Bush League Rebels
A PERPLEXING SURVEY OF THE CONGO’S MYRIAD RESISTANCE GROUPS
By Joe Stramowski
The dreaded National Police pose for our cameras in Dungu.
UPDATE: On November 20, 2012, the M23 staged a massive takeover of Goma. The day prior, Radio Okapi, one of MONUSCO's radio outlets in the city, had reported that mortar rounds fired by rebels in Rwanda had killed four people in the DRC. The next day, M23 troops stormed the area surrounding Goma's airport, and FDRC soldiers retreated before the airport was destroyed. Restricted by their mandate and forbade from engaging M23 directly, MONUSCO troops were forced to watch as the rebels took control of a city strategically important to the control of the mining and export of the DRC's vast mineral resources.
The following day, more than 2,000 Congolese soldiers and 700 policemen defected to M23. The rebels organized a rally in Goma's Stadium of the Volcanos and, before a cheering crowd of thousands more, pledged to take control of all of Congo. "We are now going to Kinshasa," pledged Col. Vianney Kazarama, M23 Spokesman. "No one will divide this country."
On my first day embedded with the UN stabilization force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I visited a camp in the city of Goma set up to house rebel combatants who had recently surrendered. The facility was split along ethnic and administrative lines, with only a chain-link fence separating Hutu and Tutsi fighters who, out in the bush, have been spilling each other’s blood by the bucket for decades.
Alongside the scarred and lean young fighters at the camp were dozens of women—“bush wives,” we were told—and their children, all born in the jungle. Most of these women had been taken as sex slaves, who pull double duty as domestic servants forced to cook, mend, and serve as porters for their captors. Already warned by my UN minders that they were concerned about the extent of my coverage, I asked the camp’s public information officer, Sam, how close I could get when snapping photos. “Get your pictures,” he replied. “Just, please, avoid the children.”
Goma is the capital city of the North Kivu province of the DRC and is situated in one of the world’s worst geopolitical neighborhoods. To the southeast, there’s the Rwandan border, which largely consists of mountain jungles through which scores of Hutu militants passed in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, fleeing punishment for their role in the massacre of Tutsis there. Over the course of the next decade, this armed migration directly contributed to the escalation of ethnic and factional tensions in the First and Second Congo Wars, in which an estimated 5 million people were murdered. Meanwhile, to the northeast of Goma, the West Nile region of Uganda has served as a transportation corridor for heavily armed Acholi-speaking fanatics like Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—who were made infamous by Invisible Children’s viral KONY 2012 documentary—to cross the border and drive deep into the DRC, where they’ve engaged in all sorts of ruthless behavior, like herding villagers into churches before burning them down to the ground.
FDLR ex-combatants, bush wives, and their children are processed for intake at a UN transit camp in Goma, North Kivu.
While KONY 2012 got a lot of flack for focusing on a rebel faction that had largely dissipated by the time of its release, ethnic conflicts are still erupting throughout the DRC, albeit of different varieties. These ethnic tensions are in turn exacerbating an already raging fight between local groups to control the illicit mining of cassiterite, wolframite, coltan, and other minerals essential to the manufacturing of everything from smartphones to air bags to jet engines. As a result of these tensions, a slew of foreign and native Hutu and Tutsi militias have renewed hostilities against each other.
Besides the dilapidated LRA, the DRC is also home to militant groups such as the Mai Mai, the Raia Mutomboki, and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)—names that are all as confusing as that tingle Justin Bieber’s voice makes you feel. But the greatest threat to regional stability could be M23 (short for the March 23 movement), a group that mostly consists of Congolese Tutsis who defected from the army last April in response to what they described as the country’s “high [levels] of corruption” and “improper governance.” Since then, almost a quarter million people have been displaced by M23’s violence, which includes at least 15 murders and 46 rapes (some of which were perpetrated against girls as young as eight years old, according to Human Rights Watch). Once a refuge for people fleeing Rwanda and its ethnic tensions, the DRC has become yet another African country from which many residents wish to escape.
The camp at Goma is indicative of the DRC’s confusing geopolitical turmoil. Combatants staying at the camp must first surrender and hand over their weapons to UN or government troops, after which they are processed and held for 72 hours. A portion of the residents are from Rwanda, from which they fled to the DRC, joined a militia, became hired guns, and now want to return home. Other campers are Congolese who fought with local Hutu or Tutsi militias before surrendering. There is also a contingent of Rwandan farmers who pose as ex-rebels to hitch a free ride with the UN back across the border. UN workers provide them with clothing and brightly colored plastic sandals. To determine their status and surmise their identities and countries of origin, they’re quizzed on local facts and subjected to fingerprinting and retinal scans. The camp is an element of a UN program designed to transform rebels back into civilians, reintegrating them back into society—or what’s left of it.
