A relatively unknown militant group has intensified attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), raising fears of the emergence of a new jihadist organisation in central Africa. For years now, one of various rebel groups operating there, the Islamist Allied Democratic Forces-National Association for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU), has been trying to uproot Christians from the north-east area of DRC through attacks, rape, looting, kidnap and murder – on an almost weekly basis.
At least 36 people were killed in the latest attack on Saturday night (13 Aug.) in the village of Rwangoma, near Beni, the major town in the region. This was the deadliest attack in the area since November 2014; victims were tied up and hacked to death. The executive director at the Centre of Study for the Promotion of Peace, Democracy and Human Rights (that documents violence in North Kivu), Omar Kavota, told Reuters he had received reports of as many as 50 dead.
ADF-NALU, originally rooted in a rebel movement to overthrow Uganda’s government and replace it with an Islamist fundamentalist state, but forced to re-locate over the border into DRC, has been murdering local people, far from the attention of most of the world’s major media. While the National Association militants ostensibly ‘ended’ their fight in 2007, local bishops and civil society have repeatedly denounced the resurgence of violence still carried out in the name of ADF-NALU.
On Sunday, dozens of protesters gathered in Beni, carrying the body of one of those killed and chanting anti-government slogans. Only last week President Joseph Kabila visited the region and said he would work to bring about peace.
World Watch Monitor has tried to get more detail about Saturday’s attacks, but a local source explained that many have fled, internet cafes are closed and so it is difficult to ascertain more about the victims at this time.
However, below, an aid worker for Open Doors International (ODI), who wishes to remain anonymous, describes a recent visit to North Kivu (before this latest attack). ODI supports Christians under pressure for their faith around the world.
Report from North Kivu
As soon as we set foot in North Kivu province, in the north-east of the DRC, we are confronted with signs of the misery ADF attacks are causing for the mostly Christian inhabitants of the province.
During our previous visit, Eringeti – a town that sits near the northern border of the troubled province – was considered safer than the outlying villages. We were able to enter the town and spend time with the Christians there. But the ADF attacked in November 2015 and now it is included in the no-go zone.
“The attackers in November arrived in their numbers at about 3pm. They killed more than 20 people and burnt down over 50 houses. Before leaving at about 5am, they looted the hospital, pharmacies and shops and set fire to the market and to homes close to the market,” a local pastor, Kiveroi, told us.
We carry on south towards the larger town of Oicha. Under different circumstances I would have appreciated the lush vegetation and spectacular rise and fall of the landscape. Not today. Signs of recent attacks are visible everywhere on buildings dotted along the road. Smaller villages have been obliterated and hardly any civilian life is visible. Doors of homes and businesses are insecurely padlocked, probably in the hope that the rebels won’t force their way in and take what is not theirs, as they always do. The only real activity we see is at the many makeshift military checkpoints along the road, where uniformed soldiers hang around by themselves or in pairs, rifles in hand, always ready for action.
As we arrive in Oicha, it is hard to miss the fact that the atmosphere is even tenser than it was when we visited the first time.
“Oicha is calm, but it is fragile because as long as the [rebels] are not destroyed, it is not over yet,” an administrative official tells us.
The town hosts most of the Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and is buckling under the strain of extra mouths to feed. At one IDP camp, we find about 400 people huddled together but learn that thousands of other families are finding refuge with host families.
The circumstances for all of them are dire. Food and shelter are in short supply. The locals are heavily dependent on subsistence farming. “Eighty per cent of the households here have farms, but they cannot access them because is it simply too dangerous. This means no food and no revenue. They have become vulnerable to starvation,” the official tells us. He points out that even if half of the population returned to their homes soon, it would take a very long time before they could harvest again.
We have an appointment with a group of pastors at a church compound. We know how desperately they need encouragement at the moment. The Church has been working hard to promote unity and to show empathy with the plight of fellow members from other villages and localities. They are making good efforts to share with them and support them. However, the situation of crisis, insecurity and uncertainty has caused vulnerability.
The pastors’ lives are a sample of the things most of the people here are going through. Many of them and their members have survived and/or witnessed terrible crimes committed by the elusive terrorists. Although pastors and church leaders go through the same ordeals and difficulties, pastors face the added pressure of church members looking to them for help and relief, even when they themselves find it hard to provide for their own families.
“We do not understand why this is happening to us,” one pastor, Jean, laments. “The rebels just take people into the bush to kill them or kidnap them. They attack one place for a while and cause people to run away. Then they strike the places people run to.”
Another pastor, Awuzo, confirms this. After having returned home from an IDP camp only a few weeks before, he, his wife and their seven children found themselves on the run again.
“When it is [tense], we are forced to leave, and when things get calm we return,” he said. “That’s how we live now. We are always alert, always ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”
No fewer than nine churches have closed along the main road connecting the more prominent towns and many have not been able to reopen.
“We used to have 350 members in church. After the rebels attacked us, we returned for services the very next Sunday. But there were just 10 of us,” Kiveroi told us.
Following our meeting with the pastors, it was time to distribute the aid we brought for the displaced who had gathered at the church compound. A young mother, Kavira (in her 30s), is first in the queue. With her seven-month-old sleeping baby secured onto her back with a cloth, she receives the rice, beans, salt, palm oil and soap with joy. Smiling shyly as she stands beside her husband after receiving the items, she couldn’t help expressing her joy: “This will greatly help. It reduces our hunger for the coming weeks and months. We are more than grateful.”