The eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo is the battlefield of a dirty war in which looting has largely replaced the political objectives of the rebel groups. But it is also home to thousands of young people willing to mobilize for social change.
For 16-year-old Jonathan Mwamba, fighting was a way to satisfy his thirst for revenge. For three years, Mwamba patrolled the eastern forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a Kaláshnikov on his shoulder and hoping to find the guerrillas who killed his parents. Their objective: to kill them without regard. The Maï – Maï Kirikicho rebels became his new family. He quickly gained their trust. In the camps, hidden among the vegetation, while they smoked all kinds of plants to better withstand mosquito bites and forget for a moment the ghosts of the past, they talked about the reasons that led them to choose that lifestyle, according to the story. young.RELATED
“I want to protect my people from the ‘interahamwe’,” said one. Mwamba nodded. “Interahamwe” is the popular name of the Forces Democratiques para la Liberación de Rwanda (FDLR), a militia born out of the desire of the ringleaders of the 1994 Rwandan genocide to regain political power in their native country. They killed Mwamba’s parents. Although their number of combatants has declined in recent years, they are still one of the strongest armed groups in the region. Last Wednesday, the Congolese government accused them of assassinating the Italian ambassador to that country, Luca Attanasio, during an attack on a UN convoy.
The smoke from the homemade cigarettes mixed with the humidity of the jungle. The conversations continued between puffs. Other guerrillas had less solidary objectives. In a region devastated by more than two decades of wars, where the state does not even guarantee the people the most basic social services and economic opportunities are scarce, many identify the rebel groups as an option to survive: they use arms to control trade of minerals, or to demand a percentage of the farmers’ crops and special taxes on all vehicles and passers-by.
Today, eastern Congo is the battleground for at least 122 armed groups, according to the tally of a group of experts from New York University. And their violence is far from over. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warned of a record number of attacks on civilians last year, with more than 2,000 civilians killed at the hands of militias.
Félix Mudekere (not his real name to protect his identity), 18, one of Mwanda’s former colleagues, has no trouble admitting that he has killed, although he says he is sorry. He also says that he has raped women. Then shrug your shoulders. According to him, he often simply followed the orders of his commanders without giving much thought to the consequences of his actions. At other times, he says he did it to get a plate of hot food.
Mudekere and Mwanda left the guerrillas in 2018, when their leaders lost control of their territory. Other more powerful groups expelled them. After wandering through the jungle for several weeks, hunger forced them to surrender. They both returned to their village, Karasi, a handful of mud houses surrounded by green hills.
A few dozen kilometers from the forest where Mwamba and Mudekere fought for years, activist Grâce Maroy, 22, acknowledges her unease. It “hurts a lot” to admit that his people are one of the most impoverished on the planet, despite the fact that they reside in a country “with enormous potential”.
Eight out of ten Congolese try to survive on less than $ 1.25 a day, despite the fact that their subsoil hides a treasure estimated a decade ago in 24 trillion dollars: gold, coltan, cobalt, tin, copper, diamonds … minerals that nourish world technology. Maroy speaks on a quiet shore of Lake Kivu. According to her, it is time to transform that frustration into “energy to fight for social justice.”
STRUGGLE (Lutte pour le changement), the citizen movement to which Maroy belongs, has become the platform of a society that yearns for profound changes. Its members have declared a non-violent war on the injustices of their country. After lamenting the assassination of the Italian ambassador, LUCHA activists identified the incident as further evidence of increasing insecurity in eastern Congo. “It was not an isolated event. We need urgent measures to improve security ”, they highlighted in their social media.
“Indeed, the Congo has many problems. But it also has a lot of people interested in finding solutions, ”says 24-year-old photographer Raïssa Karama Rwizibuka. “We young people have understood that we will never achieve social changes if we do not make an effort to achieve them. No one will liberate the Congo for us ”.
LUCHA members know they have a lot of work ahead of them. They also understand that they are on a dangerous path. Some activists were detained for months and reported that they were tortured at the hands of the security forces. Others are dead. The Congolese authorities did not hesitate to respond with tear gas and even live ammunition to the anti-government demonstrations.
In December 2018, the tenacity of those protests forced the Congolese government to hold a general election. Former President Joseph Kabila, one of the most powerful people in the Congo, who had adopted all kinds of stratagems to keep his office beyond constitutional limits, left the government. Social pressure forced him to improvise. Amid accusations of electoral fraud, the Congolese authorities named his successor: Felix Tshisekedi, an unpopular politician who, for many analysts, allows the former president to control his interests from behind the scenes. They were bitter elections but experts agree that, without the efforts of the citizen movements, the votes would have been postponed indefinitely.
“Those elections opened the eyes of many Congolese,” says Maroy. “They marked the way forward for us. They were the first step in our revolution. They showed that if we stick together, we can influence political agendas. We are prepared to take the reins of our country and change its future ”.