Watoto wa Beni: an Unexploded Bomb in North Kivu

The airport in Beni, eastern DRC. Photograph by Wendkuni.

The airport in Beni, eastern DRC. Photograph by Wendkuni.

Violence is on the rise in little-reported on Beni, as armed men compete amidst claims that a militant group has links to Somalia’s al- Shabaab.

 Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo:  Sprawled between the Ituri rainforest and the steep hills of Congo’s Virunga National Park, Beni is a crossroads town at the top  of  North Kivu in the war-troubled east.

Close to the border with Uganda,  Beni sits in a territory of the same name that is currently home to an alphabet soup of 15 armed  groups.

While  international attention is focussed on the M23 insurgency further south near the provincial capital Goma, Beni is the forgotten centre of  increasing violence  and  instability.

The road north of the town that heads towards Ituri is a daily reminder of broken election promises to develop the region. Before the 2011 elections the first 60 km was  restored to tarmac, but after the vote, the remaining 200 km was ignored, leaving traffic to negotiate a deeply rutted and often impassable dirt track through the forest and  on to Bunia.

Driving is a dangerous game of shattered suspensions, road blocks and the constant threat of attacks from one of the many militia groups nearby.

Along the road, the raggedy camps of the FARDC, Congo’s national army, house the soldiers brought in three years ago for Operation Rwenzori to fight the Ugandan rebels  ADF-Nalu. Not so long ago, the ADF militia, one of the oldest in the DRC, was thought to be almost inactive, living off cross-border illicit trade and semi-integrated into the  local communities.

The only Islamic rebel group in the DRC, they are now officially labelled a terrorist organisation with links that possibly stretch beyond the region.  More  recently, they have regained momentum and, along with the Mai Mai groups that pepper the territory, are said to be responsible for a massive increase in abductions and violence.

One of these Mai Mai groups, led by a dissident FARDC major, now self-proclaimed ‘General’, Hilaire Kombi, has also gained momentum after forging alliances with other militias. Last week they were suspected of being involved in an attack on the Kangbayi prison in Beni that killed two people and resulted in the liberation of 244 prisoners, those serving the longest sentences. This is the second time the prison has been raided.

Kangbayi is located on the southern edge of the town in the wooded shadow of a picturesque rocky outcrop.  The front of the building is plastered with bullet holes – some of which clearly indicate they were fired from something more powerful than the elderly AK47s that are so common in the region.

An official at the prison said the attackers burned the military camp outside and killed an FARDC officer. They blasted multiple gunshots at the prison doors and after entering, began calling the names of selected convicts from a list. They then called a second group of prisoners, one of whom was a former soldier of the rebel group CNDP  that they immediately shot.

The remaining FARDC soldiers among the convicts hid in their cells and refused to leave probably due to a fear of being killed. Possession of an up-to-date list of names implies the attackers had inside help.

Kombi has previously been named in a UN report as having forged an alliance with local strongman politician Mbusa Nyamwisi who supplied him with weapons. Nyamwasi, the leader of a major faction that controlled vast swathes of territory during the two Congo wars, was a minister in President Joseph Kabila’s government before running against him in the last election.

The report suggests he has paid visits to Rwanda and Uganda and helped recruit for M23. The main street in Beni is named after him and although he is currently hiding out in South Africa, his influence in the region remains strong – local people talk openly about him and he is rumoured to have militia embedded amongst the population. He heads an alliance of armed groups, local business men and community leaders who are opposed to the government of Joseph Kabila.

Kombi’s militia are alleged to have been responsible for a recent attack on Beni’s mayor and, a week later, a street gunfight as they tried to retrieve captured Mai Mai fighters.

Four days after the prison attack security forces arrested another militia leader, Faustin Mandefu, said to be in alliance with Kombi and accused of being the leader of the prison break. Local security sources say they have evidence that Hilaire Kombi’s Mai Mai have forged links with the ADF.