“Many of these people came to the DRC in search of opportunities after the conflict in Rwanda,” Sam said. “But now that the situation here is changing they want to go home.”
Witnesses and survivors of the atrocities perpetrated by the LRA in Dungu.
Various NGOs and government agencies operate in the DRC, all of which walk a fine line between doing harm and doing good. The most important of them is MONUSCO—the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. MONUSCO was formed two years ago, when the UN Security Council decided that a military solution was needed to stabilize the country in the wake of the Second Congo War. According to the UN resolution, the force comprises “a maximum of 19,815 military personnel, 760 military observers, 391 police personnel, and 1,050 members of formed police units.”
In addition to handling its homegrown dissenters, MONUSCO has also had to deal with all the foreign groups that have set up camp in the country’s remote rural areas. The Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration, and Resettlement (DDR for short) division of MONUSCO aims to “voluntarily repatriate all illegal foreign armed groups and their dependents from the DR Congo to their respective countries of origin.” That’s no small task for a force half the size of the NYPD patrolling an area the size of Western Europe, a place without any infrastructure where anyone can buy a loaded AK-47 for about the cost of a chicken.
Working with tribal chiefs, elders, and community leaders, DDR also conducts psyops campaigns designed to encourage soldiers to defect from their respective militias. These messages are delivered through FM-radio broadcasts and flyers, which are air-dropped into combat zones and depict a cartoonish action sequence instructing combatants on how to escape the jungle and rejoin civilization.
Meanwhile, the battle between M23 and government troops has raged so wildly that MONUSCO has had to divert troops and resources sorely needed elsewhere in the country in order to give the government a fighting chance. This, in turn, has created a security vacuum, which many of the armed groups in the area have rushed to fill while reigniting the cycle of old tribal conflicts that were never stamped out in the first place. For instance, the largely Hutu FDLR is staging attacks in concert with another armed group called the Nyatura against villages perceived as sympathetic to the Tutsis. Raia Mutomboki, a militia largely composed of Congolese Tutsis, claims they are protecting the local population from Hutu attacks, which according to their definition consists of massacring ethnic Hutus. Complicating matters further, it is widely believed that M23 is receiving aid from the Rwandan government.
As Sam gave me the walking tour of the M23 side of the Goma transit camp, it became apparent that no one from MONUSCO wanted to talk about the confusing three-way battle raging between the Tutsi M23 mutineers, MONUSCO, and the FRDC (the official name for the government’s troops). They were, however, more than happy to discuss other armed groups that are now less active, such as Joseph Kony and his LRA fighters—just not the rebels standing right next to me.
A former child soldier in Bangadi who was kidnapped at age 14 and spent three years in the custody of the LRA.
Ian, my MONUSCO contact, has the build, diction, and swagger of a cop or a soldier, or at least someone who had always wanted to be in a position of authority that also allows him to hold a gun.
“My understanding was that your story was about DDR’s efforts to reach active combatants,” Ian told us on the balcony of my hotel’s lakeside restaurant. But when I asked about M23, he bristled. “Here in Goma, we are largely dealing with M23 and the FDLR. But I have to make this clear: The UN will not discuss the M23 situation in Goma. Understood?”
The secrecy, I later learned, was due to the fear of an impending M23 attack. UN officials later told me that M23, which is led by Bosco Ntaganda (affectionately known by his troops as “the Terminator”), was situated approximately 25 miles outside Goma. But rumors among locals, NGO workers, soldiers, and private contractors put the rebels “in the bush,” less than six miles from the city. One afternoon, while I rode atop an armored personnel carrier on patrol with a detachment of Uruguayan soldiers, it became obvious that rather than prepping to go out into the jungle, as I’d expected, we were actually policing the streets of Goma’s poorest neighborhoods, as well as power plants, airstrips, and crossroads—the kind of places a rebel army would likely attack. The MONUSCO troops, it seemed, were preparing not for a jungle assault but for a potential M23 attack on Goma.
Even if the M23 has eclipsed the LRA in terms of its notoriety in the DRC, Joseph Kony’s legacy still haunts the country—and his soldiers, to some degree, are still active. After my visit to the camp in Goma, I traveled by plane to the rural outpost of Dungu, where in 2008 the LRA launched a brutal campaign of slaughter in which they set down their usual AK-47s and RPGs in favor of machetes and clubs. I met a boy who had witnessed the results of their handiwork—his two older sisters had been among the dead.
