For the past three weeks I have been in Haut-Uele, Orientale province in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It has been plagued by escapees of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – a group of Ugandan rebels led by one Joseph Kony. Over 25 years ago this former choir boy formed the group with the plan of overtaking the Ugandan government and ruling by the 10 commandments.
Now dispersed across northern Uganda, the newly-independent South Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR) and the DRC, they have been causing widespread destruction – massacres, rape, abductions, mutilations, lootings, and caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee within their own country – Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
Contact with them is impossible, there are three official armies after them (FARDC – Congolese Army, UPDF – Ugandan People’s Defence Force sent simply to kill/bring back Ugandan rebels, and MONUSCO troops – UN peacekeepers), and no one is even sure of the numbers. I recently spent time with the UPDF – I’ll be posting more about the military roles later, but I thought I’d quickly add a photo of myself with a group of their guys. Compared to the FARDC they were extraordinarily friendly and more than happy to be photographed.
There are a plethora of problems in the situation, many linked to denial by authorities and the general situation of the country, and I will be talking more about them in time, but for this post I will simply post a recent interview with a recent abductee.
His name is Faustin Mboligbihe, meaning “God has heard” in Kisande. He was with the LRA for over a year and is now back with his family in an IDP camp outside the large village of Doruma. I went with Pere Ernest, one of my guides, local experts in the situation and translators in the area. He was not at his hut and his grandmother told us he just goes off without telling anyone. We walked through the settlements for 10 minutes and found him not too far away, playing on his own with a stick.
He agreed to be interviewed and came back to his hut with us. He is eleven years old. He sat partly in the dark, in a ragged t-shirt, turning sharply every now and then to the clink of pots and pans outside. His eyes and face showed no emotion, and it was impossible to read how he felt about the situation.
Pere Ernest conducted the interview – I played no role other than filming and recording. Pere Ernest’s words are in italics, Mboligbihe’s are in bold unless stated otherwise. The translations are as close to literal as makes sense. It is also worth bearing in mind throughout the interview that Mboligbihe is just 11.
Pere Ernest: What’s your name?
Faustin: My name is Faustin Mboligbihe.
How old are you?
I don’t know my age.
Faustin’s mother (from outside the hut): You are eleven.
I am eleven years old.
How did the LRA abduct you?
They abducted me early in the morning, before light.
Where was it?
In the house.
Were you alone?
No we were two.
Did they go with all of you?
No they left the other one.
Which year was this?
The time of growing rice. They went with me and applied their medicine on me. Then we lived with them for a time and then we were attacked by the UPDF. We fought and then after that I stayed with them for a long time and afterwards I came out at Dunde.
Was it in Dunde that they captured you?
No they captured me in Bwere (Bangadi).
How long did you stay with them?
I stayed a long time, but I’ve come out recently.
When you were with them what did you see?
What I saw was they were just killing people.
How were they killing people?
With sticks (like clubs).
How did they do it?
They were hitting their heads with it.
Were other children also beating people’s heads?
Since you have come out, what’s coming to your mind?
My head is getting angrier and angrier more often.
How does it get angrier?
When somebody tells me to do something, I just get angry at them.
Do you still do what they ask anyway?
Sometimes I do.
When you came out where did they take you to?
They took me to COOPI (Italian NGO) then they took me to the hospital.
How many weeks did you stay with COOPI?
I didn’t pass one week there.
What did they give you?
They gave me one shot and two t-shirts with a pair of sandals. After that nothing.
In the bush how were you living?
We were eating once a day and once at night.
Where were you getting the food from?
The food was looted.
Were you participating in looting too?
No, them they were looting, us, we were carrying.
Were they many?
I didn’t count them, they abducted me in one group and then to make numbers we joined another group. Another two groups joined us later – four groups. There were many.
You were just wandering in the bush?
How were you sleeping?
In the evening we found a place to sleep and when the morning comes we would move on.
The witchcraft they put on you, where did they put it?
They put it on my forehead, in my palms and on my back.
They told you it was for what?
I don’t know.
They didn’t tell you?
How did you come out?
I crept away at night.
They had crossed the main road with me and we slept the other side of the road. Then I crept away and came back on the main road.
They didn’t follow you?
No they didn’t follow me because they knew soldiers were around.
As you came back to the main road what did you do?
I was following it Northwards, then I found the FARDC. They took me to Diagbio (a village) and said I should show them where I’d come from. So we went. I passed two days in Diagbio. Then they took me to the (Doruma) airport. I stayed there two days too then they took me to the hospital where I stayed for one week before going back home.
When you came back home do you see anything that you are not happy with?
What do you want to be done for you?
I don’t know.
Are you studying?
Do you want to go back to school?
I would go.
In the bush with the LRA, were there a lot of children? What were they doing?
Just carrying things.
Were they just carrying things without carrying guns?
Some were carrying guns.
And you, were you carrying a gun?
No, just carrying things.
And the children, were they killing people?
Yes, they were killing people. They are telling you to kill, and if you don’t kill, then they will kill you.
How were they killing these people?
They were hitting their heads with the sticks.
And were you seeing it?
Yes, I was.
And you, did you kill?
They asked me to kill. And I killed. If I hadn’t they would have killed me.
They were speaking which language?
Do you understand Acholi?
How did they say “good morning” in Acholi?
And “how are you”?
How do you say “no problem”?
Do you know to speak Acholi?
Yes, I do.
Are you afraid that they will come and kidnap you again?
Yes I am.
What makes you fear most?
When I hear about them I am scared.
Is there anything else you want to tell me?
I don’t have soap to wash my clothes.
How much is it?
I don’t know.
OK, thank you for speaking to us.
(Pere Ernest gives him 1000CF – just over 1 USD – to buy soap).
It is also worth noting that Pere Ernest presses the point about speaking Acholi as that is the Ugandan language used by the LRA. You would only know it well (as Mboligbihe does – he can speak it almost fluently we discovered afterwards) if you had spent a good deal of time with them.
Mboligbihe’s family prepare dinner without him. He often just wanders off for long periods of time without saying anything.
Pere Ernest is worried: “He’s dangerous. He’s had no therapy and because he’s already killed at such a young age he needs help coming to terms with that. It needs to be dealt with properly, and at the moment he’s an angry young boy living in an IDP camp where tensions are often high due to their poor standard of living and being far from home. He’s a walking time-bomb, and there’s no-one around that will help him.”