Local Voices - Twenty years old with a Kalashnikov


This is the sixth story in our Local Voices – Congolese Communities & The Kivu Conflict series. The next story will be published on 4 February 2014.

They are barely 20 years old but they have already been carrying Kalashnikovs for several years.

Their entire life has been marked by the war that has ravaged eastern Congo since 1993. At first, they were passive victims; now they are active fighters. Mostly motivated by suffering and despair, some are also driven by their convictions. They usually say they do it to ‘free their country’. Local Voices met some of these young Congolese rebels.

Tuma

His name is Tumaïni. In Swahili, this means ‘Hope’. He is 24 years old. Tuma, as his friends call him, has spent the last eight years with a Kalashnikov in his hands. This is a third of his life. He was 16 when he joined the armed groups. He says that “it wasn’t because they made me. I felt the suffering which the ‘aggressors’ were inflicting on us”.

Tuma, in the shadow of a hut. Lukweti, Masisi territory, North Kivu, August 2013.

At the age of two, Tuma lost his father. His mother remarried and left him with friends from his father’s side of the family, a Hutu family, despite the fact that Tuma’s parents came from the Hunde community. He was about 10 years old when his adoptive parents shared the truth with him. He tells us: “I thought of myself as a Hutu, but I became more of a Hunde from one day to the next!”

At the same time, he found out that ‘General’ Janvier, the commander of the APCLS rebel group, was part of his extended family.

Patrol in the banana trees. Lukweti, North Kivu, August 2013.

Tuma went to live with his maternal grandfather in Kitchanga, a large town in Masisi which is predominantly Hunde. He tells us that there he was ‘harassed’ by the soldiers from the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), then by the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP)’s soldiers, who were part of the uprisings supported by Rwanda and taking place in eastern Congo.

Tuma in the Lukweti market. North Kivu, August 2013.

Tuma explains to us: “I joined the armed groups because they were constantly making martyrs of us! The CNDP soldiers often made us carry their bags. They told us that they were going to wipe us, the Hunde, out’. During this period, Tuma, who does not know how to read or write, tried to improve his situation by setting up a small business selling ‘miscellaneous items’, such as batteries, cheap Chinese watches, flashlights, sandals…. but twice he had all of his merchandise stolen by armed men.

He could not cope any longer. It would not be long before he ceased being a ‘civilian’.

“When you are a soldier, no-one can intimidate you. You are protected by your weapon. When you’re a civilian, the soldiers ill-treat you. Even the other civilians can threaten you. That is the main difference between a civilian and a soldier”. Tuma tells us this when explaining what changed in his life when he took up arms.

Fubula, one of Tuma’s companions in arms, with his Kalashnikov slung across his shoulder. The young militiamen constantly carry their weapon so that it quickly becomes a part of them. Lukweti, North Kivu, August 2013.

He tells us about how he left: “I knew that there was a Maï-Maï base [the rebels fighting the CNDP] not far from Kitchanga, near Kahira. Those people often came down to Kitchanga to go to the market. I used to speak to them. I always knew about the other young people who had left to join them. One day, I also took the decision to leave. I didn’t tell anyone; not my family, nor my friends. I was afraid that they wouldn’t allow me to go”.

Tuma crosses a bridge in Lukweti. North Kivu, August 2013.

Tuma joined the Maï-Maï around 2005. Since 1998, these were the militia who had aligned themselves with the new Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s government. They were fighting the rebellions which were backed by neighbouring countries, ostensibly Rwanda and Uganda, two countries that had been instrumental in bringing Laurent-Désiré Kabila into power. When Tuma decided to take up arms in 2005, the CNDP - an armed group headed by Laurent Nkunda - was just being formed.  To counter this movement, which was often called ‘pro-Rwandan’, another group was set up by former rebels from the Maï-Maï movement; called the PARECO, the Coalition of Congolese Resistence Patriots. This was the group that Tuma would join. It was also the group where Janvier Karairi was a brigade commander, before he founded the APCLS.

People tell us that during this period the radio in Kitchanga would everyday  list the names of the young people who had left their villages to join the armed groups.

Tuma, on the window ledge of a classroom in the Lukweti school. Tuma does not know how to read or write; his parents were unable to pay his school fees. Lukweti, North Kivu, August 2013.

Welcomed with open arms by his new colleagues with weapons, Tuma went through two months of military training where he learnt, amongst other things, how to fire a Kalashnikov. He had never touched a weapon before this training. He says he learnt quickly: “During the first fights, I remember, I didn’t stay back! I went up to the frontline without being scared by the noise and the shots. I only went forward. Of course, I’m tough, I always go in front”. Up until now, Tuma has always been lucky; he is still alive. He says that “most of the colleagues with whom I went to that first frontline are dead. It’s difficult now for me to remember them”.

Tuma’s weapon is always loaded. He shows us a cartridge that he has just taken from the magazine. Lukweti, North Kivu, August 2013.

The banality of death and violence are one of the first by-products of the last 20 years of war. War is considered to be the normal state of affairs for young people like Tuma who have never known peace; it has reached the point where war is almost an intrinsic part of them. Tuma and his friends talk about weapons, about AK-47s and RPG machine guns(which Tuma prefers), boasting about their exploits on the front and reminding anyone who wants to listen that they are not afraid of death.