These latest attacks in Beni are just one aspect of a steep rise in insecurity that provoked local human rights activists and civil society leaders to organise protests that included a ‘ville morte’ or town strike, a call to citizens to deny Kinshasa their tax payments and a protest in front of the plane of a visiting politician.

Kinshasa responded by sending a European-trained Special Intervention Police Force to calm the town.  Based outside Beni in Mbau in a zone that has recently seen large numbers of abductions, they are tasked with protecting civilians and responding to insecurity albeit with limited resources.   They are polished, professional and clearly different from the usual Congolese police offering.

The commander, Major Mbala, said that in the short time the Force had been in place he has seen a change in rebel tactics. Militias that were previously hunted by the army, now have strengthened and are directly attacking the troops. If the army succeeds in moving one group back another fills the vacuum.

He explained that divisions between the Mai Mai and rebel groups such as ADF-Nalu were increasingly porous and there is collusion between militias and some people in the local communities. He claimed that media reports of kidnappings were in reality abductions to increase the ranks of fighters or, in the case of women, sexual exploitation, citing as evidence the return of those too old or weak to fight.

Kidnapping in Beni is a growth industry and not only by militias keen to swell their ranks.

A few kilometres along the road from Mbau is the town of Oicha where the first thing that strikes you is the large number of young men hanging around with little or nothing to do. Oicha is now almost entirely surrounded by militias, which leads local human rights activists to fear the town will soon be attacked.

Nearby, the Administrator for Beni Territory, Amisi Kalonda, seems quietly weary as he explains the problems that the region faces. Against a background of clacking typewriters, he agrees that the unemployed young men are fodder for the rebels. When asked what he thinks is the answer to the insecurity he says simply: “we need political solutions and development.”

In Oicha, SP, a local human rights defender, tells me that there have been almost daily attacks by the ADF rebels pushing the soldiers away from their camps. A few days previously there was an attack on the military camp in Kamango, which is 25 km from the town and now the rebels control all the territory from the Semiliki bridge to within 9km of Mbau.

The foot soldiers that chased the rebels lacked logistical support and didn’t stand a chance and now the citizens of Oicha are afraid because they do not know what is to come: “it is clear from the rebel manoeuvers that they are trying to change their positions to the west side of Oicha.  This kind of movement shows us that Oicha town is being surrounded.”

The rebels only began these aggressive attacks after the Congolese army lanched an offensive campaign in 2010 called Operation Rwenzori.  From that time onwards, the abductions increased and now those that live on the east side of Oicha can no longer access their land which means they cannot eat.  However, the biggest rise in abductions has been in 2013 with numbers rising from around 40 per year to around 500 since last December.

Al Shabaab rumours

Ugandan military sources have repeatedly claimed that the ADF-Nalu is being supported by the Somali Islamist militant organisation al-Shabaab. A claim the US State Department says is unsubstantiated. Certainly Uganda has political and economic motives  for raising the temperature but now this claim is being echoed in the DRC.

First North Kivu Civil Societymake the claim, then FARDC spokesman, Colonel Richard Bisamaza, say they have evidence after FARDC captured one ADF fighter who is now in Kinshasa.  I put this suggestion to the Imam of Beni Mosque, Musa Angwandi:

 the local Muslim community are very disturbed by this and it needs to be reported. If there is a problem it is not religious it is political. ” He is afraid that as they begin to celebrate Ramadan which means they will be out at night, the Muslim community will be targeted: “The government needs to protect us. We are Congolese too.

In the tranquility of a Catholic seminary I sit down at a refectory table where 6 months previously 3 priests were eating their supper when armed men burst through the door and took them prisoner.  The priests although probably still alive, remain hostages to local politics and the price on their heads.

While the story briefly made international headlines no-one beyond the region bothered to investigate or comment on the increase in kidnapping for ransom money.  Kidnapping for ransom money has also surged in Beni Territory making road travel highly dangerous, houses insecure and causing a rise in demand for the services of security guards for those that can afford them.

