For the past three months, Ugandan forces have been bombarding Islamist rebels in its border region with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The offensive, in the Rwenzori mountain range that straddles both countries, has forced many Congolese to leave their homes and move to the cities for shelter.
Sarah Kasanga* is one. The Allied Democratic Force (F) militia stormed Kalingathe, her village north of Beni, in December 2019. People were made to lie on the floor while rebels searched homes for food, pots, money or clothes.
DRC soldiers overlook Virunga national park at a military base on the outskirts of Beni
“They said they would take me and my younger sister and brother,” says Kasanga. “My mother started crying. They told her to be quiet and we’d be back after carrying their haul to the base.”
But that was a lie. Taking three boys and two girls, the group of 20 F fighters spent two months weaving through the forest to their camp.
The proliferation of armies and armed groups is expected to escalate the conflict, leading to more hardship and displacement Caitlin Brady, Norwegian Refugee Council
Uganda is now fighting alongside the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s armed forces (FARDC) in efforts to root out the rebels. Attacks in Kampala last year added urgency to plans already under way for joint operations to prop up the chaotic and underfunded Congolese forces.
Houses abandoned after F attacks north of Beni. A DRC military Land Cruiser in Beni and a helicopter flying over the restive territory
Reports suggest between 1,500 and 5,000 Ugandan troops could eventually be involved. There are about 120 rebel groups operating in eastern DRC, but the F, with an estimated 1,500 fighters, is a particular threat. Formed by groups opposed to Uganda’s autocratic president, Yoweri Museveni, in the late 1990s, their camps are in dense forest from where they carry out brutal raids on villages, abducting recruits.
“When we got to the F base we were separated by gender; they forced you to convert to Islam, pray, learn Arabic; women have to completely cover themselves,” says Kasanga. “They would also force people to be violent and kill – if you refused they said they would kill you.”
Men pick captured women and girls as wives. A UN report found that the F raped abductees to use the stigma to deter escape. “They were finding me a husband just before I escaped,” says Kasanga.
With dozens of overlapping armed groups operating in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, accurate figures are hard to come by, but the F is believed to have killed at least 2,238 people and abducted 896 people since April 2017, according to Kivu Security Tracker, which monitors violence in the region.
People recently displaced by F attacks, sheltering around a school near Mbau, just south of Oicha
Oicha, like many towns in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, has had an influx of thousands of people displaced by the violence, who are still subject to attacks. A bomb exploded in a market hours before the Guardian arrived. A bag thrown over the device dampened the blast and no one was killed.
Désiré Kilongo, Oicha’s community leader, talks to displaced people
Désiré Kilongo, a community leader, says that since the joint operation the number of displaced people in Oicha has tripled to 21,300, putting pressure on locals. “You’ll now find two or three extra families staying with friends or relatives in a two-room family home.”
In surrounding villages, families sleep in schools overnight. In the day, pupils work with heaps of belongings stacked at the back of classrooms. Meals are cooked in playgrounds and teachers lament the poor hygiene in school toilets. When subsistence farmers have to flee, they are left with nothing, risking their lives to return to their farms to harvest what they can.
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) says 1,166,200 people have been displaced by armed groups around Oicha. It has built shelters for displaced Mbuti, formerly known as Pygmies, and given money to Bantu communities to rent small houses and start businesses.
“The proliferation of armies and armed groups is expected to escalate the conflict, leading to more displacement and hardship for civilians. These communities are already at breaking point, says Caitlin Brady, the charity’s DRC director.
Displaced members of the Mbuti community, formerly known as Pygmies, in Kelekele camp near Mbau, north of Beni
In Kelekele camp, women have their heads shaved in mourning for their dead children. David Jalamuke, an elderly Mbuti man from Matiba, says the F killed all but one of his six children last May. His remaining daughter, standing next to him, lost her five children and husband, murdered in the same attack.
Jalamuke hid but saw rebels kill his friend. “They stood on his chest, cut his throat in two places and went with his neck,” he says. Others talk of the F cutting people into pieces. Raids often involve women and children made to steal food and belongings. One man described seeing “women killing women and children killing children”.
David Jalamuke, who has lost all but one of his six children. Mbuti women with their heads shaved in mourning for their murdered children
DRC’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, announced a “state of siege” in Ituri and North Kivu in May 2021. Military authorities replaced civilian counterparts, and security personnel were given extra powers but violence continues. With its huge reserves of minerals vital for smartphones and electric car batteries, DRC should be a wealthy country, but the legacy of colonialism and endemic corruption keeps its people among the poorest in the world.
Kasanga escaped from F in 2020. “We were sent to look for food near Oicha. The lady I was with decided to escape and told me to come with her.” Terrified of leaving her siblings with the F, she also feared returning to the base alone. “I’ve heard they are OK, but I worry about them,” she says, now reunited with her mother. “If the F sees me, they will kill me. I live in fear.”
