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.
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."
"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.
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.
One Sunday, the civilians and FDC held a football match at a UN base in Kimua. The field was lined with onlookers. Armed, mostly young, FDC soldiers turned out in droves. Weapons were everywhere. A small child, no more than 3 years old, his brow pursed in worry, scowled at the gun jutting out next to him. A group of teenage girls, dressed in their Sunday best, hovered and giggled under brightly colored parasols.
The final score? Military 4 -- Civilians 0! The crowd exploded with cheers.
The Chief, wearing an army-green T-shirt, said it was proof of the troops' magical powers. "See? See ? We are Mai Mai! We are invincible!"
Despite the high spirits, the cost of the fighting has been high.
Homes for miles have been burned by the FDLR. Whole communities have simply ceased to exist.
And FDC success is not all that it seems.
The FDLR have not left the area entirely. They have merely been pushed back, out of the villages and into the camouflage of the bush. They remain a dangerous, invisible force controlling people's lives. FDC military operations against them are ongoing.
In the forest, overgrowth continues to dominate the path. The sound of crickets and birds is deafening. In previous years, this 12 -mile stretch of path was well traveled. It is the only path that connects the villages, leading to people's fields and ultimately to crucial markets. Before, school children and village women alike rubbed shoulders with the FDLR on these paths in a precarious and dangerous attempt to survive.
Now, only trails of voracious ants share the trail with occasional troupes of armed FDC.
The threat of attack by the FDLR is too great. Only the desperate search for food brings anyone onto them now.
When fighting between the FDLR and the FDC broke out, the local population fled. Some made their way to Goma or Masisi. Others are now lodged in crude makeshift shelters clinging to life under the MONUSCO base in Kimua.
And others, like many from the village of Mukoberwa, simply fled into the bush.
We pass the charred remains of Mukoberwa village before turning off the main path to get to the villagers' bush refuge. A dozen FDC soldiers quickly appear. The commander cannot be more than 20 years old. One of his soldiers, green beret perched cheekily on his head, AK weighing comfortably in his arms, can be no more than fourteen. After a lengthy inquisition, the two insist on accompanying us.
The jungle closes in. Thick mud reaches ankle height, sucking back each step forward. It is easy to see how it would be possible to hide in the nearly impenetrable bush. However, it is not possible to see how anyone could live here.
A small group of barefoot women and girls emerge from the bush and pick their way down through the mud. They have come from the bush refuge and are accompanied by FDC soldiers, escorting them to the fields where they will try and find something to eat.
A painful hour and a half later, a clearing appears and the bush refuge of the villagers from Mukoberwa comes into view.
Small barefoot children approach cautiously. Dressed in filthy rags, they are way too skinny. White circular patches decorate their heads. Some scratch at raised spots on their bodies
Low shelters, made from the surrounding bush, are widely spaced around the clearing at the crest of a hill. Over the edge, shelters -- a few covered with plastic sheets -- spread down the hill. These are the villagers from Mukoberwa, who after months of fleeing fighting, finally arrived here in March 2012. Some 250 families -- roughly 1,500 people -- are here.
People must survive on next to nothing. Only furtive trips to the nearest fields provide them with food. There is nothing inside any of the shelters. No beds, no clothing, nothing.
"We find banana leaves to put on the ground at night for the children to sleep on. But it is cold and wet and the bugs bite them," said Kabeti, who had been so hopeful with the arrival of the UN in 2009. He now lives here with his six children. "When the children cry, it breaks our hearts as there is nothing we can do."
An elderly man merely expresses the visible, horrific reality. "We have been forced to live like animals."
As long as the FDLR is here, this will not change.
Although the FDC originated in the community, with both its blessing and its sons, no one wanted it. It became an unavoidable last resort. Inevitably, there is ambivalence.
Mai Mai have a long history in Congo. Originating as community self defense, with weapons in hand, their loyalties mutate opportunistically and dangerously. Mai Mai are notorious. They take no prisoners.
Parents, especially, are painfully aware of this fact.
Roger, schoolteacher, explains that his son, Jacques, 15, abandoned school and picked up a gun. He joined against the wishes of his parents. "His mother and I are very upset that he has abandoned his studies. There is no future holding a gun; there is no future without education."
Azayi, father of Daniel, 15, puts his opposition to his son joining the militia bluntly. "However it begins, once they have a gun in their hands... they are bandits."
Baeni Rumbo will express his reservations only in the privacy of the UN base.
"Even if he is your boy, once he has a weapon, he becomes 50 percent soldier and only 50 percent your son. He points his gun even at you, his father, and tells you to sit down and you can't argue," he confides.
The people feel ignored and forsaken. Since the FDLR first arrived in 1997, village leaders have requested security from their government. It has never arrived. Roads, which were promised years ago, have also failed to materialize. The absence of roads, phone reception, and security forces ensures total impunity, a fact which the FDLR has fully exploited.
As Baeni sadly observes, "It is as if we are worth nothing."
The people of the area welcome the fact that the FDLR are no longer in control of the villages. However, with so many more people displaced, living in horrific conditions, imprisoned by continuing fear, and their children trading their future for a gun, have things really improved?
"Life is very very difficult right now," Kabeti acknowledges. "But there are no roses without thorns. At least now, at last, we have hope. Now, we can believe that the FDLR will be forever vanquished and we will at last be able to resume our lives in peace."
But if the past is anything to go by, there is little reason for optimism.
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