by someone with up-to-date knowledge about the situation in the DRC:
WHAT IS HAPPENING: About 1.3 million people are currently internal refugees in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of these people, mostly women and children, have fled from their homes because of violence between armed militias, broadly known as Kamuina Nsapu, and government soldiers. Thousands of members of Mennonite churches and their children are included in this group.
HISTORY: DR Congo has a brutal history of oppression that continues today. Belgian King Leopold II savagely exploited Congo for its natural resources such as rubber and ivory. Belgian colonization was followed by a 30 year dictatorship by Mobutu Sese Seko, whose long and corrupt rule was supported in many ways by the USA.
POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC CONTEXT: In 2006 with help from the United Nations and others in the international community, there was an attempt made to move to a democratic form of government. Military dictator Joseph Kabila was returned to power by a democratic vote. While voting for his second term in 2011 was widely contested, in the end he served another 5 year term. Normally this term was to have ended in December 2016, but Kabila has refused to step down, probably because he is afraid to face corruption charges.
This refusal to respect the constitution adds another layer of frustration to the struggles of ordinary Congolese, most of whom face chronic poverty, very high unemployment and a corrupt political system as part of their daily reality.
THE CURRENT ARMED CONFLICT: The Kasai region has been identified as an area where opposition to the government has been particularly strong. In early 2016 a Kasai region tribal chief, whose ceremonial name is Kamuina Nsapu, and whose headquarters are in Tshimbulu, 75 kms southeast of Kananga, was in negotiations with government representatives to be recognized officially as a chief. There was some local dispute around his claim. We do not know the reason, but government officials failed to respond positively to his request. Finally he gathered a band of warriors together and threatened action if his request was not granted. Again, government representatives did nothing. So with his band he attacked a local government outpost. In response the government brought in army troops and in August 2017 they killed Kamuina Nsapu. When the band asked for their chief’s body to be returned, the government did not comply. Soon, anti-government militias were springing up in various parts of the Kasai provinces, from near Mbuji Mayi in the east, across to Kananga and then to Tshikapa towards the west, and as far north as Ilebo. The militias attack and burn government buildings. Spokespersons have made a series of demands at a national level, including respect for Kamuina Nsapu, employment, and economic development.
CIVILIANS AND THE CONFLICT: Armed conflict between DRC soldiers and these militias occurred in many places across this region, beginning in late fall 2016 and continuing to the present. Besides the violence between the soldiers and the militia, there are other forms of violence which have been occurring. Both government soldiers, including some Rwandan troops as well, and Kamuina Nsapu militants scrounge for food from the civilian population. Whatever you have- grain, animals, etc is fair game for them. Whatever they need from your house, they will take. They shake you down and take your money, your cell phone, etc. This kind of oppressive behavior toward civilians is particularly habitual on the army side. There are also incidents of sexual violence against girls and women. Kamuina Nsapu militants have forced many older boys and young men to join its forces against their will.
A testimony reported by the BBC in late April: “Paul’s lips tremble, his voice breaks and he visibly shakes as he recounts the trauma he has been through. He tells me that government soldiers raided his village, then made him dig a mass grave in which 60 people, including members of his own family and neighbors, were buried. “They killed people and raped women. Then, the next day we saw a general. He said, ‘Come out of your house, we’re not going to kill any more’. He told us to bury the people- even members of my family, even people I knew.” This is not a one-time incident but a pattern confirmed by Mennonite sources, as army troops, who cannot identify Kamuina Nsapu militia members easily, have tried to use intimidation, brutality and murder to root out local adherents. Kamuina Nsapu of course have committed atrocities of their own, including a mass beheading of 40 policemen. At last count, across the Kasai 42 mass graves have been discovered. It was these patterns of human rights abuses that Michael Sharp and his colleague Zaida Catalan were attempting to investigate on behalf of the United Nations when they were killed in March of this year.
So it is easy to see how ordinary civilians, wanting no part of the violence, wanting to protect women and girls from rape, boys from forced recruitment, and themselves from theft and harassment, have chosen to flee their homes and get by as best they can in the bush or forest until the army and militias leave their area alone.
MENNONITE CHURCHES IN THE REGION: The Kasai region is the heartland of two out of the three major Mennonite denominations in the DRC. The Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo, HQ in Mbuji Mayi, has indicated that a number of their congregations west of Mbuji Mayi have been caught up in the conflict and become temporary refugees. Mennonite Church of Congo, HQ in Tshikapa, has most of its congregations in the conflict zone and is the most highly affected of the Mennonite groups. Pastor Komuesa reported to me at the end of May that “many congregations are unable to gather for worship because the members have fled and are now living as best they can in the forest.” He stated that in certain pockets of the Kasai region, “Most of our members are hiding in the bush and forests.” Farming has almost entirely stopped in vast areas, and hunger, already a problem among the refugees, “will get much worse in the coming weeks.” He also reports a lot of damage to church properties such as meeting houses, schools and clinics. In the Tshikapa region, 10 out of 13 church districts (a district is a grouping of 3-5 congregations) have experienced damage to infrastructure.
The damage goes beyond the physical trauma. Mennonite churches have been multi-ethnic since their beginnings. But this conflict is a severe test, for it has taken on strong ethnic overtones. For example, Tshikapa, a city of about 800,000, is now divided into areas- the Pende/Chokwe area; and the Luba area. There have been reports of “cleansings” of each of the areas in an attempt to rid neighborhoods of other ethnic groups. There are about 25 Mennonite churches scattered across the city, all of them affected by this. Many observers are deeply suspicious that government politicians are manipulating both the ethnic tensions and the violence, in a cynical attempt to focus international attention in places other than the government’s own lack of respect for its constitutional obligations to hold elections and hand over power.
MENNONITES RESPOND: The Mennonite Church of Congo has organized itself to respond to this crisis. Churches in areas unaffected by the violence are gathering food, clothing and funds. A church-wide commission has been established. Pentecost Sunday there was a major push to gather materials for the relief effort.
On this side, Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission is working with Mennonite Central Committee and with Mennonite Mission Network to organize assistance from North America. A committee is being established to take charge of the work in Congo, led by the MCC Director, and discussion is ongoing to determine both what to provide and how to provide it, given both the security challenges and the lack of good roads and communications that is so common in rural Congo.