Later, I took a helicopter to Bangadi, an even more remote town near the South Sudanese border. I almost immediately found evidence of LRA activity in the area. First, I interviewed a teenage boy who, after being abducted and forced to spend three years in the bush, had escaped in the middle of the night and made his way home. Other neighbors guided us to a spot where LRA militants had butchered villagers in shoulder-high grass. I was then led to the center of the village road, which was piled with bones and burned clothing marking the spot where the residents of Bangadi had exacted their own brand of vigilante justice against captured LRA combatants.
When we asked the locals why the LRA dead had not been buried, the village chief dismissed the question with a wave of his hand and sauntered away. My fixer leaned close, so as not to offend my hosts, and said, “They believe if they bury the bones in the ground then they will haunt this place.”
The next morning, we awoke before sunrise in order to catch a ride with a joint military convoy headed to an area still harassed by the LRA. Under the command of a Belgian named Leo, the convoy included elements of the FRDC, foreign African troops, and a US Special Forces unit on loan from the United States Africa Command. As we entered the operational zone, we watched as the American soldiers removed their Velcro-affixed flag patches and insignias from their uniforms. Their commanding officer—a brash, blond South Dakotan—spotted my camera and made sure to inform me that Africa Command had a strict “no media” policy.
Later that night, at a toga party hosted at the Doctors Without Borders compound in Dungu, the South Dakotan told me he thought most of the people in the area were blowing the situation out of proportion.
“You have to take it all with a grain of salt,” he said over his single beer of the evening. “They’ll all tell you, ‘Before the LRA I had a herd of 400 goats.’ Bro! No, you didn’t! You’re hungry because you’re lazy and you don’t farm enough.”
During the patrol we had persuaded the convoy to drop us off in Duru, a village hard hit by the LRA’s 2008 Dungu offensive. It’s also where, according to local rumors, a small band of fighters had recently been raiding local farms. Once there, we met several witnesses to atrocities in the area, including a man named Martin who had been abducted by the LRA and escaped only a few days before my arrival.
Martin, a local hunter, told me that he was accompanying his teenage son into the bush near the village when they encountered two men dressed in FRDC uniforms. Assuming they were government troops stationed in the area, he did not hesitate when they waved him and his boy over to see what they were up to out in the jungle.
It wasn’t until he noticed their mismatched uniforms that he realized something was amiss. Masquerading as government soldiers, his LRA captors forced Martin and his son to carry their extra equipment and then foolishly proceeded to march them through the bush in a series of concentric circles to conceal their route. Being a local hunter, Martin knew every tree and gully, which meant he also knew that they had not even left the immediate area. It was then that he formulated an escape plan.
“Jean-Baptiste” (not his real name) witnessed both of his sisters murdered at the hands of the LRA in Dungu.
As the day wore on and turned to evening, the LRA bandits grew tired from their jungle trudge and started griping about their limited food supplies. Martin suggested that perhaps his captors could allow him to find them some game like an antelope, or at the very least some “bush meat” (monkey). The bandits handed Martin back the weapon they had seized from him earlier, a locally made, large-caliber rifle known as a “Double Zero,” and agreed on the condition that Martin’s son remain with them. Knowing that his captors, Acholi speakers from Uganda, had a limited or nonexistent understanding of the languages spoken in the region, Martin, in his own tongue, whispered to his son, “I will fire once to trick them. Then, when you hear me knock against a tree, you should run.”
Martin circled their encampment at a safe distance and waited for the moon to rise. After his first shot rang out across the night sky, the LRA men, lulled into a false sense of comfort, laid down their weapons and promptly went to sleep. After he heard the knock, Martin’s son fled and the pair made their way back to their village.
Over the next hour, as we plied Duru residents with cheap Congolese cigarettes so that they would agree to being interviewed, they gave us an idea of how the recent rise of militia fighting in the country has affected the LRA. As other armed groups have risen to prominence, Kony’s troops have been squeezed, left to fight both villagers and other militias for access to scarce resources in the country. Working in groups of three to five, thinly spread across an area about twice the size of France, they have no communications equipment and limited ammunition and are mainly attacking villages in search of food. The first questions they ask their victims usually concern the local availability of corn, goats, or chickens.
We asked Martin whether, while he was in LRA custody, he had seen any of the psyops flyers DDR had air-dropped over the jungle, or heard any of the radio broadcasts urging defection. His eyes lit up. “Yes. They had many flyers. They were using them for the fire.”
“Did they discuss the flyers?” a UN officer who had accompanied us on our trip asked, curious about the bandits’ response to the propaganda designed to dwindle their forces.
“Yes,” Martin told us. “They said, ‘Tell them we will never come out of the bush.’”
Remembering the pile of torched clothing and bones littering the road in Bangadi, I could see why.
Love VICE's travel stories? Check these out: