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Postscript to a genocide

Photography: Susan Schulman

October 2013

He has gone as far as he can by road. After six bone-shaking hours on the heavily potholed dirt track the motorbike rider deposits him at the intersection and drives off. He is alone. He looks at the footpath ahead of him. He has longed for this moment since violence engulfed his family and forced him to flee his birthplace in the heartland of eastern Congo. His village, Langira, where I first met him in 2009, is still a three day walk away over mountainous terrain.
But for the first time in almost five years, 60-year-old Azayi Kabunga is going home.

February 2009

The helicopter circles over the densely forested terrain below, its Ukrainian pilots peering intently out of the window, searching for the smoke signal that will guide us to the landing pad. The mountains spread out in all directions as far as the eye can see. This is eastern Congo. There are no roads here, no phone reception. It is accessible only by foot. It is some of the most deadly terrain on earth.

Conflict and insecurity have raged here for nearly 20 years, as myriad armed militias and home-grown Mai Mai (self defence groups) have preyed on the population, competing for the region’s abundant resources. Five million lives have been lost in these forests in two decades, and a million people displaced. In 1999, the UN established a peacekeeping mission, Monusco, here. At 22,000 troops it is now the world’s largest and longest-serving UN force.

The area borders Rwanda, and after the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 some of the perpetrators, members of the notorious Hutu Interhamwe, fled into these dense forests. They never went home. Instead, they regrouped into a military and christened themselves the “Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda” – the FDLR. Heavily armed, and estimated to number around 4,000, they are the most organised and deadly of the many armed groups who live in these forests. Since arriving in the area, they have used horrific violence – murder, torture and rape – against the local population. Not one family has been left untouched.

Villagers watch as a helicopter lands at an army base of the Congolese forces near Kashunga

Villagers watch as a helicopter lands at an army base of the Congolese forces near Kashunga

But now, at last, hope for peace is in the air. A groundbreaking agreement between Congo and Rwanda has just been concluded, which prioritises ridding eastern Congo of the FDLR. Joint military operations against the FDLR have been launched and we are en route to the front line of this effort, the forward operating base of the Rwandan Defence Force (RDF).

‘The FDLR have killed a lot of people,’ Azayi says, gesturing at the verdant surroundings. ‘There are a lot of tombs around here’”

The thin plume of smoke is spotted. As we begin our descent, a rough 50 metre-wide circle hacked out of the dense bush becomes visible. A gaggle of local Congolese dressed in rags stand at the edge of the landing pad as heavy bags are unloaded from the helicopter. Marked ‘Lady Shoes’, they contain the green wellington boots favoured by the RDF. The RDF officers are enlisting the assembled Congolese to help carry the sacks to their troops deeper in the bush. It’s a rare opportunity for the locals to earn money, and there’s no shortage of volunteers.

Operations will be conducted on foot. The soldiers, accompanied by their chosen porters carrying sacks of Lady Shoes, file silently into the bush.

Bags marked 'Lady Shoes' are unloaded

Bags marked ‘Lady Shoes’ are unloaded

The path descends steeply, criss-crossed by roots, and the thick jungle enclosing us creates an eerie twilight. The soldiers move swiftly and it is hard to stay upright. We cross a small river, and an ascent brings us out of the bush and onto a high crest where we catch our breath.

The path disappears. Feet slip on the steep hillside. An old porter, exhausted, barefoot and thin as a rail, drops his sack and struggles to hoist its 50 kilo load onto his back. His feet sink deep into the mud as the younger porters mock him and the soldiers shout at him to hurry.

Dusk has fallen by the time we reach Langira. It is a typical village in the rural, resource-rich area of North Kivu where, in the absence of roads, communications and state presence, impunity rules. This is where the thousands who flood the camps for the displaced many miles away come from; this is where the GBV (Gender Based Violence) victims who crowd the far-away hospitals have been grievously wounded. This is where people have struggled to survive since the FDLR arrived 15 years earlier, fresh from their butchery in Rwanda.

