BENI, Democratic Republic of Congo — Sitting in a tiny concrete office in eastern Congo, Jean Baptiste Kavunga opened his laptop and clicked through a slideshow of mutilated bodies. “I took this video while crying, “ he said, showing me a picture of charred corpses, ”they burned down this house with the civilians inside it.”
He shuffled through pictures of adults with their heads sliced open. “They might kill people with a machete… or they might cut their throats.” One picture featured at least nine children in the foreground, not bloodied like the adults but clearly lifeless. They had been clubbed to death.
Rain poured onto the corrugated iron roof above our heads so loudly that we could barely hear each other, and a thin white curtain flapped in the wind — it was the only thing protecting Jean Baptiste and his Director, Jean Paul Ngahangondi, from the multiple armed groups whose violence they track, and who wouldn’t think twice about killing them.
Jean Paul and Jean Baptiste are the entire staff of the Convention for the Respect of Human Rights (CRDH). Along with a few volunteers, they operate in North Kivu, Eastern Congo, on the edge of an area known among locals as the “triangle of death.”
Whenever there is a massacre, Jean Baptiste borrows a motorcycle and races to the site, recording as much evidence as he can. It’s a heroic effort, not only for the fact that they are so vulnerable but because it seems that no matter how much evidence there is, no one is listening.
Lately, the pair’s work has focused on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), one of the least known, but most vicious terror groups in the region.
While their exact number is unknown, monitors estimate that the ADF currently has between 1,000 and 2,000 members, are training hundreds of children, and have established a large stronghold that has attracted recruits from across East Africa — Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. More recently, there is evidence they have also attracted recruits from further away, including Mozambique, South Africa, and even the U.K. If this continues, the ADF’s fiefdom in Eastern Congo could become as dangerous as ungoverned spaces in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Mali and Afghanistan, if it isn’t already.
“They go in and just take advantage of villages,” Russ Feingold, Obama’s former special envoy for Africa's Great Lakes region and the Democratic Republic, told me last July. “There’s nobody to really stop them. That’s exactly what parts of the Eastern Congo are, and it can become a very strong hotbed of people who want to do us harm if we don’t pay attention.”
It is within this chaos that the ADF have thrived, killing hundreds of civilians, clearing entire towns and escaping back into the bush unscathed. Over the last few years, they’ve become one of region's most highly organised and powerful terror organizations.
The group formed in 1991 in Uganda and eventually adopted the aim of overthrowing the government of Yoweri Museveni and replacing it with an Islamic State. By the early ‘90s, the Ugandan military had successfully forced them into Eastern Congo, where they lived in relative harmony with the local population for almost two decades.
But that began to change from 2013 onwards as the group steadily attracted followers from further and further afield. They increasingly became known for abducting civilians, including girls who were forced to marry fighters and children who were forced to become soldiers. Then came the deadly attacks on schools, hospitals and villages. Last month, the group launched a series of attacks on Congolese and U.N. security forces, hobbling the country’s emergency ebola response.
Their leader, Jamil Mukulu, was arrested in 2015 and some former members say this marked the beginning of the group’s descent from principled, albeit violent, ideology, to simple criminal slaughter. Their stated goal is still to carve out an Islamic state in DRC and they have managed to survive multiple Congolese and Ugandan Army operations against them.
Thanks to the CRDH and the Bridgeway Foundation I was able to interview former members, abductees and victims in Beni and Kampala to gain a better understanding of ADF’s methodology and their ambitions for the region. My film called “Terror in Congo” airs this Friday, September 7th on HBO, at 7.30pm and 11pm. But the testimony I got from the ADF’s victims and former members was so extraordinary, that I wanted to share it in greater detail.
Told in their own words, what follows is a disturbing account of what the ADF was, what it’s become and how it stands out even in a region that has become synonymous with unimaginable cruelty. Through their testimony, these stories shed light on one of Africa’s least known, but most violent terror groups . Each interviewee agreed to talk only on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. The interviews were edited for brevity.
The sex slave and child soldier
I was 5 years old when they captured me. I was very young. Almost straight away they started teaching me Arabic. I became a soldier. And I was bibi abo, so I was a sex slave as well. They made me their wife. I was forced to begin fighting when I was 10 years old and I was 11 years old when I was given a husband.
They took me when I was on the farm. I was carrying a child that I was watching in the field. They killed the child.
We kept moving until we reached the bush. They told me they were going to kill me. My older brother said to kill him instead, to leave me alone. So they left me alone. We continued on with them until their camp. They repeated the death threats. Mama Mugandweze told them to kill her instead. They raped us and told us that if we tried to escape they would find us and kill us.
“There were so many of us, a lot of children. There could have been 200 children. There were about six defense lines and in every one there were children.”
