Congo’s victims of violence: Why the birds stopped singing

Toronto Star Editor-in-Chief Michael Cooke, who also serves on the board of the World Editors Forum, and Congolese award-winning journalist Badylon Kawanda travelled together to the heart of one of the world’s biggest refugee crises in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | September 26, 2017

Photo Credit: Michael Cooke

This post originally appeared here and has been republished with permission.

Three o’clock in the afternoon. The place, a dusty compound in Kikwit, southwestern Democratic Republic of Congo. We’re listening to refugee Richard Kawaya, 39:

“When the militiamen came to my village they cut off the heads of six men and made me pick up the heads and put them in their sacks.

“And then they gave me a choice:

“I could be decapitated … or I could be burned.

Credit: Michael Cooke“I chose to be burned.”

Kawaya had red-hot charcoal placed on his legs.

He rolled up his pants to show the Star his wounds. Take a photograph, he said.

The Democratic Republic of Congo rarely makes headlines in the West even when there’s a grotesque event that involves unimaginable suffering. The country is enduring another of its regular bloodbaths.


Kawaya is one of more than a million people fleeing an outbreak of machete attacks, shootings, rape, burning people alive, burying people alive, and other torture.

Men, women and children.
Dozens of mass graves.

Kawaya fled his home village of Sumbula in Kasai province — at first he had to be carried, but eventually he limped his way to sanctuary in Kikwit, a town of up to a million or so people (depends who you talk to) in neighbouring Kwilu province. The town has no paved roads and if you don’t have a generator — and that’s most people —you’re cooking on open fires and going to sleep early. Kikwit has also suffered through the terror of Ebola outbreaks.

Thousands of refugees are here in Kikwit, safe now, but sleeping on the ground, no mattresses, and struggling like Kawaya to survive on one Red Cross meal a day and wondering if they will ever go home. The daily meal ladled out to the folks patiently in line is supposed to be a thousand calories.

Cauldrons of fufu on the boil … a staple dish all over Congo … a thick and sticky mixture of corn flour and manioc flour. (Photo Credit: Michael Cooke)

Displaced families – and remnants of families – sleep on church floors, in sheds, and outside on the ground. Lucky ones, like this woman, have a blue tarp. (Credit: Michael Cooke)

Here’s Montrealer Joanne Liu, world president of Doctors Without Borders, the medical saints who, around the world, stitch savaged people back together. Everyone calls her Joanne, not “Doctor,” but when she’s not behind her desk in Geneva she’s out in the field as … a doctor.

Joanne was in the Kasai region same time as us and saw more than we saw and certainly did more about it. She told the Star:

“One man came up to us and when we asked what happened he said …
‘Look at me … how can I tell you … how can I tell you? The violence here was so terrible we didn’t hear the birds sing for days.’”

Joanne said: “I could hardly speak. It went into my bone marrow. Oh God, what can you say to that for Christ’s sake? Even nature is rebelling against the violence.”

Joanne Liu (Credit: Chatham House/Flickr)

Joanne wrote a report that said the crisis “was like a forest fire during the driest summer months … one spark. Millions caught in the crossfire. It’s exploded because of the chaos.”

Chaos is a generous word to describe Congo, a failed state the size of Western Europe where government is of the cronies, by the cronies, for the cronies.

Everyone else is out of luck.

Top crony is President Joseph Kabila.
His dad, Laurent, was president, too, from 1997 until he was assassinated in 2001, when his son took over the family business.

Congo political watchers inside and outside the country reckon Kabila himself is behind much of the violence.

His latest outrage, they say, is to trigger a constitutional crisis and stay in office after his two terms were up, saying that the current mess means there’s not enough stability to hold an election.

Other watchers blame Rwanda, a tiny country with inflated influence in the Congo, and which is once again trying to solve its own problems by fighting proxy wars while profiteering from the resulting chaos by illegally mining resources of their mineral-rich neighbour.

Countless Congolese have died because of Rwanda’s troubles spilling over the border.

Fresh blood is likely flowing as you read this story.

The crisis is complicated and rooted in an alphabet soup of acronyms that hide ancient & modern and political & tribal rivalries, vigorously stirred from the capital, Kinshasa.

Ethnic groups provoked to be at each others’ throats include the Luba, Lulua, Tchokwe, Tetela and Pende peoples. Together they number millions.

Then there’s the Mai-Mai, a sort of a roaming rebel group whose numbers ebb and flow depending on the available plunder.

Congo’s smartly dressed national army is also in the killing fields, according to witnesses interviewed by the United Nations. These soldiers excel at torturing and killing their own citizens.

And one more slice of grotesque: there are thousands of child soldiers involved with all these groups, many of them young girls, some 9 years old and younger.

A United Nations team in the region says the girls practise “rituals considered to be magic” wearing red bandanas and grass skirts— the magic being that if the girls shake their skirts in the right way and drink the blood of victims, their skirts will stop bullets.