Dawn has barely broken the next day when a group of villagers emerges through the morning fog. They have been sleeping in the bush in fear for their lives. One of them, Azayi Kabunga, 56, shows me around the village. He is an important man in the area: a teacher, plantation owner and leader. His house has a corrugated iron roof, a sign of uncommon prosperity.

Rwandan Defense Force (RDF) troops walk thru this mountain top village in the remote reaches of Walikali district .

Rwandan Defense Force (RDF) troops walk through this mountain top village in the remote reaches of Walikali district

“The FDLR have killed a lot of people,” he says, gesturing at the verdant surroundings. “There are a lot of tombs around here.” The group has murdered eight of Azayi’s family members, including his father and sister.

We pass small houses with peaked thatch roofs. All are deserted and empty. Small tufts of green poke through the mud walls.

The years of relentless violence have had a catastrophic impact. Education, healthcare, agriculture, commerce: all have been decimated, impoverishing people who had always lived comfortably and easily from the produce of their fertile region, and sending many others to the grim refuge of distant camps. The ongoing operations are intended to end the horror and at long last bring peace. Hopes are high.

Mortars echo in the hills around us. The RDF radios crackle. The commander issues quick-fire orders to his troops. The military operation is planned to last for a month. It is now entering its third week.

A few hours later a woman emerges from the bush, struggling against the weight of the sack hung from her forehead. Close behind comes a steady stream of people carrying all manner of belongings – mattresses, sewing machines, pots and pans, goats, chickens. One small child cradles a white guinea pig; the woman behind her balances a teetering stack of schoolbooks on her head. These are refugees from the neighbouring community of Brazza. They are fleeing the horror of the FDLR.

The convoy pauses for a while: a guitar is strummed, children cavort and, in this brief moment of respite, an almost carnivalesque spirit sets in. A woman passes the infant on her shoulders to her older daughter, and puts her sack onto the ground, as her small sons run off to play.
Azayi greets her. Her name is Eleema Nbandu.

RDF troops walk through the remote reaches of Walikali district, which is also inhabited by FDLR fighters

RDF troops walk through the remote reaches of Walikali district, which is also inhabited by FDLR fighters

The refugees soon move on, disappearing back into the bush. A small girl, five or six years old, wearing a ragged dress and with a small fabric sack hanging from her forehead pauses on the edge of the clearing, staring at me. She has never seen anyone like me before. The last white person to have come here was decades earlier, a missionary in the 1960s.

I ask her if she thinks I am the only white person in the world or if she thinks there are others. “Ha! I know there are others,” she exclaims triumphantly. “They live in the helicopters and airplanes.” And with that, she runs off to catch up with the others.

October 2009

I have come to Goma, the main town in North Kivu. In 1994, thousands of Rwandan refugees poured over the border here to escape the genocide in their country as it unfolded over a period of 100 days in April. By the time it ended, 800,000 Rwandans had been killed and 850,000 Rwandan refugees occupied five huge camps set up for them in DRC just north of Goma. When the refugees started to return home the camps did not close. They soon filled again, but this time with Congolese displaced by the FDLR.

I am in Mungunga camp, a vast, hellish terrain of plastic sheeting shelters set on a bed of sharp lava rocks. It is a harsh environment.

It begins to rain, and I step into a shelter. A woman of about 30 sits inside. A baby clings to her, screaming inconsolably, and a dazed toddler is pressed up against her side. Sat on the bare lava rock floor are two young boys, both terrifyingly skinny and utterly devoid of energy. Their knee joints bulge obscenely, their eyes are sunk deep in their sockets.

The woman looks at me. “I know you,” she says, incredulously. “You were with the Rwandan soldiers in Langira, filming us just when we had started to flee.”

It is difficult to reconcile this Eleema with the woman I met nine months earlier. It is even more difficult to reconcile her boys, whose vibrant energy and high spirits had so struck me then, with the two boys now sat in front of me, listless and barely able to keep their eyes open. They had never intended to come this far.

“The FDLR was burning whole villages,” Eleema tells me. “After the RDF left, they started hunting people. If they found you they would cut your arms, your legs or pierce your eyes and leave you blind. They were raping women – they raped you and tied you to a tree and just left you there. Some people died because there was no way we could care for their injuries. We just had to leave them there and they bled to death.”

