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Amid chaos, Katangans driven from homes by war

17-05-2006 Article, Le Temps, by Richard Werly

To survive attacks by marauding militias, 170,000 Congolese have taken refuge on remote islands on Lake Upemba. In early May, the ICRC was finally able to get relief supplies to them. A report by Richard Werly that first appeared in the French language newspaper, "Le Temps", on May 17 2006. It is reproduced here with the newspaper's kind permission.


© Le Temps / Richard Werly



The flesh on Petro Kitumba’s chest and back bear the mark of the deadly Mai-Mai militia: two long gashes that have only recently begun to heal, and any number of angry cigarette burn marks made by his captors. " Lots of other people in the villages around the lake endured the same torture for months on end, " said village headman. " They treated us like animals. " Mr Kitumba’s village was one of the places the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was finally able to reach with relief supplies in early May.

Kilumbe, Mituaba, Misebo, Mabwe, Kalelwa – so many tiny dots on the map of one of the most mineral-rich provinces in the immense Democratic Republic of the Congo. But it’s a wealth that has jinxed Katanga, and its price can be read on people’s faces and bodies, and on the landscape: the carcasses of burnt-out houses, the terrified looks of civilians the regular armed forces of the Congo, the chronically undernourished children … Katanga’s legendary cobalt and copper deposits are exploited by mining corporations that are often in league with the military authorities or with armed groups that proliferate in the area. Since the country plunged headlong into chaos at the end of the 1990s, they have served only one purpose: fuelling a war between predators, with the civilian population caught in between. People's only choice has been whether to cower or to flee.

In Kinshasa, Claude Jibidar, assistant director of the World Food Programme in the Congo, has tried to help, delivering 160 tonnes of food to the area. “In humanitarian terms, this country is on the edge of a precipice that’s hidden from sight by its dense green jungles. No one can imagine what people have lived through here. The truth is that they’ve been abandoned, abandoned to gunfire, hunger and sickness.” His words are borne out several thousand kilometres to the east. On the maps available in the capital city, the eye-catching references to the Lake Upemba national park and nearby Lakes Lukangam Mandungu and Mpingo, with the attractive ring of their names, give the impression that the Congo is an organized country, blessed with an infrastructure and protected natural reserves. But the real Katanga, a two-hour flight or a four-day boat trip from its capital, Lubumbashi, in no way reflects the administrative lines drawn on the map at the time of Belgian colonialism.

Ten years of ceaseless war against the background of the death throes of the Mobutu regime, the seizing of power by Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 1997, and then an unprecedented conflict between rival African powers (Rwanda, Uganda, Angola and Zimbabwe) from August 1998 to December 2002 – all this transformed the high grasslands, canals crowded with dugouts, and the rolling green hills into a no-man’s land of human misery, a place where there are no roads o r communication systems worthy of the name.

The population are hostages caught between the militia and government forces, not quite knowing at which end of the gun barrel the most sinister party is to be found.

A challenge for the ICRC as for others. Last February, alerted to the massive population movements, its delegates decided to deliver 130 tonnes of foodstuffs and other supplies on the banks of Lake Upemba as a means of helping some of the 170,000 displaced persons. This was a huge challenge. “Thousands of people die every day in the Congo despite the semblance of peace under UN supervision,” notes Simon Ashdown, deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Kinshasa sadly. “The logistical problems are enormous. Even for us.” Katanga, like the broader Congo, is a gaping wound in the heart of the Dark Continent, infected by every type of trafficker, errant soldier, corrupt politician and mercenary you can find in Africa.

The displaced from Kilumbe were there when I visited on 10 May. Thousands of them, all issued beforehand with a chit for food by local Red Cross employees, massing behind the yellow tape stretched between two trees at the entrance to the village. The ICRC needed almost a month to haul in resettlement kits that its staff were preparing to distribute to an initial contingent of 20,000 people in this isolated region. The ancient train, chartered from Congolese Railways, derailed six times between Lubumbashi and Bukama. Too many wagons hooked up; too many people hanging onto the sides; too much ballast and too many rails stolen for resale. A common occurrence in Lubumbashi, while the ICRC supplies were crawling over the final stretch of track to be unloaded by hand, one of the commanders of the Katanga military region was suspended from his duties for having diverted trains for his own profit over a period of months. And there will certainly be other ranking officers waiting to commit the same crime.

