Foreign Interest bannerAfrica Section
Front Page
The World
The Middle East
North America
South America
Viewpoint Section
A Foreign Idea
Points of Interest
About Foreign Interest

Congo: Another Crisis


A Christmas massacre
propels one woman to
speak for the thousands
of Congolese struggling
to survive in the Haut-Uele
Province of the DRC.

Holding onto her dignity © Foreign Interest, 2009
Bookmark and Share

Isabel's Sorrow

By Sherry Harbert, Foreign Interest


One year ago, members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) stormed into a church during a Christmas service in the rural town of Duru as men, women and children gathered to celebrate the holiday. Some of the men and boys were killed with machetes inside the church, while the women and girls were pulled outside, raped then killed. Some of the people escaped before their church was burned, but the carnage left 75 people dead.


The LRA repeated the horrific acts in several other towns in the Haut-Uele* Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the Christmas holiday season. The violent rampage, known as the Christmas massacres, forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. Isabel**, a name given to protect her and her family’s identity, witnessed the horror that day. She lost 11 members of her family in Duru and in the town of Faradje.


Isabel grew up in the rural town of Duru. She remembers the lush surroundings where food was plentiful and life was good. The region is host to numerous rivers and streams that replenish the rice, cassava and peanut crops and provide a rich abundance of fish for the nearby population. “This was such a wonderful place, before,” Isabel said. “There was no fear. Everyone was friendly. We had more than enough food. We had plenty of water. We had plenty of seeds that were planted and grew. We have two rivers, the Dungu and the Kibali. We had plenty of fish. Hunting was good. People were happy. We were really happy.”


Isabel would meet and marry an American as a young woman and find herself in similar lush surroundings of Oregon, but she always returned to her village throughout the years to visit family. Her December, 2008, trip was supposed to be a special time. She arrived with gifts from the U.S. to bestow upon her family during the holiday visit.


Isabel hadn’t feared the rumors of the LRA as she traveled back and forth to the region. The villagers of Duru first saw the LRA in 2005. The village, located near the Sudanese border, is 95 kilometers north of Dungu and just west of Garamba National Park. When the LRA was forced out of Uganda, they first entered into neighboring Sudan, then went into the DRC. Duru was their first outpost. “They had been living in the national park,” Isabel said. “The villagers outside the park noticed them, but the people weren’t concerned. The villagers were nice to them. We gave them food.”


Isabel said the LRA stayed within the park at first, but began to venture out over time. “Nobody in the village knew why they were there,” Isabel said. “The authorities knew why they were there, but they were in denial. They neglected it.” In less than three years, everyone would know why they were in the region. “They first killed the animals in the national park,” Isabel said. “Then they started killing people. They started burning the houses and the villages. They raped the women. They killed the men and they kidnapped the children.”


Three months before the Christmas massacre, the Congolese army, FARDC, responded to the LRA incursion by joining with Ugandan and South Sudanese military forces to fight against the LRA and other rebel groups in Haut-Uele. The December massacres were a direct retaliation by the LRA against the government forces. The civilian population paid the heaviest price with over 800 dead, more than 500 children abducted, hundreds of women brutally raped and at least 162,000 people displaced from their homes from September through the end of December last year.


The UN, which maintains a force of 17,000 peacekeepers in the country under MONUC, responded by sending in troops to fortify Faradje and the surrounding area. Humanitarian groups rushed in aid and support, but the efforts have done little to quell the fears of the people. Isabel continues to be haunted by the events of those days, even though she is currently safe in the U.S. Her worst fears are for her family and the people of her village. “I don’t know if it will ever get normal,” Isabel said. “I speak out, but I am fearful. I speak out to help.”


Vulnerable Victims


The LRA has earned the designation as one of the worst terrorist groups in the world. The group was formed in 1987 by Joseph Kony as an armed rebellion to fight government forces in Uganda. Kony, who is still at large, combines a form of Christianity and Acholi traditions into a bizarre cult that believes killing and rape will protect its members from bullets and harm. The LRA kidnap children for the bulk of their forces. They are less likely to resist and have become easy prey for the LRA, especially in remote areas.


The rural area surrounding Duru is far removed from Dungu where many humanitarian organizations work. Isabel said there are few roads or modern conveniences in the village, making it much more vulnerable to the LRA. The village was not equipped to handle the influx of the LRA. The residents thought at first they could appease the forces if they gave them food, but the LRA wanted more. They wanted their children.


Isabel described what the LRA did a few months prior to the Christmas massacres in her father’s village of Kiliwa. The LRA went directly to the school in the village and demanded all the children step outside. “One woman tried to stop a boy from going outside and they killed her right there,” said Isabel. “They took all the children. They burned the hospital. They burned the school. They raped the women.”