They decided to lock the Congolese up in jail and I started to realize that, Oh God, I was going to die there. We really suffered. They fed us uncooked cassava. They made us cook rice to last for two weeks, but they did not light a fire so we just ate the little food we had. There was no peace, no togetherness.
They forced us not to retreat, to fight hard and never retreat. You would just move forward and pray to God to watch over you.
They would tell us to go and stir trouble. They would give us a certain number of bullets. We would go and kill a large number of civilians who were allies of the army, getting money from them.
You are not at peace, you just feel awful. There is no past or present to ponder, you can't even say that you are afraid. You just don't have any choice. No place to flee, you just do what they tell you to do.
There were so many of us, a lot of children. There could have been 200 children. There were about six defense lines and in every one there were children.
My husband never did anything nice to me. It was always difficult. He would beat me and if I told him I was sick, he would tell his boss that I was lying. Everyday they beat me.
There was no love. It was like violence. I was 11 years old when he started having violent sex with me and it was like he enjoyed having rough sex with me.
I got pregnant from him and gave birth to three children. One is still there in the bush. The other two are with me. I had the first pregnancy when I was 15 years old. My first child is still with the ADF. I don't know if he is dead or alive. I know the children were fighting a lot and I heard that they killed many child soldiers one day, so it could be that he already died.
So I tried to escape but I failed. I tried again and failed, so they held me down and threw me in jail. When I escaped, I spent 5 days in the bush. I was alone in the wilderness. I was really afraid. After 6 days I made it to the farms in Basivile and I met up with Mangali who was looking for me. They were happy to see me. I saw another soldier who also had escaped. They told me to hide; “If they find you, they will kill you.” So I hid.
I met up with Motare in Kokola. I asked him to help carry me. I cried for Motare to help me. I didn't know where I was. I didn't know if I was home or not. Motare said, "let me wash off your blood." After that, we went to the Police. They took me to the officers and they tortured me and beat me.
Right now, I'm living here and I am having a very hard time. I don't know which way to go. Since I left there I found out that both of my parents died. They did not know if I was alive. They just knew that I was taken by the ADF and assumed I was dead.
The population is still afraid of the ADF. They come any time and kill the population.
I left the ADF in 2014. I was 20 years old. I spent 15 years working with them.
The fighter and founding member
Following disagreements with Muslim factions in Uganda, there was a riot in 1991 at the Old Kampala Mosque. After that, one Muslim faction tried to kill four policemen. That's when the government first took over the situation, and in the process about 118 youth were arrested, including Jamil Mukulu.
Jamil was one of the sheikhs who belonged to the Tabliq Sect which was based mostly in Nakasero and William Street mosques, in Kampala. During the period they spent in Luzira prison, they got the mentality of taking a radical way of doing things. That's where the youth started a rebellion against the Ugandan government. I was one of the people who went for training, the first batch had about 40 of us. It was conducted by former military men whom we found in the prison.
We passed, then another batch of more than 150 people, including women, went in for training. That's when the government went there and quashed it. More than 80 people were killed. Others were captured. About 43 survivors, women and men, crossed over to Eastern Congo.
“I was one of the people who went for training, the first batch had about 40 of us.”
That's when the ADF started recruiting. When they had some bases and some support from the Congolese government around 1994 and an alliance was made with the NALU, the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda.
I remember hearing a conversation about when Jamil Mukulu met Osama Bin Laden in Sudan. The Sudanese were not very supportive of the ADF before. They were saying we needed to teach children.They were saying we have not reached the stage of trying to fight. They said it's not you who will fight but your grandsons. First take about 50 years, when people are being indoctrinated. I can't say Osama Bin Laden himself, but at that meeting it was said that we, the ADF, was still in an infant stage. It needed some 30 more years to reach a stage whereby you can take up arms and fight somebody.
So for Jamil Mukulu, he took it upon himself that even if I get four or five guns, those four or five guns will get some more guns, then we shall start from there. And that's exactly what happened.
At the time that we got out of prison, we had only two guns. Operations were being done where we would watch Policemen, walking alone; then he could be hit and the the gun taken.
The goal, after the interference by the Ugandan government, was to establish an Islamic State in Uganda whereby the Sharia Law could be the one in place. Then, later, when we received external support, that's when the goal came to be overthrowing Uganda, not just getting a part of Uganda.
According to this Islamic State, everything is possible. Especially when it's in the bottom of your heart. Everything is possible, even if Muslims are the minority.
In the early days, around 1996-98, there were so many Jihadists who were waiting to join the ranks of the ADF, but we thought that people coming from outside would bring complications. We had external connections, like from Sudan with Hassan Turabi. We could get external support from the Sudan, then Saudi Arabia, then Kenyan connections. They were all helping their fellow Muslims. We could recruit from eastern, southern and central Uganda. It was very easy for us. We could recruit from the Mosques. People were willing to join so that they could meet a good end, so that they could reach the paradise.
