By Arnaud Zajtman
Night had already fallen when bandits armed with machetes stormed Binja Mukende’s home in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and slaughtered her husband in front of her. There is no electricity in her village so she could not identify the assailants.
Nineteen people were killed and their bodies mutilated during the attack on Ihembe village.
In a note addressed in broken Swahili and left on a dead body, the assailants promised to come back. The note was signed “the Rastas”.
Since the attack last month, Ihembe’s 14,000 inhabitants have sought refuge in the bush.
Some 4,000 of them are sleeping under tents on the mountains outside the town.
But the group which controls the camp – as well as the surrounding 500 sq km – is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), ethnic Hutu rebels accused of involvement in the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.
“Those who now guard us speak Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda. So did those who killed my husband. I’m scared,” whispers Binja, eyeing around to make sure that the rebels are not anywhere near to eavesdrop.
“We are held hostage,” says another woman, under condition of anonymity. Indeed, the rebels are not far away.
Some are inside the camp, their rifles on their shoulders, while their chiefs are sipping tea outside their mud house, just in front of the camp.
The FDLR commanders maintain tight control over the camp and surrounding forest area.
A small unit is deployed every kilometre.
After 11 years in the bush, the FDLR rebels confess they are tired and wish to return home peacefully.
In March, FDLR President Ignace Murwanashyaka said that his fighters would disarm and go home to form a political party by 5 May.
But the deadline passed and nothing happened. He now says his movement is waiting for guarantees from the Rwandan government that the FDLR can work as a political party there.
He accuses Rwanda’s judiciary of concentrating on crimes committed by Hutus during the genocide and of turning a blind eye to crimes committed by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan army against Hutus, both in Rwanda and in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the last 11 years.
In the meantime, neither the Congolese army, nor the UN peacekeepers, venture into FDLR-held territory.
Who protects whom?
The rebels have no shortage of ammunition, they patrol in their area and communicate with high frequency radios which they recharge on solar dishes.
“We are controlling the area to prevent any incursion by the Rastas. We are here to protect the civilian population,” says Jean-Marie Vianney, the chief of the FDLR brigade in Nindja and a deputy lieutenant of the Rwandan Armed Forces during the 1994 genocide. But it is not clear who is protecting whom.
While the UN – through its DR Congo-based deputy representative Ross Mountain – threatens to resort to force to get the FDLR to disarm, the 4,000 civilians are largely seen as FDLR human shields.
Shields that seem to be effective so far. The 3,000 UN troops deployed in South Kivu do not make it to Nindja. Their nearest base is in Walungu, some 15km away.
Mohamed Waqar, who heads 150 UN peacekeepers from Pakistan in Walungu, said further reinforcements were needed before any action could be taken.
He said it might take “a month plus” before such reinforcements arrived.
In the meantime, some Congolese say the Pakistani troops do not seem to do much.
They are reported to make some night patrols near their base.
And during the day, they improvise food distributions in Walungu, the last of which almost turned into a riot as people queued up to get instant noodles, biscuits and other food items that are not part of their usual diet.
“We don’t need them to distribute these things, we need them to bring us peace,” said a woman, waving a pot of jam she had just received.