It is difficult for Isabel to talk about what happened then and during the events last Christmas. Even though she has stood in front of several dozen audiences this year to tell her story, the words and images come out in fragments of anguish, frustration and fear. “Everyday it is happening,” Isabel said. “And it is overshadowed by Kivu. They always talk of Kivu. They don’t talk about Dungu. They don’t talk about Duru.”


Isabel conveyed her need to talk many times during several interviews to let people know what was happening in her village, though she was afraid of what could happen to her family still living in the region. “My mom lost everything,” she said. “The army lived in her house for months. She had to hide.” Isabel said the army finally left her mother’s home, but all her belongings were pilfered. “They left, but she has nothing. Most people now live in poverty and fear in Duru.”


She fears being targeted when she visits her family in the village, but her greatest fear is that her family will be targeted for her speaking out. It is why she must hide behind a pseudonym when speaking to media outside of her talks to human rights groups. It is her courage to talk that may help her family and Duru.


Looking for International Help


The remote region around Duru was far removed from international attention until the Christmas massacres last year. The initial outcry from the horrific events brought military forces to the region along with an intermittent calm this last year, but the ongoing danger in the region has failed to garner the attention that the two Kivu provinces have achieved to Haut-Uele’s south. Though those two regions need every bit of international attention to provide some relief from the ongoing horrors happening there, the Haut-Uele has again fallen off the international radar.


Isabel expressed her joy then frustration of news of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the DRC in August. Clinton visited Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, then travelled to the Kivus to witness the destruction from rebel forces and talk to survivors in the region. “I was so surprised,” said Isabel. “She did not talk about the LRA. She did not mention them at all. She didn’t mention anything about the LRA.” There are many survivors who wanted to hear the U.S. name the forces that were destroying their lives and their country, but Isabel and the people in her village only heard the U.S. offering nuanced language about the ongoing violence in the DRC.


One organization that has pushed for recognition of the ongoing plight of people in the Haut-Uele is UNICEF. Ann Veneman, the executive director of UNICEF visited Dungu in late August to meet with survivors who managed to escape death from the LRA and other rebel groups. Veneman also visited the Kivus and the capital, Kinshasa. She was so taken by the ongoing horrors throughout the entire eastern section of the DRC that she highlighted her concerns for the women and children in the region out of all the nations included in UNICEF’s 20th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child last month.


The growing crisis in Haut-Uele is seen by the humanitarian organizations based in Dungu. Medair, a Swiss humanitarian organization, reported that there are more than 250,000 internally displaced peoples (IDPs) in the region. Medair and other humanitarian agencies in the region have reported recent attacks in the region, but their operations are limited to the area surrounding Dungu due to the ongoing security issues.


Isabel voiced her desperation for attention and help in her village and surrounding areas. “Too many villages are gone. There are over 100,000 people in Duru now, most having fled from other villages to escape the LRA.” Isabel said aid reaching her village is random at best. “Much cannot get here,” she said. “The need for medicines is so great.” Isabel’s disillusionment with international organizations is building because of the deep and ongoing need she sees in Duru.


“People are wondering what these organizations do,” Isabel said. “They don’t understand their mission. This is what I have hear from people in Duru. They say there is no medicine. If some gets in, there are no buildings for the people. There is no hospital. People are sleeping outside. There is no covering. There are so many mosquitoes. It’s causing a lot of problems.”


Besides the increase in malaria and diarrhea, the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) recently reported that sleep sickness is becoming another deadly disease in the region. According to HPG, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) listed Haut-Uele as one of the hot spots for the disease, which is fatal if left untreated. The disease, carried by the tsetse fly, is increasing across the region.


Thousands of IDPs who have fled their homes are also adding problems to Duru. Many have fled the LRA, yet cannot make it to the refugee camps in Dungu and other more populated areas. “People are living in awful conditions,” said Isabel. “There is malaria and diarrhea. It is so awful. There is not enough food. If some gets in it goes to the IDPs and the villagers get nothing.”


Since the LRA and other rebel groups arrived in the Haut-Uele, the local population has not been able to sustain itself. “The biggest problem though is the famine,” Isabel said. “People are always on the go from fear now, so they can’t plant. Some food aid gets in, corn, beans and oil mostly. Some get dried peas. The people don’t know what to do with dried peas.”


The situation has become so dire that the World Food Program (WFP) initiated an emergency support project for the Haut-Uele earlier this year. Due to the insecurity of the region, they were limited to conducting an assessment and delivery to Dungu. According to the WFP, the LRA has prevented the local populations from planting crops. Food prices have more than doubled over the last year. Without the means to produce food or maintain jobs, the population is slowly starving. COOPI, an Italian humanitarian organization found levels of malnutrition below the emergency level in the population in and around Dungu.