It was because of their faith, the Islamic faith, when they knew that the struggle was about the Sharia law. I think each and every Muslim, especially the radicals, the Jihadists, that becomes one cause for them all. It doesn't matter what country you’re in.
Some of the fighters had conducted their training in Pakistan. I remember, it was 100 dollars to get a ticket, they could pass through Nairobi and then to Pakistan, spend three, four months and then they come back.
“What is paining me, the acts which are being done which were not being done during our days. They are off track now.”
[We thought it could take] more than 50 years. We were waiting to spend that. That changed around 2000-2001. People were dying at a high rate. That is the time when the Ugandan forces entered the Congo. We were fighting the enemies of Allah. In Islam, when somebody attacks you, you are allowed to fight back. You get straight into paradise when you die in this cause.
I was captured in North Kivu province in the Congo. I was on a mission when we were intercepted by combined forces of the Congolese and the UPDF (Uganda People’s Defense Force). I was captured and brought in. After some weeks I was brought into Uganda, to the tactical base in Kasese. From there, I was brought to Kampala.
It was a hard time for me. I remember one of my comrades was captured, then released. After he came back to the mountains he could not be trusted. You could be killed by the ADF because some of these men came as spies. So there was no way I could go back to the mountains.
During those first days after my capture, I operated with the UPDF. They did this whenever they got a defector or someone captured. I could assist them. Afterwards, I was taken for military training until recently when I retired.
What is paining me, the acts which are being done which were not being done during our days. They are off track now. We could attack somebody who's having a gun, who is going to fight you, but not the local people. Those were not the goals. Now that Jamil Mukulu is no longer in place, I think there is lack of proper leadership there. (Killing civilians) is forbidden. It is forbidden.
Why don't you surrender? That's what I would ask someone if I come across one. I don't think there is a proper explanation. It’s like killing a baby. I don't think you can explain that.
Why am I no longer participating? Hard question. If I was not captured, as of now I would be there. It is still in the bottom of my heart. I can't lie.
The stone breaker
I was with my friends and we went to dig for gold. That's when they imprisoned me, asking, "Who here wants to die or be a soldier?"
I said, "I want to be a soldier." I was 15 years old. I finished my training and we stayed with Officer Mashauri in Ulambo, fighting there from 2005. Officer Mashauri had been hit by an explosion. A missile blew his head off. When he was decapitated, I said no! I am just a child.
There were children there who were born there in the bush. There were so many. There were way more Congolese children than Ugandans.
After six months of training, they taught me how to be a Muslim. First they taught us the Quran, then how to pray. When you are a Muslim, if you kill you must say the prayer that says bismillah (in the name of God) to be sure that the spirit of the one you are killing doesn’t attack you. They taught us by using a goat as an example. With the first cut by the knife, you must say bismillah, then the goat's spirit doesn't come and hold on to you and trouble you.
The FARDC (Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo) were using civilians to find out about us, so we started killing civilians because they were helping the army. What could we do? We can't have people who are informants. But we didn't expect to be firing bullets at the Congolese.
I decided to tell a soldier that I was going to get food so I could escape. I went to the road and traveled for 3 hours to Kokoro. From there I reached MONUSCO. I turned in my weapon and they took me to Beni. They were looking for guides to lead them, to help their operations. So they took me and gave me a gun.
When I first left I got some support, a little bit. An NGO gave me two goats, a blanket and some supplies to be a functional person. I got a shovel and an axe, a jerrycan, the very basics for living, just for day to day survival. My present work is breaking stones. I am trying to make a living, but what sort of a living is that?
I was forcefully recruited. They found me at home at night and took me. I was kidnapped together with my father, brother, sister and my brother's child. My other uncle with whom we had been arrested was killed. When we arrived, I found soldiers there. They caned my father upon arrival. After that, he was imprisoned.
The suffering began immediately. The teaching they gave was violent. At a certain point, people started disappearing. We, the women, had no idea where they were going.
Sharia law says that a husband is chosen for a young girl. We were given men we did not love. Sharia also says that four signs show you are a grown woman; breasts, when you get your first period, when you develop pubic hair in the armpits and turning 15. When you get one of these signs, you're grown and can be married.
I was 13 when I was married off to my first husband.
We noticed that their killers dressed as pregnant women, wearing kitenge. The killer would find us sitting, like we are now, and ask for water, at night. Next, we would hear that an entire village had been slaughtered.
There was favoritism. The Ugandans were favored over others. If anyone pointed out the favoritism, they were singled out and severely punished. I tried to point out the abnormalities and for that I was listed to be killed.
Let me give you an example that made me defiant and fearless and able to say what I wanted to. There was a group of girls who wanted to escape. There was a Congolese girl in this group and they confided in her their intention to escape. She did not report the intended escape to the commanders. At around that time, Jamil Mukulu had decreed that any person with intentions to escape, or even thinking of escaping; that person would be executed. When the escapees were arrested, they told the commanders she knew about it. She was summoned to the high court and when it was established that she knew about the escape she was decapitated because she did not say a thing.
