Global Policy Forum

Years of Conflict Etched on a Congo Village Chief's Face




By Peter Beaumont

March 21, 2010


The face of Nangwahafil Makuza maps out the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The features are sad and beaten, the cheeks sunken from poverty, the eyes lost-looking and confused when he tells his story. And there is fear for the immediate future.

Makuza, aged 70, is a refugee whose home is a camp on the outskirts of the village of Kabizo, high on Tongo mountain in eastern Congo's North Kivu region. He is a witness to the world's deadliest conflict since 1945, which has claimed the lives of up to 5.4 million people, and has been displaced four times by violence in the past 12 years.

These days - like his neighbours in the camp - he lives in trepidation of what might happen should the wish of Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, be granted and the UN's peacekeeping force - Monuc, the largest, most expensive such mission in the world - be withdrawn ahead of elections in August next year.

The wars that have engulfed this resource-rich country since Rwandan troops invaded in 1997 in pursuit of extremist Hutu militias have not ended. Not in the east, although the vast conflict that at one time drew in most of Congo's neighbours has wound down. What has been left behind are the violent remnants of that time: militias and armed groups once supported by external actors who were as interested in Congo's resources as in its politics, and whose interest now is in enriching themselves, often violently, and persecuting the likes of Nangwahafil Makuza.

The activities of groups such as Pareco, the Rwandan Hutu FDLR and the Tutsi-aligned CNDP - the latter now loosely integrated into the Congolese armed forces following a peace deal - mean that Congo is a place whose continuing conflicts - political, ethnic and over the exploitation of land and other valuable resources - have merely entered a more low-key phase.

Amnesty International warned this month that, with massacres, rape, looting and other attacks on the civilian population and humanitarian agencies by armed forces and groups continuing, it was only Monuc, which costs more than $1bn annually, that was preventing the situation from significantly worsening. The United Nations troops have had an unhappy record in Congo - accused of collaborating with wanted war criminals in the Congolese armed forces, sex abuse, gold smuggling and running from rebels. But they have still acted as a brake on the worst excesses.

Listening to Makuza's desperate story, it is easy to understand why he fears the UN's departure. "I came here from Ikobo village, a long day's walk from here, three years ago," the former village chief says in his small shelter, which is not big enough to stand in. It is made of wood and woven banana leaves blackened by the fire pit in the corner. There is a tiny wooden bench to sit on.

Makuza was first displaced in 1998 by fighters from Pareco, a faction of the Mai Mai tribal militia. They attacked again in 2000. That time they stole all his possessions and burned his house.

"I can't remember the date," he says sadly. "It was the same people [Pareco]. They came and robbed and killed. I have not been home since then. I wish I could go back, but it's not safe. So I live like this." Too old and stooped to work the fields for the farmers of Kabizo, when they have work to do, his neighbours give him food from time.

I ask both Congolese and international experts to explain Pareco's "political" agenda, in theory a violent opposition to the return of Tutsi refugees to the area. The reality, says one, is that they are "thieves who just hate everyone". The same formula is applied to the other groups.

After the Pareco attack, Makuza gradually made his way to the Tonga mountain. But the worst was to come. Close to Kabizo, Pareco militiamen raided again in 2007, killing his wife and children.

The peace he has known for the past three years has come only at the cost of further displacement to this barren field on Tongo's mountain ridge and crushing poverty. It is a stability guaranteed by the blue-helmeted Indian soldiers camped at the mountain's base who guard the road up.

But neighbours in the small town of Kabizo do not want Makuza and the others in the camp to stay much longer. They want them to go back to their villages. Or somewhere else at least. Many in the camp would like to settle where they are. But Kabizo's chief, Bishogaro Nyamacumu, says no one wants the camp's residents to become integrated into the mountain village.

"They don't have enough money for land and we don't have enough space for them to move into," he says bluntly. He describes the tensions since Makuza and the others in the camp first arrived. There has been conflict with neighbours from the local Protestant church on whose land they first camped. I hear an observation more than once both from refugees in Kabizo's camp and aid workers: in North Kivu the past and present powerfully exist. And the future remains too uncertain and frightening to face. Makuza and his camp neighbours fear local violence due to tensions over land; the threat of being forced into slave labour by the armed groups and, for women, the ever-present threat of rape.

Meanwhile, daily life is a miserable grind. Makuza's meals most often are a few husks of maize cooked in the flames of his fire. Healthcare, he says, is out of the question. Indeed the dysfunctionality of Congo means that 80% of the health budget goes to the capital, Kinshasa. The rest is distributed to a country seven times the size of France, where doctors - like the army - are rarely paid, and where what medicines that do arrive in places like Kabizo are delivered by aid agencies such as Merlin which support the camp.

When Merlin is not around, Makuza must pay to visit the town's clinic. And he has no money. "I can't afford healthcare," he says. Since the end of major hostilities in 2003, the proporton of the Congo budget spent on health has, shockingly, almost halved from just over 9% to a little over 4%. At the mobile clinic run by the group, Madiaro Rukaro is waiting for treatment. He is a farmer and a football player for the village of Kabizo, not the camp. Like the camp residents, he is scared of what would happen if Monuc were withdrawn, as Kabila is demanding.

"The UN helps us," he says. "If they leave there will be problems. It is wrong. If Monuc goes, then I believe things here will turn bad again."

The symptoms of the continuing violence have been noted by Merlin's field workers, including Fabien Sambussy, an emergencies specialist based in Goma. In the areas where they operate, he says grimly, reports of rape are running at 300 a month - usually by armed men. He doubts whether that total represents the whole picture in a place where many women are afraid to disclose what has happened to them.

Nor is he confident that a recent quiet spell is more than temporary. "At least when there is fighting you know what to expect and how to respond," he says. "It is periods like this I find more frightening. It is the sense it might be building up to something."

As I leave the camp, Makuza has a final comment to make. "I was the village chief, you know," says Makuza as I leave. "I had lots of money. I had a house and family. Now I have nothing."


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