Angeline is 22 years old although she appears much younger. She was working in her field with two friends when two men approached and ask for directions to Batalinga through the forest. The two men abducted the women and forced them to carry heavy sacks of maize telling them not to worry and that they would be returned.

They spent the night in an ADF camp where Angeline says the women were separated from the men, were covered-up and wore the face covering niqab. She says the faces of some of the men: “were not black.”   She tells me that the men were speaking a mixture of Kitoro – a language from Uganda near the border with the DRC – and Swahili. She still feels traumatised by the abduction and is receiving medical help but feels she was lucky to have been released.

It is pay day when I arrive at the Beni FARDC Division Head Quarters uninvited and the soldiers are in a cheerful mood as they wait to have their identities checked via biometric cards and their wages transferred to their bank via digital transfer.

These type of reforms are slowly making their impact as Congo attempts to transform an army built piecemeal on the rocks of Mobutu’s dictatorship with troops integrated from a hodge-podge of militia groups into something resembling a modern, disciplined national force.

A senior officer takes me inside and I learn that he was trained at the British officer training academy at Sandhurst. He speaks eloquently and at length about the social and military problems in the region and explains that he has been fighting the ADF for a long time and has witnessed a change in their operational mode.

Previously, he said, they paid their way and didn’t rape or kill but these days they have become virulent, well-armed and very well-financed: “when they kill someone now they cut off their heads – there’s something new in their thinking.”

Later on, just across the border in Uganda, I hear the same stories of decapitations.   He tells me that no-one has captured an al-Shabaab fighter but that they did discover a Quranic school in the bush and after fighting retrieved bodies with different faces from before: “that are neither black nor white – they are not Bantu.”

In a different location a contact shows me a video that was found in an ADF camp after the Congolese army raided it.  I watch as small children, no older that seven or eight recite the Quran, take classes in English and then practice assembling automatic weapons.

In a forest location, I see men drilling and marching, burqa clad women in the background preparing food and a strong emphasis on discipline and order. The languages spoken are Swahili and Kitoro but this is no Mai Mai group from the bush.

 The Children of Beni

In common parlance Watoto wa Beni – the children of Beni – is both a cultural and loosely shaped political identity. This localised distinction is even manifested in the Catholic Church as Beni Territory seeks permission from the Vatican to break away from neighbouring Butembo.

It is clear that here in the Territory of Beni, so close to the border with Uganda and so far from Kinshasa and Goma, something has shifted a violent gear. Everyone I speak to confirms this and everyone, whatever their political affiliation, also agrees that Kinshasa doesn’t seem to appreciate the scale of the problem.

They feel abandoned and afraid for the future. People are angry not just with the government but also with the political opposition who they accuse of blocking reforms. They are tired of the politicians, tired of the lack of development and exhausted by the violence. In Butembo, the wife of a Pareco Mai Mai commander tells me: “we used to live in peace with out neighbours, even the Rwandese.”

If a pattern exists it seems to be one of an increasingly organised instability. If you scratch beneath the surface of Beni’s luxuriant soil, you find too many vested interests, too many murky alliances, and a cross-border traffic in weapons and finance. Infrastructure is minimal, solar power has been blocked by those with business interests in petrol, military strategy is limited by orders from faraway and ordinary people suffer the fallout in their daily lives. Too many young men with nothing to do are vulnerable to rebel recruiting.

It’s too easy for those, whether in the M23 stronghold of Rutshuru, or elsewhere, to play these interests for their own bitter ends. In the words of the FARDC officer with whom I pass the morning: “it is a powder keg that is ready to explode.”  If this explosion occurs the children of Beni – Watoto Wa Beni – will be the ones who pay the price with their blood but the fallout will ricochet across borders and all the way to Kinshasa.

 I first published a version of  this story at Think Africa 

Note: The three priests were alive after this report was filed. I was present during negotiations to free them. One of the priests was sick and the rebels viewed them as a burden. Sadly the negotiations came to nothing.  18 months later, reliable sources confirmed they were killed.

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