A Perfect Place for Hell

The Chief and elders of the village of Daqua perform local rituals to exorcise the spirits from former child soldiers. Image by Marcus Bleasdale. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2010.

"We haven't had a truck come through since 1986. Not one," says the village chief. His tone is weary with frustration, but for hours he patiently sits under the grass-roof shelter that serves as his reception room, painstakingly reciting a laundry list of grievances, determined to state his case to the rare outsiders passing through.

Today is the first day of our two-week motorcycle trip through northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, but I already fully understand his point about the trucks, having spent the past several hours struggling through sometimes knee-deep mud.

"Long ago, life was very good here. But now we have no roads. There isn't a single car in the villages I'm responsible for...We can harvest our crops, but we cannot take them to market. Right now, we have no medicine. The dispensary is empty. We have shortages of everything."

Sadly, up to this point, there is nothing particularly unique about the chief's desperate situation. Bas-Uele, the administrative territory in which his village is located, lies in a forgotten corner of a massive, poverty-stricken nation where the central government holds only nominal sway outside the capital, Kinshasa. And we are some 2,000 miles away.

For more than three decades until 1997, Africa's archetype kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko treated state coffers as his personal bank account while allowing the country's infrastructure to collapse. Nationwide, telephone lines broke down and were never repaired. Ancient locomotives rusted in rail yards. Roads were reclaimed by the jungle.

Amidst the isolation and fragmentation this created, Mobutu played upon regional divisions and rivalries between Congo's hundreds of ethnic groups to maintain an increasingly shaky grasp on power. By the time the ailing dictator slinked out of Kinshasa just hours before the arrival of a ragtag rebel army bent on overthrowing him, he had already helped set the stage for the deadliest conflict since World War II – one in which it is believed nearly five and a half million perished.

Bas-Uele and the neighboring territory of Haut-Uele were largely sheltered from the deadly fallout of Mobutu's neglect. At least they were until now.

In 2005, Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army began crossing into Congo from its bases in South Sudan. At the time, the rebels, whose mystical leader Joseph Kony has lead Africa's longest-running armed uprising, had been abandoned by their erstwhile backers in Khartoum and were under increased pressure from a fresh Ugandan army offensive.

For rebels on the run, northeastern Congo's appeal is understandable. The area's relatively sparse population allowed the LRA their own space. And an almost total absence of state authority meant there was no police or military presence to confront.

One of the world's most brutal armed groups, the LRA had massacred, mutilated, kidnapped and raped their own Acholi people back home in northern Uganda, while espousing the nebulous objective of enforcing the Ten Commandments as the law of the land. But for nearly three years, they lived in a coexistence with the Congolese that, while certainly tense, was by and large peaceful.

That would come to an abrupt and bloody end in late 2008, when a botched Ugandan airstrike on LRA camps in Garamba National Park would fail in its goal of killing Kony. And as the scattered rebels unleashed a campaign of terror against Congolese villagers, they would discover other advantages to their new home.

A total lack of modern communications technology means that the LRA can attack village after village, day after day without ever losing the element of surprise. Often news of their massacres only reaches the outside world weeks later. Dense forest canopy hides their movements from Ugandan helicopters and American satellites. And isolated villages are prime targets for looting food and abducting civilians for use as forced labor, child soldiers and sex slaves.

Beginning Christmas week 2008 and carrying on into the next month, the LRA initially signaled their intentions by slaughtering at least 865 civilians according to Human Rights Watch, and the killings continue even today.

"We knew that we were all going to die," the chief says matter-of-factly.

Though it took nearly eight months before the rebels arrived at his doorstep, over and over he had listened to the stories of those fleeing the violence as they briefly stopped over in his village on their way to what they hoped would be safe refuge. Determined to protect his own people from the approaching menace, the chief contacted the provincial authorities.

"They didn't want to hear anything about it. They said the LRA didn't exist and that it was our own bandits who were killing us, not the LRA...When we tried to talk about the LRA they got angry with us."

Congo was struggling to exchange its well-worn image as one of the world's eternal basket cases for that of a nation on the up and up, worthy of full sovereignty and the confidence of foreign investors. These new troubles in the north simply didn't fit the official narrative. (Fearing the reaction of provincial and national authorities, the chief asked me not to use his name or that of his village.)

The response from the United Nations – its 20,000-troop strong peacekeeping mission in Congo is the world's largest – was equally disappointing. Explicitly mandated to protect civilians under threat but more preoccupied with the ever-present specter of a regional conflict in the country's volatile eastern borderlands, the mission, known as MONUSCO, has dispatched just 600 peacekeepers to Haut-Uele and none to Bas-Uele.

Finally, the chief gave up.

"When a child asks his father for something and it's refused over and over, will that child still have the courage to ask again?" he said.

Before the first LRA attack in July last year, the group of villages under the chief's administration counted nearly 6,000 inhabitants. In August 2010, when we visited, only 2,000 remained. Many had fled to the relative – very relative – security of larger towns. Hundreds had been abducted by the LRA. Others had been killed.

Recently, his village received a contingent of government soldiers charged with protecting the civilian population. However, they number less than 20, have not been paid in three months, and have not received rations for the past two. Theirs is hardly a reassuring presence.

The next time we see the chief we are on our way to the remote airstrip where we will be picked up by a chartered plane. And in the week since our last meeting, he has received foreboding news.

"A message came from the army commander (in the next town) three days ago. He says they've seen a group of LRA heading our way. Some hunters told me they saw them near one of the abandoned villages," he says. And it appears the rebels may outnumber the soldiers posted here.

I suddenly realize this is no place to linger, but there is also a certain feeling of guilt knowing that we can leave whenever we want.

I ask him what he will do.

"These LRA are very tough. There will be other attacks. We'll stay here. If we have to die, we will die, because we have nowhere to run...But don't forget me."