Azayi Kabunga in February 2009

Azayi Kabunga in February 2009

Travelling on foot, it took them three months to make the 100 mile journey here.

“See how the children look. That’s because they’ve been ill for a long time, without food or medicines.” Looted of their belongings early on, Eleema and her children never spent more than two days in one place and didn’t dare eat a cooked meal for fear the smoke would give them away. “You just had to pull your children by the arm to keep them going – that was the only way to survive.” Many didn’t make it. Eleema’s in-laws, grandparents and brother-in-law were amongst those killed.

The population of Langira has also been forced to flee. Azayi and his family are in Goma too, sharing a dirt floor with two other displaced families. Left with nothing to do and no way to make a living, Azayi has the air of a defeated man. The operations launched in February were meant to bring peace. Not this.

Meanwhile, in Kimua, in Azayi and Eleema’s home area of Walowa-Yunga, the UN has established a small base of 30 Uruguayan soldiers. The area is thick with FDLR, hidden in the dense forests where they have lived rough for 15 years, The purpose of the base is to persuade FDLR combatants to leave the bush and repatriate to Rwanda, and to protect the civilian population.

Occasional FDLR combatants, AK-47s slung over their shoulders, grenades attached to their belts, pass through on the path which runs between the hilltop village and the UN base set in the muddy field below. They pause to chat amongst themselves and, at one point, try unsuccessfully to persuade the UN soldiers to loan them their satellite phone. Very occasionally, a combatant wanting to be repatriated to Rwanda will arrive in the dead of night at the base.

Handsome, cocky and vain, Major Nassor scoffs at the idea that RDF and UN operations are having any impact on the FDLR”

Despite his muddy bush home, FDLR Major Nassor, 40, is wearing impeccably pressed fatigues and gleaming wellington boots when I meet him at the derelict ruins of a school, accompanied by a teenage soldier whose AK-47 hangs over a green shirt with a gorilla emblem on it. The teenager is as inarticulate and unhappy as Major Nassor is garrulous.

Handsome, cocky and vain, Major Nassor scoffs at the idea that RDF and UN operations are having any impact on the FDLR. He not only denies any abuses against the locals, but also declares they are all friends. “The Congolese population testifies to our friendship!” he exclaims.

I have yet to meet a Congolese who will testify to anything of the sort. Certainly not the man who arrived at the UN base with his head split and bleeding from an FDLR attack that had happened just 500 metres from where we were sitting, nor the woman with the terrified baby screaming on her shoulders who also arrived at the base after being attacked nearby. Nor the many hiding in terror in the bush from the FDLR, like Kabeti Boulenbe Mputo and his family, for whom the arrival of the UN brings hope from the relentless violence of their “friends”.

Kabeti is a local chief and school teacher in the nearby village of Mukoberwa. He has come from his bush refuge to the main path to meet the UN patrol. “At last the UN has come. Now we can be saved,” he declares.

November 2010

It is almost two years since the launch of operations to defeat the FDLR. The little UN base at Kimua has doubled in size to 60 troops. Azayi and Eleema are still in Goma. Their circumstances have gone from bad to worse. But the FDLR has gone from strength to strength. They have become the undisputed rulers of the area, a fact acknowledged by the UN.

Captain Pasayero is in charge of the Uruguayan Monusco troops. We are on the hill overlooking the field and the UN base. Some two dozen heavily armed men are below. They sway about, crack jokes and play with their weapons. They look drunk.

“The local law and the power in this area is in the hands of the FDLR,” Captain Pasayero remarks, surveying the scene below. More armed men are approaching, crossing the field directly in front of the UN base. “All those men are FDLR. All of them. They control who goes where. They control everything.”

The FDLR are no longer living in the bush. They have appropriated all the locals’ houses over the 20 kilometre stretch regularly patrolled by the UN. Their heavily armed presence is ubiquitous, inescapable and shocking. Villages and paths are overflowing with armed, intimidating and often drunk combatants. The army operations and the UN were meant to eliminate the FDLR. Instead, the UN has presided over a stunning expansion of FDLR power.

