for NPR

After decades of civil war, mourners like John Ngong are used to death. But for the many people gathered here, it is how the men died that disturbs them most: Ambushed while driving north to their home village of Tambura, the men were shot, hacked and burned to death by members of the Lord's Resistance Army.

"Even if they kill somebody, they say they want to crush all the heads," Ngong says. "Most of our people are being killed like dogs. ... We are praying [to] God that the world can look into our problem and see what they can do for us."

But it is unclear how closely the world is looking into this problem. The LRA, which was born in Uganda 20 years ago, has spent the past four years ravaging the forest communities of Central Africa. The United Nations says they have killed thousands and displaced nearly 100,000 in South Sudan alone.

Although pursued by the Ugandan army, LRA's fighters continue to target civilians.

In a crowded hospital, Tereza Polino lies with her arm in a cast, cinder holes in her only dress. The wiry widow was wounded in an attack near Tambura, a one-street town north of Yambio, where the forest meets the savanna.

A few days earlier, Polino says, a large group of dreadlocked, bearded LRA fighters had come to her home.

"They were smelling like animals," she says. "They entered into my room, and they started collecting my clothes. Then, that time I attacked the person ... then he took off the stick from me and beat my hand with it. ... I fell down. He burnt my house."

A member of the Arrow Boys is seen in Tambura, Sudan, outside a hut that was burned and looted by the LRA. Trevor Snapp for NPR hide caption

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Trevor Snapp for NPR

A member of the Arrow Boys is seen in Tambura, Sudan, outside a hut that was burned and looted by the LRA.

Trevor Snapp for NPR

Striking Back

Like Polino, Arrow Boys are also fighting back.

The commander of the Arrow Boys in Tambura is a mild-mannered trader. An unlikely warrior, Michael Baiku sits in front of his brother's trading posts, selling packets of crackers, Chinese underwear, soap and soft drinks.

It's Sunday afternoon and everyone has had a couple of beers. It's doesn't feel like the town is under siege. But the Arrow Boys' commander says it is.

"If we don't patrol here ... those people will come and enter the town," Baiku says.

Later, Baiku and a sidekick take motorcycles 30 minutes outside of town, finally pulling up under a tree where a group of 50 Arrow Boys wait in the dusk. They have just returned from tracking a small band of LRA. Young and old, they carry spears, handmade guns forged over charcoal fires, the odd AK-47, and bow and arrows. Their leader, a thin farmer named Charles, has a bow and sports an extra-large neon orange T-shirt.

No one defends us, he says, not even the South Sudan army.

"Nobody followed up ... looked after the dead people. And then that is why we formed our group," Charles says. "Meanwhile, the LRA are killing us, so far better we can try to fight with them."

A Wary Government

Arrow Boys are proud of their efforts. But the government isn't as comfortable with locals taking matters into their own hands.

"At one stage, you feel like strengthening them by giving them more arms and ammo ... but again you are cautious because they are not military people. They may end up shooting each other, or they may end up going to an ambush of an organized force, who will just shoot all of them or shoot most of them," says Alfred Ngbakogbe, the state's secretary-general.

And regardless of the Arrow Boys' efforts, the LRA continues to kill -- and families continue to flee. More than 15,000 people have been displaced in these recent attacks.

Today, Polino's village is empty. The bustle of village life has been replaced by bird song. Many of the circular huts are reduced to ashes. Melted shoes, charred flashlights, pots of burnt maize are scattered on the ground.

On the outskirts of Tambura, Polino's community surrounds a relief truck delivering shelters and blankets. Arrow Boys secure the area while babies cry and mothers wait patiently -- displaced by a meaningless conflict, only miles from their home.