By Irene Escudero and Patricia Martínez
Goma, Apr 16 (efe-epa).- Katunga Sasita lost her left leg at the age of 19 trying to fight off a group of rapists. She was working the land in Nyamilima, a tiny village in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, when she was attacked by invading rebels from neighboring Rwanda. When she fought back, she was shot at point-blank range. She then had to wait for more than 15 hours to be rescued.
“I lay there until they came to pick me up at almost 9 o’clock the next morning,” she tells Efe from a private rehabilitation center in Goma while nurses prepare the plaster mould for her fourth prosthetic leg.
Perhaps, if one of her neighbors had been able to tend to her sooner and been able to bring her to town in time, the bullet wound would not have become infected to the point that amputation was the only solution. But Sasita does not dwell on what might have been.
“It is God’s will,” she says while sitting on one of the shabby mattresses at the center, which is located across the street from a prison. “It was hard, but things turned out the way they turned out. My leg is not going to grow back,” she adds calmly, holding her two-year-old son in her arms.
Around 80 percent of the people who have come to the center – which is run by the Belgian chapter of Brothers of Charity, with support from the International Red Cross – are victims of violence, the collateral damage from a 25-year-old conflict in the Eastern Congo between the blue helmets of United Nation peacekeeping troops, who are underpaid and few in number, and over 100 paramilitary groups and innumerable armed neighborhood militias.
“The Rwanda conflict sort of exported itself to the Congo,” says Soraya Souleymane, a Congolese expert in mining and development. She is referring to the 1994 genocide, when, over the course of 100 days, some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu extremists. The massacre ended when the “Rwandan army followed them into Congo and started killing them and the Hutus fighting with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).”
In total, five million people have died in Eastern Congo since 1996, when a Rwandan army invasion to oust dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and protect minority Tutsis saw a renewed flare up of violence.
Initially only regional in scope, under the leadership of President Laurent Désiré Kabila it became the largest armed conflict since the Second World War, with nine African countries looking to capitalize on the country’s enormous mineral resources.
“After the war (which ended in 2003), when they were asked to go back some of their generals stayed behind and started operations on their ‘own behalf’, according to the Ugandan and Rwandan governments,” Souleymane says. “But some of the officials were not prosecuted by their countries, so for me it is fair to say that they had their leaders’ blessing.”
The end of the conflict, dubbed the “African World War”, meant the departure of foreign African military powers – including Angola, Zambia, Sudan and Libya – but not the dissolution of rival rebel groups that had formed over the course of the Second Congo War.
The proliferation of armed rebel groups, which split into rival factions, created an amalgam of guerillas that, away from the gaze of international media, have continued exploiting the rich natural resources, pillaging villages and killing civilians.
“The latest survey counted 132 armed rebel groups, not including groups of armed common criminals,” says Carlos Batallas, head of the International Red Cross office in Goma.
“The fragmentation of the conflict is such that there aren’t two clear parties that can negotiate; there are myriad groups involved, which makes much more problematic than a civil war in the classic sense.” This chaotic theater of war has also hindered the eradication of the deadliest ebola epidemic in the country’s history, which has left more than 2,000 people dead and 3,500 infected since 2018. “If you add one of the deadliest known diseases into a so-called ‘red zone’, which neither doctors nor the Army can access, the result is a scenario of chronification,” Batallas says.
THE MIRACLE CHILD
Since April 2018, 2,171 people have died from the violence in two northeastern provinces of North and South Kivu, according to the latest figures from Kivu Security. They are the victims, both targeted and collateral, of a multilateral conflict which combines extrajudicial Army executions, offensives by armed rebel groups, looting and pillaging by thugs and acts of revenge by community-based self-defense militias (known as ‘Mai Mai’).
It is impossible to count the number of wounded, or to know of the harrowing stories that are not counted in official statistics, like the one told by Davide Kasereka, a young boy who restlessly fidgets near the entrance to the CBCA Ndosho hospital, one of Goma’s main centers for bullet wound treatments.
All around him, patients wearing slings, using crutches and sitting in wheelchairs joke about what happened to this five year old with a gruesome scar across his forehead. “A machete wound to the head,” they shout, “they slashed him in the head with a machete and that’s why he is like that: split in two”. What actually happened was far more banal.
Davide’s mother, Neema Kahambu, had decided to leave him at the home of her sister in Goma to spend the summer holidays with his cousin. She thought he would be safer there than in his hometown, Bunia. But in the early hours of 18 April last year, a drunk police officer fired his weapon, and one of the bullets pierced the boy’s skull.