In eastern DR Congo, Ugandan rebel group sows misery

OICHA (RD Congo) (AFP) –


Jean-De-Dieu was working in the fields in his village of Mamoundioma one day in October when he heard the distant but unmistakeable sound of gunfire.

The 48-year-old pastor and farmer abandoned the fields and fled with his wife and their 10 children to Oicha, 25 kilometres (15 miles) away, where they took refuge with friends.

With 12 extra mouths to feed, life there is tough. "We all go out into the fields to look for things to eat," said Kahindo, 28, the host family's eldest daughter. "It's war," Jean-De-Dieu says with simple resignation.

They are part of a mass exodus of civilians in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo -- people who have seen neighbours killed, their home put to the torch and cattle and crops pillaged, and have fled clutching a few belongings.

The immediate cause of their misery is a shadowy Ugandan Muslim militia, the Allied Defence Forces (ADF), who on December 7 carried out the worst attack on UN peacekeepers in nearly a quarter of a century.

Fourteen peacekeepers were killed and 53 wounded in an ambush by several hundred militiamen, whose weaponry included rocket-propelled grenades.

The toll was the bloodiest against MONUSCO, the UN force that was deployed in the DR Congo in 1999, and the worst against a UN force since the deaths of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers in Somalia in June 1993.

MONUSCO and the Congolese army have said that additional forces have been sent to shore up the area since the assault.

"We still have work to do," said Congolese general Marcel Mbangu, who is in charge of UN forces in the region. "The equipment is still en route."

On Sunday, a civilian was killed and another injured, Amisi Kalonda, administrator for the territory of Beni, told AFP. A member of a local youth organisation, who said he had witnessed the killing, said the victim's throat had been cut, and a soldier had also died.

- Blood-thirsty militia -

Behind the dramatic headlines of these casualties lies a tale with a far higher toll of victims, most of them anonymous.

Since October 2014, more than 700 people have been killed in the Beni region, in the North Kivu region, bordering Uganda and Rwanda. Between September and November, more than 15,000 people fled their homes in the eastern town of Oicha, a refugee aid group said.

Displaced families who have nowhere to go are forced to sleep in classrooms where they leave their bedding and belongings during the day.

On the outskirts of the town, several hundred pygmies, displaced from their homes deep in the forest, subsist on cassava leaves, yams and other root vegetables.

Many children have bloated stomachs, a sign of malnutrition, displaced pygmy Defao Bassinga said.

The ADF, formed in 1989, began its attacks in 1995 in the mountains of west Uganda, with the goal of overthrowing Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

Forced westwards by the Ugandan army, the group relocated most of its activities to the DRC, finding a lucrative niche in its lawless, resource-rich east.

Its rollcall of crimes include mass killings and maiming using machetes, the use of child soldiers and rape, according to the UN.

The group has been linked to Somalia's al-Shabaab and to al-Qaeda. Its founder and leader, Jamil Mukulu, was arrested in Tanzania in April 2015 and was extradited to the DRC, to await trial.

Yet the ADF are just one of a number of armed groups, based on ethnic or sectarian lines, who roam eastern DRC.

According to UN estimates, more than four million people are internally displaced in the DRC and 922,000 people were forced to flee their homes last year -- more than in any other country.