People who tried to escape were killed with knives. No bullets were wasted on anyone attempting to escape. I saw two women who were going to escape. It was during combat, with bullets flying. There were many paths all leading to our camp, but the two women took another. Someone found them on the wrong path. They were caught and killed with hand hoes. They were killed in front of us, inside the camp where we were staying.
That incident upset me so much that I stopped listening and started complaining about it all the time. I told them they were not fair. But instead of addressing their mistakes, they killed people. That day, they beheaded six children.
Six women went on strike. We were grouped in three categories; the dangerous, the bad and the good. I was in the dangerous category, as I was inciting the young women. They decided to imprison me. I was jailed for one year. Some members argued that I should get 700 strokes of the cane until I die. Others suggested I should be imprisoned for life. Others said that I should be executed.
“If the ADF wanted, they could create anything, an Islamic State, or if a state is too big, a sector.”
While I was imprisoned, the children I had taught started to protest on my behalf. "Release Madam," they chanted, "She is going to die in jail." Jamil Mukulu heard the chants of the other prisoners and ordered that I be taken to the bush and executed. As a Ugandan, I could not be executed in public, I had to be taken to the forest. The executioners he chose were in my group of dissenters, but he didn't know. They knew my concerns about the brutality were genuine.
Patel, Feza, Kasibante, Musana, and Masereka. Masereka and Musana were the men responsible for cutting the necks of people. They were holding a hoe, a knife, a rope and a jerry can. They escorted me with orders to behead me in the middle of the forest. They started a meeting, asking, "why should we kill our sister?" They gave me instructions to go to the Mosque in Kamango and look for Winnie, who had also escaped execution. I followed my fellow prisoner, a Congolese man, and we escaped to DRC.
I was wounded at the time, and nursing a baby too. As I walked with no idea of where we were going, we were ambushed. I realized that I was alone. I decided to walk in the bush until I got help. This was in 2014.
The ADF is no longer a visitor [in Congo]. It's not considered a foreign entity because it has married, had kids and set up businesses in Congo. The shopping centers are filled with ADF. Even the taxis in the park — some are owned by the ADF. The civilians in Congo are in-laws, grandchildren. If the ADF wanted, they could create anything, an Islamic State, or if a state is too big, a sector.
Nine people were killed. My wife, too. No one has ever gone back after the massacre that the ADF carried out here [Mbinja village in Beni territory] on the fifth of July.
We fled the house with Madam. She had gone to fetch water. I was at the door and I heard gunshots. The soldiers’ house is close, I thought the soldiers were the ones firing bullets. Suddenly I saw my woman coming, yelling, "my husband, my husband, get the kids.” The kids were still in bed. "Get the kids and flee with them, the ADF are in the village."
I said, "No, woman. Let’s go inside the house and get some sleep." She told me that we couldn't sleep, that we should run because they were so many.
Immediately, I carried the kids and took them. My wife was carrying the youngest child. We started running. More gunshots were coming from behind the school.
We continued running, we had no idea if the ADF were after us. We planned to go to the community so that we might get help. When I turned around, four ADF appeared. I stood and stared at them. They saw me staring at them. They had tied scarves around their heads.
One of them started shooting at me. I looked back and I saw that two of them had broken off. One was shooting at me but he missed. He shot my wife. I told her, “we're going to die here."
“Fear is still in my heart and we are just praying for the war to end, for everyone to go back to their homes.”
We continued running, but she soon ran out of breath. I told her to stand up but she said, “I don't have the energy to continue running.” Then she suddenly got a burst of energy and ran. Gunshots were still coming and we followed the children.
My wife ran into the thugs on this path. She tried to run away from them, but they shot her. I called for people to come and when I reached her I fell on my knees. I fell down and began to cry so much as my wife's corpse was lying there on the ground. I cried my heart out.
After I lifted her, they tore her clothes and used them to tie around her wounds, she was bleeding a lot from her chest. The bullet shot into her back and it came through her chest. And she was holding the baby but one of her fingers was missing. We never found her finger. We went to bury her immediately.
The (National Army) soldiers who were here to defend us were unable to fight. If they could have engaged the enemy on that day, many people could have been saved. They were afraid the day the enemy arrived. The ADF did as they wanted. They killed people until they got tired. It took two days before MONUSCO (the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo) came. They did not even reach where the body was laying. They turned their vehicles and drove off.
Fear is still in my heart and we are just praying for the war to end, for everyone to go back to their homes.
Cover image: UN peacekeepers patrol alongside the "triangle of death," an area in Eastern Congo where the ADF are most active. Ben Anderson for VICE News.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.