“Now the people have no food,” said Isabel. “There are no seeds. If there were some, they are burned. For two years there has been no farming. There are no chickens. Everything is lost. Farming was our source of income. There is no income anymore. Everything is lost.”


A Holiday of Horror


Isabel’s image of Duru changed forever on Christmas Day last year. She began the day celebrating and worshipping with family and friends, then had every vision of security and hope ripped apart when the LRA entered her church. Now her once beloved village is a vision of ugliness and destruction. “Duru is the worst place on earth,” said Isabel. “One woman I knew was pregnant and was very near her delivery. They killed her and cut out the baby. Then they chopped the woman to pieces.” Isabel continues to be troubled by the degree of cruelty of the LRA. “There is no respect for the human body,” she said. “They could just kill, but they don’t. They don’t just leave the body. They chop it up. Sometimes they eat it.”


The memories of the LRA continue to haunt Isabel. “Our families gathered inside to worship,” she said. “Then the LRA arrived outside and stopped the service.” She still recalls how the LRA ordered the children outside, then began killing adults inside the church. “I lost many people,” Isabel said of her family. Her father was killed by the LRA. “Three were killed outright. The rest were killed at different times. Then there were the abductions. Three of my relatives were taken that day.”


Isabel expressed the loss of humanity that extends beyond the horrific events last year. One of her nephews was kidnapped during the Christmas massacres. He was attending church with his family in the town of Faradje, which is located east of Dungu. Isabel said he was only 12. “They make them child soldiers,” Isabel said. “They give them drugs to make them believe they are bullet-proof. They teach them to kill for fun.” Reports from humanitarian workers and from boys who eventually escaped the LRA describe the methods used by the LRA to turn young boys into killing machines. The boys are usually drugged, then forced to kill and rape or be killed. Isabel said her nephew, who managed to escape earlier this year, was very different from the cheerful boy who she had seen before her Christmas visit.


“They are not normal,” Isabel said. “They are only 12 and 13, but they don’t act their age. The boys are always negative. They are always ready to kill.” Isabel and her family’s joy at her nephew’s return soon turned to fear over his behavior. “They take the boys as young as 11 and 12 and they come back 12 to 13 very different,” said Isabel. “When some are released back home, the families cannot handle them,” she said. Isabel despaired over the family’s tragic dilemma. She described how her nephew’s increasingly aggressive behavior toward her aunt and nieces so frightened the family, that they were forced to send the boy away.


Unlike services offered in Dungu to help rehabilitate young child soldiers, there is little help for families in the rural areas. “They need a lot of work and help, but there is none there,” said Isabel. “There is no help. They return to live with their families and it makes it very hard. The families cannot handle them. They are always ready to rape. The families have to protect their other children so they must send some of them away. It is very hard.”


Isabel struggles to find a positive future for Duru. Underlying the ongoing insecurity in the region is the fight for minerals and riches. The DRC has vast mineral resources and little governance to stem the plundering from rebel groups and shady businesses looking to make money. She described the local military as a hollow protection for the people. “The Army is not paid, so what can they do?” she said. “They don’t do their jobs. Who wants to die for nothing?”


As this year’s holiday season approaches, Isabel’s wishes for Duru are fading. She said the quest for gold in the region has darkened the hearts of many.  “They all know what is going on, but it’s all for money. The world is corrupt. They know what they are doing. But it’s not fair. No one cares. If they did, they would do something about it.” Isabel wonders why there is so much killing and cruelty. “People wouldn’t have stopped them from mining.”


Isabel worries about her nephew and the many other children who are witnessing ongoing violence. “Congolese children suffer. Some come back, but they are monsters. How does the world keep letting them get away with this? How long with this nightmare?”


Isabel has not given up on her hope for a better future, but she is weary from the lack of response around the world. “It makes me think the world is corrupt,” she said. “The world thinks it is not important. People in Duru say the world has forgotten them. They say America has forgotten us.”


* Haut-Uele is the newly-formed province of the Orientale Province in the DRC. The Haut-Uele became official in February, 2009, through a mandate in the 2005 Congolese Constitution which created 25 provinces for the country. Haut-Uele’s region includes the towns of Dungu, Faradje, Nagero, Duru, Rungu, Watsa and the capital, Isiro.


** Isabel’s identity is being withheld to protect her and her family. Media and humanitarian agencies have reported LRA retribution against those who speak about the acts of the LRA, to include having their lips cut off with machetes, burned alive inside their homes and decapitation. The author met with the Isabel several times.


December 10, 2009

© 2009, Foreign Interest

© 2009 Foreign Interest. All rights reserved.