Braving DRC’s ‘death triangle’

UN forces hunt shadowy group targeting civilians

A South African soldier from the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (Monusco) takes part in a patrol to hold off attacks by the Allied Democratic Front rebels in Oicha
A South African soldier from the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (Monusco) takes part in a patrol to hold off attacks by the Allied Democratic Front rebels in Oicha

“I am always anticipating an attack,” South African soldier Maijeke says of how it feels to be in DR Congo’s “triangle of death”, where he is part of a UN peacekeeping force helping the Congolese army hunt down a militia group that is slaughtering civilians.

There has been a recent spike in violence in this volatile eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a shadowy armed group rooted in Ugandan Islamism.

Just last week, six civilians were killed during a night attack in the city of Beni by the ADF, which has no known leader and whose ideology and motives remain unclear.

AFP photojournalist John Wessels travelled for three days with 30 soldiers from the UN mission Monusco and the Congolese army to the troubled North Kivu province, where the ADF has killed hundreds of civilians since 2014.

On Friday, after reports of heavy mortar and machine gun fire, the troops headed to the town of Oicha, north of Beni and near the Ugandan border.

The town’s residents greeted them by throwing stones.

“The civilians get frustrated with us and Monusco, sometimes we arrive late. We have to fight harder to help the community change its mind about us,” one Congolese soldier said.

Several homes in Oicha had been looted by ADF members.

While the troops inspected the looted homes, machine gunfire rang out from the jungle, seemingly near the town of Mbau, where 20 civilians were shot dead by the ADF in May.

The ADF, which is thought to have killed a total of more than 700 civilians over the last four years, regularly attacks Congolese army bases for weapons, ammunition and medical supplies.

“This is my fourth deployment in the DRC – my first was in 2006,” UN peacekeeper Maijeke said.

“This is the most intense deployment for me, I am always anticipating an attack.

“The biggest difference this time is the escalation in the killings of civilians.”

When the ADF killed 20 civilians in Beni in September, the locals condemned the failures of the Congolese army and the UN mission.

However, Monusco maintains its intervention has prevented even greater carnage.

In the “triangle of death” between Beni, Mbau and Kamango, the troops face an enemy that knows every secret of the jungle and likely has informants in many communities.

On Saturday, the troops headed to the scene of a particularly violent ADF onslaught a few days earlier.

Members of the militia were said to have used two women as human shields during a shootout with Congolese troops that lasted four hours. Both women were killed.

It is clear the ADF is wellequipped with heavy weapons and well organised.

But much remains unknown.

How many are they? Who is in charge? Who is arming them?

And most of all, what is their goal?

Both Uganda and the DRC insist they have a jihadist motive, but many observers say there is no proven link with the global jihadist underground.

The ADF started out in 1989 with the aim of overthrowing Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who was seen as hostile to Muslims. But it went on to absorb other rebel factions into its ranks and started carrying out attacks in 1995.

Forced westwards by the Ugandan army, the group relocated most of its activities to DRC.- AFP