Sudan's referendum must not be derailed by the LRA

Here in the remote town of Yambio in Western Equatoria, the area of southern Sudan worst hit by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), I have heard horrific stories of the violence perpetrated by the militia. One lady I met, abducted by the LRA militia but who mercifully escaped, told me her story, her legs still swollen and covered in sores from being on the march for days in the forest.

Abducted with her husband and two-month-old baby, the rebels deliberately mutilated her husband in front of her, then took her baby and threatened to do the same. She told me, "After that, there's no meaning for me to have ever come out of the forest. All this is a memory that will never go away."

In the Catholic diocese of Yambio, we can't plan development projects for our people, no food is grown, children don't go to school and we are left to grapple with the needs of those made homeless by the pitiless violence. We spend much of our time seeking vital humanitarian assistance, such as from our partner UK aid agency Cafod, for the large numbers of vulnerable people that now crowd into displacement camps.

We are church people and our interest is to speak to the hearts of men, and to speak peace. Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu in Uganda attended the LRA peace talks from the very start in July 2006, together with the Inter Faith Council, a group of Protestant, Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic religious leaders, playing their roles as mediators.

However, in 2008 Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, failed to sign the peace deal and so we are now faced with a conflict that has spread across the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and here in southern Sudan, with innocent lives lost every day.

This month, I and other regional religious leaders met to discuss the impact the LRA is having on our communities. We believe that so far all military options have failed to bring peace over the last 24 years so a negotiated settlement is still the only sustainable solution to the LRA crisis. Given the LRA's track record of atrocities, civilian protection must be given a higher priority. Now that the LRA appears to be scattered and operating in small units, protecting vulnerable populations has become a greater logistical challenge.

As faith leaders we call on our national militaries across the region to take greater responsibility for protection, and we call for UN peacekeepers in the region to be more proactive in deploying rapid response units where they are needed most.

The LRA will continue to commit atrocities so long as Joseph Kony and his top commanders remain at large able to abduct and indoctrinate new fighters. We call on the international community to do all in its power to ensure that the path to a peaceful solution can be negotiated.

This is a very delicate time for Sudan ahead of January's referendum on self-determination. The people have a major decision to make, and they need peace and stability so they can understand the processes ahead of them. We cannot afford for the referendum process to be destabilised by LRA activity.

Through the power of prayer we must come together in unity to mobilise and strengthen our resolve to face this issue. We will not lose hope.

Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala, the catholic bishop of Tambura-Yambio in Southern Sudan.