Kibua Assignment Brings Relief to IDPs

Radio report by IWPR Congolese trainee elicits help for thousands of civilians uprooted by fighting in eastern DRC.

Kibua Assignment Brings Relief to IDPs

Radio report by IWPR Congolese trainee elicits help for thousands of civilians uprooted by fighting in eastern DRC.

Melanie (centre) and to the right Marie, wearing white, green and yellow top, on assignment in Kibua.
Melanie (centre) and to the right Marie, wearing white, green and yellow top, on assignment in Kibua. © Tom Bradley
Tuesday, 18 October, 2011

The rain is pouring down and it is freezing cold under the crowded school awning. The displaced people who have been living there for nearly two months are sitting gazing into the approaching storm, with little else to do apart from keeping each other company.

Marie, a 40-year-old Congolese IWPR journalist in North Kivu, is standing in the door frame of the classroom where we had been carrying out interviews 15 minutes earlier. Her eyes are filling with tears and I cannot help but give her a hug, partly to console her, partly to hide my own emotion.

We are in Kibua, a small village in Walikale, a territory in North Kivu in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC. Marie and I came here to report on the displacement of 6,300 people from Mutengo to Kibua because of fighting between two Mai Mai militias. The story is to feature in our radio programme Face à la Justice and, until now, I had not completely grasped how important it was for Marie to cover it.

Marie comes from the Nyanga tribe, which originate from Walikale. I understood the personal link between her and the story, but it had bothered me mainly because one of the Mai-Mai groups involved in the story, led by a man known as Colonel Checka, is from that same tribe. Marie, herself directly related to Checka, would not be the most objective person to report on the story.

I insisted on coming along, an opportunity for me to work closely with her on the ground, as well as a logistical necessity since our trip was facilitated by an Indian peacekeeping unit of the MONUSCO, the UN contingent in DRC, and Marie does not speak English.

Foreign journalism is a strange business, and I have often wondered about the legitimacy of going to someone else’s country and presenting the world with possibly a flawed point of view of the situation there. The work of local journalists is often underestimated.

But here I was confronted with a textbook example of why foreign journalists can sometime do a better job at reporting a story that local journalists may be too close to - and so, I went along.

“Marie, we’re taking a helicopter to Walikale, isn’t that so cool!” I’d shouted as I entered the IWPR office in Goma, the capital of North Kivu.

She looked up from her computer and smiled. “So we’re going. That is very good news indeed,” she replied. “I will call the Mwami.”

The Mwami, a village chief from the Ihana region where Kibua is located, was our main contact on the ground and Marie’s relative.

After half-a-dozen visits to the MONUSCO office, filling in yet more forms and giving yet more details about the purpose of our trip, we were granted permission to fly to Walikale Centre, the main town in Walikale territory, and the UN contingent even gave us an escort to travel to Kibua.

The road we would be driving on is one of the most dangerous in the region. Indeed, we would be passing through Luvungi, a village infamous for a three-day long attack in 2010 during which over 200 women were raped.

As the MONUSCO helicopter took off, the wind created by the rotor blades flattened the grass and the horizon suddenly widened to reveal the immensity of Goma.

From above, North Kivu is an unforgettable sight. A green, lush, virgin land dotted with tiny villages of brown huts, the remnants of former volcanic eruptions and millennia-old craters coated with dense, equatorial forests; for miles and miles the landscape seems to have been barely touched by mankind.

Walikale Centre is not very far from Goma. After a 45-minute flight, we landed on the town’s football pitch, but the poor roads and the danger posed by militias make it nearly impossible to reach by land.

Surrounded by a thick jungle, Walikale Centre gave the impression of being completely isolated from the rest of DRC. My phone did not have any network reception and the 20 US dollars worth of credit I had been careful to add before leaving would be completely useless for our two-day field trip. Only Marie’s phones – operating with a different provider – functioned, intermittently.

After a briefing by the UN base camp commander, we hit the road the following day at 6am, in a MONUSCO jeep.

Marie and I were seated next to two blue-helmeted soldiers with rifles and flak jackets. I wondered what would happen if they actually had to use their weapons. Somehow, knowing that Marie was here made me feel safer. At least, she speaks the local languages.