DRC’s forces are supported by the 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission, Monusco. Although effective in targeting another rebel group, M23, in 2013, Monusco has faced criticism over its record of protecting people from F, despite $1bn (£740m) of annual funding. Last August saw anti-Monusco protests across eastern DRC.
“The FARDC starts operations, the F retaliates against the population and the angry population turns against Monusco for failing to protect them,” says Nelleke van de Walle at the International Crisis Group.
A Monusco armoured personnel carrier drives through Beni, with Tanzanian UN soldiers onboard. A convoy of blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers escort construction workers back to their base near Beni
The joint FARDC-Ugandan operation presents challenges for Monusco, which only has a mandate to support the Congolese forces, says Cecilia Piazza, head of its Beni office. But, she says, coordination is key for “an understanding of what is going on, particularly … when you have various forces in the same theatre”.
Piazza says Monusco is listening to criticisms and deploying “quick reaction forces” that are “mobile and robust in nature” to deal with F. But she acknowledges fears that attacks on F strongholds are just pushing rebels elsewhere. “We have seen incidents north [and] south of the area where the operation is taking place,” says Piazza.
Van de Walle says there are concerns too that the FARDC is benefiting from deals with criminal gangs. “FARDC soldiers are underpaid and sometimes worse equipped than the rebel groups,” she says.
The DRC state’s failure to protect communities promotes self-defence militias, known as Mai-Mai. In Beni, Patrick Mwenda*, 20, explains how young “patriots” are lured in. In 2016, a man came to his village with three guns.
“He said the F is killing civilians and the FARDC won’t protect us as they are working with the F. He said to protect our land and our families, the village needed to form its own group, attack FARDC bases and take their weapons,” says Mwenda.
People bought military-style outfits from the markets and made bows and arrows. Mwenda says he would sometimes get to carry a gun but mostly used a catapult, raiding FARDC bases to steal uniforms and weapons after drinking alcohol made from sorghum and banana.
“The fighting was tough. We launched four attacks and the FARDC would stage counterattacks. We’d drink a small amount of the magic liquid that the leader said would protect us from bullets,” he says. “It felt amazing to be a member of the movement, knowing we were saving our land.”
Then a new militia, the Union of Patriots for the Liberation of Congo (UPLC), came to the village, offering to train Mwenda’s group. But they did not leave, and ended up taking control of the village and collaborating with the F. Mwenda ran away to Beni.
Five-year-old Maskia Mukone Chanele at Beni hospital, in a Red Cross tent for victims of a blast in the town on Christmas Day
Last year, on Christmas Eve, the Ugandans captured a major F camp known as Kambi Ya Yua. On Christmas Day, an F suicide bomber retaliated, targeting a restaurant, killing eight and wounding 20 more.
In Beni hospital, victims are still recovering. A five-year-old girl, Maskia Mukone Chanele, is lying in a Red Cross tent with facial injuries and after nearly losing an eye. Her 13-year-old sister was killed.
“I was astonished when I heard about my daughter and her children,” says Anto Kahambu Kaghoma, Maskia’s grandmother. “This wouldn’t happen somewhere where there is a serious government.”
In the garden of a Beni hotel, Tommy Tambwe, who leads North Kivu’s disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme, is holding a community meeting. As a former rebel, his appointment to a government role was criticised by many for signalling there was a route to power for criminals. But Tambwe claims that the joint military operation and the community-engagement programmes will soon ensure peace for the region.
Tommy Tambwe meets community members to discuss disarming Mai-Mai militias and engaging young people. Alphonse Kambale Mubalya in his office
At the meeting, Alphonse Kambale Mubalya, who runs a peacebuilding organisation AMIP, blames DRC’s neighbouring countries for the violence. “It’s not like other insurgencies,” he says. “We have farming communities and we wouldn’t need jobs or to take up arms if there was no insecurity. Rebel fighters from Uganda and Rwanda came here in the 1990s and that was the start of the problem.”
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President Tshisekedi wants to build ties in the region, but people here are suspicious. Dr Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist and human rights activist who was awarded the Nobel peace for his work against rape as a weapon of war, tweeted that military cooperation was unacceptable after Uganda’s “25 years of mass crimes and plundering of our resources”.
Van de Walle says Ugandan investment in DRC’s roads has raised suggestions of ulterior motives over better transport links. Improved security for oil companies is a priority for Kampala – Total and the Chinese-owned CNOOC have confirmed they will begin work on a controversial multibillion-dollar oil pipeline from western Uganda to Tanzania.
Meanwhile, thousands of displaced Congolese remain in limbo.
Mwenda regrets his past. “The leaders took advantage of us and lied to us to stop us escaping, saying we needed documents to enter Beni or we’d be killed.” He says many rebels want to be reintegrated into their communities but believes their leaders want government money, and are forcing them to fight to keep up pressure on the authorities.
Jalamuke says people just want the Ugandan-FARDC forces to bring peace: “We’ll accept anything to stop the massacres.”
* Names have been changed
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