Tuma tells us that its very important to be a combatant. If a colleague gets hit and dies at the front, you cant let it throw you off. You have to continue fighting. You have to step over his body and keep moving forward.

Tuma in front of the Lukweti school, and the bamboo ‘network markers’; the only place in Lukweti where it is possible to get telephone network coverage. Masisi territory, North Kivu, August 2013.

Tuma got married a year ago. He married a young woman from Kitchanga called Risiko. They do not have children yet, but it won’t be long. “Even if I die, the most important thing for me is that my children will know that their father fought for a noble cause. Death is not a big issue for me. God created each of us with our own destiny”,

Tuma and his wife, Risiko, in their home in Lukweti. Risiko, like Tuma, comes from Kitchanga, which is also where they met each other. Risiko would prefer to live in Kitchanga than Lukweti; she tells us that “there’s war too often in Lukweti”. North Kivu, August 2013.

With his Kalashnikov in hand, looking us right in the eyes, Tuma says calmly that “everyone has their time to live, and their time to die”.

Tuma, just before leaving to fight some of Cheka’s armed group at Pinga. Lukweti, North Kivu, August 2013.

Vérité

Vérité was 21 when he decided to join the Maï-Maï from the PARECO/APCLS. It was 2005 and his village had been the target of repeated attacks by armed men and his family home had been ransacked every time. The bandits broke down the door, beat them up, stole all their money and went as far as making them strip so that they could take their clothes. Vérité tells us: “I couldn’t continue like that, in that life”. With a friend, he abandoned his school desk in order to join the armed groups. When he told his parents about his decision, they gave him a container of cassixe, the local banana beer, to encourage him and “left him in the hands of God”.

Vérité got shot in the leg during a confrontation with CNDP rebels a year later. The three men who were fighting alongside him didn’t fare much better: one was hit in the hand, one in the collarbone and the last in the neck. It was a total rout. Vérité hid in a hole, waiting for it to end. Finally the shooting stopped. Vérité was alone and unable to walk. He crawled on his knees for two hours until he was picked up by some villagers who took him, wounded, to his commander. From there he was taken to the General Hospital in Masisi. His wound was not clean-cut and the leg had to be amputated. He spent six months convalescing in hospital.   

Verité, at home, in the house which he rents with his older brother in Nyabiondo. North Kivu, August 2013.

On coming out of hospital, Vérité did not return home to his parents, but rather went back to his former military post. He explains, simply, that “through losing a leg, I lost all my value for my family. When parents get old, children have to look after them. If I went home without a leg, what could I do to help them? How would I be useful to them?”

At the military post, he was welcomed. His old colleagues in arms were happy to see him alive. They said to him that “it is better to be suffering and alive than to be dead!” Even “General” Janvier congratulated him on his bravery and reassured him that he would always be one of their own. Therefore, and despite his disability, Vérité still thinks of himself as an APCLS soldier. He lives in Nyabiondo with his older brother who is a carpenter. Every morning he goes to the military post with the other militiamen for the Reveille. He no longer bears a weapon, but two wooden crutches.

Verité in front of his home. Nyabiondo, August 2013.

Nowadays, Vérité is waiting. Without any source of income and with a disability, he hopes that the APCLS will soon be integrated into the national army. When that happens, he thinks that he will have the right to the monthly salary for soldiers, along with the other militiamen. This is, at least, what the ‘General’ has told him. After all, didn’t he lose a leg in battle? Won’t he also have the right, when the day comes, to the fruits of their struggle?

Therefore, despite his difficulties and his crutches, when we ask him if he wouldn’t rather simply go back to civilian life, Vérité doesn’t hesitate for a second, saying ruthlessly: “I could never accept to call myself a civilian. I would rather die a soldier!”


Text and photographs: Alexis Bouvy

Support in the field: Chrispin Mvano and Rodolphe Mukundi.

Local Voices – Congolese Communities & the Kivu Conflict is supported by International Alert and Search for Common Ground.

Disclaimer: The statements here come from two young men who joined the APCLS, the People’s Alliance for Free and Sovereign Congo, which is an armed group close to the Hunde community with a strong anti-Rwandan ideology. Due to some of the project’s constraints, it was not possible for the Local Voices team to gather statements from young rebels from different armed groups. We are therefore asking the reader to maintain a critical eye when reading the words of these young men; rebels from other armed groups would have described the situation radically differently. As we can expect, given the inherent violence in the Eastern Congo context, the words here are both strongly emotive and very subjective.

Publishing these statements does not mean, in any situation, that Local Voices, International Alert or Search for Common Ground approve of or share the opinions or positions held by the militiamen. However, it is important for us to publish these stories given the extent to which they show quite how extremely the young militiamen, manipulated or not, see their environment and explain why they were motivated to take up weapons. The radicalism of these statements reminds all of the actors for peacebuilding in Eastern Congo of the importance, and the great difficulty, of considering local points of view and stereotypes, particularly those which prevail amongst the armed men. For further information about Local Voices’ methodology in the context of this project, please click here.

Text and Pictures: © Local Voices 2014 with International Alert & Search For Common Ground