Some children have had their fingers chopped off.

The UN team reports that some men take a break and hunt down witches. A method of killing: jam a machete heated in a fire into her vagina.

As far as we can tell, the current violence erupted after the government forces killed a Kasai traditional chief called Kamwina Nsapu, who was anti-Kabila.

His fighters named themselves after their chief and went on the rampage. In response, the government backed the formation of a rival group called the Bana Mura. And so and so on, ballooning into the current mass slaughter.

The UN has asked for one of those “independent inquiries” to which President Kabila replies:

No way.

There are so many questions, including: Who murdered American Michael Sharp and Swede Zaida Catalán? The two UN workers were in Kasai when they were kidnapped and killed. Catalán was decapitated.

How did more than 4,000 prisoners recently “escape” from the big prison in Kinshasa and then just vanish?

About 40 policemen were ambushed and later found with their heads cut off. Who killed them and why?

And the big one and the reason this crisis began: What were Kabila’s government forces doing murdering opposition chiefs in Kasai in the first place?

The corruption of top officials in the Congo — millions of dollars from mining profits diverted to secret accounts — makes its way down to almost anyone in a position of authority.

Whatever the administrative fee for a government document or decision, you add a bribe.

It’s not illegal to take a photo of a Congo cop, but if you do you’re likely to have your phone “confiscated.” A Congolese journalist says the cop will either sell it back to you or keep it and sell it later. (Credit: Michael Cooke)

Sometimes there’s almost comedy.

There were road blocks on our 600-kilometre drive from the capital Kinshasa to Kikwit.

This is typical: the cop in the middle of nowhere asks for “Visitors’ ID.”

He studies the letter, nicely printed and stamped by the central ministry.

Cop says: “Do you have a photocopy of this?”

We say: “No.”

He says: “I must have one. I’ll get a copy for you, but you will have to pay for the machine.”

A couple of dollars is discreetly handed over.

The cop disappears into a rickety shack where there might or might not be a photocopy machine inside.

Doesn’t matter — there’s no power anyway.

Cop returns. Even salutes. Hands back the paper and off we go to the next roadblock scam.

Cops might not have been paid in months and so they become “self-financing.”

It’s not all the fault of Africans.

A pause here for some history:

The country’s Belgian colonists were the worst behaved and most exploitive of the European countries who carved-up Africa (that is saying something). They chopped off thousands of hands of natives as an incentive to meet rubber delivery quotas.

By journalist Adam Hochschild’s account, the Belgians also murdered an estimated 10 million Congolese in a reign of terror that lasted about 70 years.

And in a bad-tempered handover of power in 1960, their clumsy exit on the first day of independence left Congo with little trained talent — just three PhDs in a country of, at the time, 15 million.

The Belgians couldn’t let go of Congo’s vast mineral and agricultural wealth, which for many years of colonial rule represented approximately half of their own annual GDP. Within months of declaring so-called “independence,” the Belgians quickly paired up with the Americans to subsequently hunt down, chop up and dissolve in acid the Congo’s first democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, for batting his eyelids at Nikita Khrushchev at a particularly tense moment in the Cold War.

The Congolese immediately turned on themselves, birthing a homicidal political culture in which there has never been a bloodless transfer of the presidency.

And there has always been (whisper this bit) a sort of secret police reporting to the president on people who would prefer a change of government. Today those tattle-tales work for the National Intelligence Agency and report to Kabila.

There are no refugee camps in Kikwit as we’re used to seeing on TV. No disciplined lines of geometrically pitched tents and organized meal times and classes for the kids.

The Red Cross and other NGOs do their best. But the displaced rely on local human kindness for their safety and gather in whatever empty spaces they can find. They sleep on church floors, in sheds, and outside on the ground. The lucky ones have a blue tarp.

Elected Chief Suzane Kuzatuka has already earned her ticket to heaven. (Credit: Michael Cooke)

Even this meagre help would not happen without the local chiefs’ say-so.

When you’ve basically nothing anyway, it’s not easy to welcome strangers. An elected chief, Suzane Kuzatuka was the first in Kikwit to open her arms. The last few months have earned her a ticket to heaven.

“The movement towards Kikwit began in February,” she said.

“In April and May, then came the crowds. And each day they continue to come. They come and they come.”

In the daily food line, Kuzatuka listened with us to story after story.

Marie Kutamuka coughed her way through our questions:

“The militiamen cut off my husband’s head. We are in a very critical situation. We sleep piled up on the floor. No mattresses or foams. We don’t even have clothes.”

How much worse can this get in the coming weeks?

Sick children sleep on the ground in a dwelling in Kikwit. (Credit: Michael Cooke)The rains are coming. Cholera is arriving.
Joanne and her Doctors Without Borders colleagues are also looking ahead to handling “more malaria … and more diarrhea … diarrhea is the big killer … it’s the children who die.”

Star Editor-in-Chief Michael Cooke is Chairman of the board of the Toronto-based Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) organization.

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