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In Congo, a Force of Child-Soldiers Rises Up to Fight Rebels

A Rwandan militia has been terrorizing villagers for years. Some have fled to horrific conditions in the jungle, and their sons have taken up arms to fight back.
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This fresh-faced boy has, like most of his peers in the area, abandoned studying in favor of picking up a weapon. Here, he has been assigned by his 20-year-old commander to accompany the author on the walk deep into the bush to reach the bush refuge of the village of Mukowberwa. (Susan Schulman)

The incline is relentless, the path slippery with mud and obscured by encroaching bush. The foliage ripples and a troupe of men emerge to block the path.

Two of the men are wearing bizarre headdresses and skirts made of raffia. They are carrying AK-47s. The countless quarter-inch strands that make up their skirts rustle with every shift of their guns. An enamel blue flower is pinned to the brim of the raffia headdress worn by one of the men. Its bright petals curl back with a childish enthusiasm conspicuously incongruous to his threatening glare.

We are deep in the inaccessible heartland of Walikale district, near a village called Kimua in northeast Congo. There are no roads, no phone reception, and no electricity. It is a four-day walk to the nearest road.


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An FDC soldiers in the bush, wearing raffia and a bullet as an amulet. This symbolizes the power of the ancestors which the FDC believe makes them invulnerable. (Susan Schulman)

The region borders Rwanda, and this is where those responsible for that country's genocide fled. They re-organized as an army and never went home. Now, they call themselves "Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda" -- FDLR. Heavily armed, they are estimated to number roughly 5,000. They are Rwandans.

Since arriving in the area over a decade ago, they have used horrific violence -- murder, torture and rape -- against the local population. Countless lives have been destroyed. Not one family is untouched.

Congolese military operations and the UN peacekeeping force were deployed here in 2009 against the FDLR. Both failed. By 2011, the FDLR had grown in strength. Combatants armed with AK-47 rifles and Rocket Propelled Grenade launchers were ubiquitous.

But the men standing before us are not FDLR.

The fighters on the overgrown path are something new. They are Congolese fighters from the local communities, members of a new self-defense, or Mai Mai, militia.

Local people here are fighting back. They call themselves the FDC -"Force de Liberation de Congo" -- they have come together to defeat the FDLR and evict them from Congo.

Now, armed men and boys still abound, but like these on the path, they are FDC.

***

Historically in Congo, Mai Mai have been part of the problem, not the solution. How have the FDC come about? It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Congo has the world's largest UN peacekeeping force, MONUSCO. Numbering 22,000, it was established in 1999 in response the continuing intractable conflict and insecurity which over a decade has claimed five million lives, displaced more than a million people, and ruined countless more lives through torture and rape.

In February 2009, when I first arrived in this community, the Congolese government had newly resolved to prioritize ridding the FDLR from Congo. Military operations against them were launched. The UN joined in the effort, establishing a small base here that same year. The local population welcomed the peacekeepers. "We are happy that the UN has come here," Kabeti, a schoolteacher, village leader, and father of six, exclaimed. "Now, we can be saved."

However, less than two years later, the FDLR had become the unchallenged rulers of the entire area. Hope in the UN had vanished. Defenseless and faced with extermination, the local population had run out of options.

But soon, a sea change in attitude surged through village after village. When a drunk FDLR soldier turned his weapon on the crowd in a market, a young man responded to FDLR aggression by taking an axe to the aggressor's head. Women spoke of their "passive revolution," refusing to cultivate crops that would invariably be stolen by the enemy. Schoolboys had begun to take up their communities' defense. Then, however, they had no weapons and relied on the odd scrounged scrap metal they would throw into the fire to trick the FDLR into believing they were armed.

General Ambroise Bwira, a Mai Mai veteran from the neighboring village of Buhimba, stepped in to organize local discontent into a fighting force. He had worked with the Congolese army (FARDC) in their now-discontinued operations against the FDLR.

'They failed," he explained. "Finally, it was necessary for the civilian population to take charge."

Everyone agreed.

"Students, our children, our little brothers, our big brothers...the papas, quite old, and even women, everyone came together to fight for their country," said Baeni Rumbo, a nurse and teacher at Kimua Institute.

On December 26, 2011, the FDC launched military operations, armed only with a few guns and a mystical belief in the their own invulnerability, symbolized by the raffia outfits.

"We have a power, the power of our ancestors," explained General Bwira. "It is a super metaphysical power. You can't touch it, nor can you see it. But no matter what weapons the FDLR use, not even their bombs -- nothing can resist us."

Indeed, the FDC have made obvious successes. Now, there are no FDLR to be seen anywhere. The FDC have succeeded in dislodging them from the villages. Civilians are under FDC protection now: Their guard posts dot the surrounding hills. There is no longer a shortage of weapons. All of the 800 troops under General Bwira are now armed, allegedly stocked with weapons recuperated from fallen FDLR.


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FDC soldiers and village children gathered to watch an ongoing soccer match between Civilians and Military. (Susan Schulman)

The community is grateful. They see their boys in the FDC as saviors and are united in their support of them, certain in their belief that they cannot fail.

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Susan Schulman is a freelance journalist. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and other publications.

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