Six hours and several vehicle swaps later, we arrived in Kibua, welcomed by dozens of children shrieking “Monuc, Monuc” (the former acronym for MONUSCO) and “biscuit”.

We were laughing because several rain showers on the way had left us looking like we’d been to a fancy dress party. I wrapped myself in my scarf, Marie put on a UN helmet and everyone grabbed whatever was available to avoid getting too wet.

But soon we stopped laughing.

In the village, the dire poverty of the inhabitants was barely distinguishable from the living conditions of the IDPs (internally-displaced people). Houses were made of mud and small rooms held large families, cooking, living and sleeping in the same confined space. Generously, many families had offered shelter to some of the displaced people from Mutengo, despite the lack of space and food. Nevertheless, over 500 people were sleeping outside on the school porch and many more were on the street.

The Mutengo attack was quite representative of the nature of the conflict in North Kivu. Checka and an opposing militia leader, Colonel Janvier, both originally took up arms to defend their people against the “rwandophone”, that is, those people speaking Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda.

Ironically, both ended up striking deals with the FDLR militias - mainly Rwandan Interahamwe fighters.

Janvier and Checka’s militias were also responsible for much pillaging, murder and rape, sometimes against their own people. Although the two armed groups were not enemies initially, tension arose over the control of a mine - and political power was also at stake.

As part of the Walikale territory, the population of Mutengo had to enroll to vote in the forthcoming parliamentarian elections for a member of parliament to represent Walikale.

Janvier from Masisi – a neighbouring territory – wanted to force the population to enroll in the constituency of Masisi in order to increase the number of seats allocated to his territory. Checka, defending the interests of Walikale, was not ready to let that happen.

So although tension was created by the dispute over the mine, it was this enrolment issue that triggered the fighting on June 10, 2011.

Marie and I sat down in one of the school classrooms to interview some of the IDPs.

According to them, Mutengo’s inhabitants fled their village on that night, and walked for days through the forest, chased by Janvier’s men, who raped and murdered dozens of people.

In the IDPs’ account of the nightmare they were put through, the Checka militia did not commit any crimes against them, a version that is plausible, as the population comes from the same tribe as Checka’s men – but also one that may have been altered to avoid angering the rebel leader. For me and especially for Marie, there was no way to find out.

Our last interview completed, we walked out of the classroom ready to move on to the village’s hospital, ten minutes’ walk away, but rain was pouring down again.

Stuck here for a while, I started singing Lion King songs in French to make the kids laugh and pass the time.

“Mélanie, come over here, I want to introduce you to someone,” Marie told me from the doorframe where she has been standing. I walked over and, finally, I understood.

Here in Kibua, under the school porch, is Marie’s grandmother. She is one of the IDPs, living in dire conditions for weeks now with little more to eat than cassava leaves once a day. Several of her cousins and other close relatives number among the displaced population. I shake their hands and give Marie’s grandmother a kiss on the cheek, the custom between women. Her features are worn by age but it is her eyes that show the exhaustion.

I do not know what to do nor say, save for futile banalities. I turn to Marie and she grabs my arm, squeezing it tightly.

“I can’t do anything, it is my family and I can’t do anything but watch,” Marie repeats in distress, her eyes filling with tears.

The rain stops and the misty landscape darkens as the night is falling.

We walk back to the main street, where we eat grilled maize before a MONUSCO convoy comes to bring us back to Biniampuli, the nearest base. Marie’s eyes are still sad and worried.

“You know, the people said that our presence has given them comfort and hope,” she said. “I hope our reports will bring them some kind of help. But I don’t know.”

We sit in silence for a little while, Marie thinking about her family, and I about that report that will, possibly, never be balanced or impartial. But I am not sure whether it matters so much to me anymore.

Marie Noëllard Muhindo’s report on the national radio station RTNC prompted the local authorities to help the IDPs in Kibua. They were given food and blankets and promised that the national army would establish a camp near Mutengo to facilitate their return. This promise has yet to be fulfilled.

Melanie Gouby is an IWPR’s DRC Multi-media producer.

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