Their brutal regime has made prisoners of the locals on their own land. The FDLR are charging ‘road tax’, controlling the markets, and cultivating the appropriated fields of the population, starving the locals. They have revived the health clinic, press-ganged the local doctor to treat them and have even installed their own tailor. They rape, loot, kill and terrorise at will, uninhibited by the UN presence.

But something new is happening. For the first time since I have been coming here, a mood of resistance is sweeping the area. The story of a young man who had responded to FDLR violence at the market by taking an axe to a militia man’s head echoes in proud hushed tones through every village; the stuff of legend, inspiration and hope.

Villagers from Brazza approach Langira as they flee FDLR atrocities

Villagers from Brazza approach Langira as they flee FDLR atrocities

Locals have well and truly had enough. “If we leave it to the UN,” 15- year-old schoolboy Amani explains, “we risk being exterminated.” Amani and his friend Vianey have come to talk to me in the privacy of the UN base to explain why they are forming their own Mai Mai group.

“There are too many atrocities. There was a woman that they raped, and after raping her they destroyed her eyes. My own mother was raped. We can’t just stand there with folded arms any more,” Vianey declares. “We have to protect our population.” Amani, who wears a small oval amulet containing a picture of Obama, nods his assent. “We are many now, and not only schoolboys,” Vianey asserts.

However many they might be, they have no weapons. Instead, they rely on finding or scrounging cartridges which they throw onto the fire to trick the FDLR into believing they are armed.

A hundred miles away I find Eleema in a shack in the corner of an overgrown, deserted lot in Goma. Her previous shelter washed away in the rain. A man took pity on her, homeless with five small children, and has allowed her to stay in the shack, which was never meant for habitation. Eleema has just delivered a baby, Esther. It was the middle of the night and rain was pouring in through the roof, as usual, forming a pool in the middle of the dirt floor. The older children were stood shivering, pressed up against the walls, as Eleema laboured before – she tells me with shame – delivering her baby in the puddle.

Azayi, too, is despondent. Unable to find any work, he is relying on what his wife is able to earn carrying heavy loads which, at 55 years old, she is barely able to manage. His son Daniel, 12, is being thrown out of school almost every day for not having paid the fees and is finding it hard to cope.

“There are two main feelings I have,” Azayi confides. “First is shame. Second is anger. I am ashamed to see my son kicked out of school because I am unable to fulfil my duty of paying the fees… Now I have to be here like a beggar, waiting for my wife to come back so that I can be fed. Waiting for the children to be chased, not having any solution to provide, to save them from being expelled.”

“If I heard the FDLR were no longer in Langira, I wouldn’t even take the time to pack, I would just rush back,” Azayi says. But, for now, it is impossible.

July 2012

Kimua is almost unrecognisable. The UN base has relocated to the peak of a hill and it is now surrounded by the plastic sheeting of countless closely-packed shelters which descend all the way down the slope.

When I was last here in November 2010, heavily armed FDLR militia were everywhere. Armed males still abound. But they are not FDLR. They are all locals.

A year and a half earlier, schoolboys Vianey and Amani began their defence of the community by trying to trick the FDLR into believing they were armed. Now there is no shortage of weapons. They call themselves the Force for the Defense of Congo (FDC) – one of the DRC’s newest Mai Mai groups – and claim to number 500. They have been organised under the command of a former officer of the Congolese armed forces, and longtime Mai Mai veteran, General Ambroise Bwira, who hails from the nearby village of Buhimba.

“There was a failure,” General Bwira tells me, his white tracksuit gleaming in the sun. “The UN mission didn’t succeed. So it was necessary for the civilian population to take charge.”

Some of his warriors are wearing raffia skirts and bizarre headdresses, some look no more than 13 years old. All believe in the invincible power conferred upon them by their ancestors.  “You can’t touch it nor can you see it,” Bwira explains. “It is a super metaphysical power. Through this power, nothing can resist us. Regardless of the arms of the FDLR, and even their bombs, they cannot resist us.”