Then, two boats took over, the Trans Monaco and the Prince Bamo. These fancy names adorn two floating wrecks, rusted to the core by years spent plying the Congo River (known here as the Lualaba). On board, wearing Red Cross tabards over their T-shirts, the crew spent the eight-day voyage pushing away outstretched hands from dugouts and dropping anchor at nightfall, with regular changes of guard to prevent attack. Katanga is a logistical nightmare played out in a military-political swamp. The population are hostages caught between the Mai-Mai militia and government forces, not quite knowing at which end of the gun barrel the most sinister party is to be found. Often both.

And the Mai-Mai? They are armed gangs born out of the conflict and tangled in a web of alliances, misalliances and horror. Sitting on the bank, feet in the ooze, opposite the ICRC boat tied up at Kilumbe, is 18-year-old Bertin Lukambe. He used to be one of them. His story mirrors the upheavals of his country and those of its must coveted part: Katanga. “I was first recruited at 13 years of age by an officer in Kabila’s army and assigned to a self-defence unit set up to fight the Rwandan army. We laid ambushes in Upemba Park. And then bit by bit, Commander Kilolo, who was in charge of our local militia, took control of the broader operations. We turned our guns on civilians. We became bandits.”

Three hours away, on the other side of Lake Upemba, a Franciscan priest named Jasek confirmed the story. In his presbytery at Kikondja, a village with a laterite landing strip – the only strip in the area – this French-speaking Pole has witnessed the murderous upheaval in Katanga first hand since the end of the 1980s. “The Mai-Mai are really the expression of poverty and of the greed of their leaders,” he explained. “In 10 years of conflict, their operations have varied according to their sponsors. Hand out AK-47s to the kids in this village and a good many of them will take to the bush this minute and become Mai-Mai.”

The ICRC, its hands tied by its commitment to neutrality, officially avoids giving details of operations carried out by these murderous groups which have forcibly displaced nearly 200,000 people in the province. Its Congolese volunteers, however, are more talkative. They have collected accounts from Kilumbe victims. “Some Mai-Mai leaders attacked villages with dried human foetuses hanging on their chests, ripped from the wombs of the mothers they had killed,” Firmin, one of the porters, tells us. “Others cut the ears off uncooperative villagers. They spread horror to force people to abandon their homes.”

Both Médecins sans Frontières and the ICRC know that even if this wound is treated, others are likely to open in Katanga.

Petro Kitumba agrees. The village headman, who proudly wears the badge of current head of state Joseph Kabila – son of Laurent-Désiré, assassinated in 2001 by one of his bodyguards – was in his hut when drug-crazed militiamen arrived in Kilumbe in November 2005. “Their officers were like madmen. They tied me to a chair and beat and tortured me. Meanwhile, their soldiers ransacked houses and set fire to them. They also took away women and forced children to join them. We never saw them again.”

The aid operation mounted by the ICRC tells the rest: large groups of displaced people made even more vulnerable by their flight, skyrocketing child mortality rates, and the first epidemics among refugees. Petro Kitumba points to huge clumps of weeds and reeds in the distance. These are floating islands on which tens of tho usands of displaced persons have spent weeks on end, with no choice but to catch fish for food and exchange, taking them in dugouts to other villages, which are themselves threatened by the militias. Staff from Médecins sans Frontières, based in Nyanga and Kikondja, have seen the results: huge outbreaks of cholera and malaria everywhere.

Both Médecins sans Frontières and the ICRC know that even if this wound is treated, others are likely to open in Katanga. The arrival of regular Congolese troops, who have secured the shores of Lake Upemba and made food distribution possible, is fraught with unanswered questions, as always in the Congo. The international community has spent 400 million dollars on presidential and legislative elections for 30 July next, in addition to the two billion dollars a year for the 17,000 peacekeeping troops who are laughably insufficient to cover effectively this vast country’s 2.3 million square km with its 60 million people. What will happen next? Who will fund the country’s reconstruction after a peace settlement? What about the links, confirmed by people on the ground, between some regular army units and the Mai-Mai militia, each helping the other to build up its booty and survive while civilians perish?

“I don’t just come for the food and other supplies. I’m here to keep my hope alive,” says Mulume, a 28-year-old widow busy settling on her head a large sack filled with a mat, blankets, a bag of rice and salt, and tools provided by the ICRC. Another beneficiary, his ear glued to a radio handed out some days ago by a humanitarian organization, relays to the crowd a report of the surrender of Gédéon, one of the most feared Mai-Mai leaders. In Mituaba, another ICRC drop zone at the south of the lake, the chief militiaman has just surrendered to UN troops after entering a “purification hut”. Witchdoctors surrounded him, their looks terrifying the UN soldiers. As if, even when there’s a small light at the end of the tunnel, the Co ngo remains under a curse.