Two young boys, both heavily armed, one wearing a closely trimmed mohawk hair style, hurry past me. Nearby, a teenager is loading pellets into an empty gun cartridge. Although the FDC is strongly backed by the community, little children flee when they see their armed elders approach, disappearing so they are not forced to carry water for them.

Villagers from Brazza approach Langira as they flee FDLR atrocities

Villagers from Brazza approach Langira as they flee FDLR atrocities

For the first time in years, there are no FDLR to be seen anywhere. Major Nassor has been killed.

But the success has come at a cost. Many young soldiers from this small community have already been killed in the fighting. All the homes for 20 kilometres around have been burned or abandoned. Whole communities have simply ceased to exist. More than a thousand people have been forced to seek refuge in the makeshift shelters under the local UN base. The atmosphere has been transformed from village to military camp. And the armed boys have changed. Parents are worried.

People look over their shoulders before talking.  Schoolteacher Baeni Rumbo will only speak in the privacy of the UN base. He shakes his head sadly: “When a boy carries a gun, he is no longer the same person. He is someone else. The soldier who has a gun is not a friend of the population. He’s 50 percent for the population and 50 percent military. Even if it’s my own child.”

While you might not be able to see the FDLR now, they are still there. They have only retreated to the surrounding bush. As military operations continue, everyone in the community is painfully aware of the risk to their youth. But they need to believe the FDC will succeed. They see their children with guns as their saviours.

The failure of the government and United Nations to vanquish the FDLR has led to the arming of schoolboys. Eight months later, in March 2013, the UN closes its base in Kimua and withdraws, leaving the children of the FDC to deal with the FDLR alone.

October 2013

Azayi’s long-awaited return home left him dismayed. Emerging into Langira he found a profoundly altered atmosphere. “My generation is no longer there,” he explains. The young FDC combatants, the same local boys who saved the area from the FDLR, now dominate the villages. “They have different priorities. They only want to live luxurious lives. They sit around drinking alcohol. When you suggest they go to work, they think it is old-fashioned.”

They are armed, bored and spoiling for a fight. “It was tense,” says Azayi.  “People fear someone with a gun. He feels he has power over you.” Even if that person is your son, your neighbour, your saviour.

Azayi could only stay a week before the poisonous atmosphere forced him back to his half-life in Goma. It wasn’t what he had planned. “As long as they keep their guns, it will be a problem. I will not go back if they keep their guns,” he adds sadly.

In May 2013, General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz assumed the position of Monusco force commander, along with a new, more muscular mandate. In November he helped in the defeat of the rebellion known as M23 (Mouvement du 23 Mars), and is now focusing on defeating the FDLR and the Ugandan Islamist ADF in the north, the priorities laid out by the UN security council. But his newly strengthened remit extends to all errant militias, including the FDC. “They all need to surrender and return to normal life,” he tells me. “But if they don’t agree, we will use all our armed forces against all armed groups.”

The government has issued a call to the myriad groups of armed Mai Mai combatants in the area to lay down their arms and be integrated into the Congolese military. Eight thousand combatants have flocked to the reintegration camps. General Bwira, accompanied only by his escorts and leaving his FDC combatants behind, is amongst them.

Azayi could only stay a week before the poisonous atmosphere forced him back to his half-life in Goma. It wasn’t what he had planned”

But the offer of integration is swiftly turning sour. With no negotiations or communication with the government, impatience amongst the combatants is mounting. General Bwira is furious. “We came because we wanted peace,” he tells me. “We thought it was a good deal.” His eyes glint ominously. “I can’t predict what might happen but just imagine. I was a big chief controlling my people and now in the camp they treat me like a dog? Like a mosquito? We are very angry.”

If the integration fails, General Bwira will pick up his weapon and return to his young FDC combatants in Langira and the other villages of the area. They will cease to be defenders and instead will become violent predators, as can be expected of the other 8,000 combatants.

Some fighters have already lost patience and returned to the bush. Reports of insecurity are on the rise. Another cycle of displaced people is beginning to arrive at the camps.

There is a very real risk that Azayi, Eleema and others from their area may simply have swapped one menace, the FDLR, for a new, homegrown one. They stand on the brink of a new struggle, this time with the enemy within.

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