Remembering Congo’s Christmas massacres
Schoolchildren lined up in front of a classroom
One year after a series of terrible Christmas massacres in northern Congo, people continue to live in fear and without access to basic services or enough food.
“Slaughter, abduction, looting, trauma, lack of health and education, and hunger is still the daily experience,” reports Caritas Congo on the first anniversary of the tragedy.
A string of deadly incidents took place from 24 December 2008 to 13 January 2009 in Doruma, Faradje, and Duru in Haut-Uélé Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organisation, reported 620 people killed. Over 27,000 fled to South Sudan.
The perpetrators of the Christmas massacres were Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, a group originally from Uganda. The LRA had recently moved into the area, fleeing a joint military operation by the Congo, Uganda and South Sudan.
One of the worst incidents was in Faradje on 25 December. Rebels attacked a Christmas Day feast at the Parish Church of St Jean-Baptiste.
Bishop Julien Andovo Mbia of Isiro-Niangara sent out this chilling message just days after the attack: “About 260 LRA rebels entered Faradje at 4pm. More than 150 people were hacked to death with machetes and axes. They looted, killed, burned, and ransacked everything in their path, including the hospital and the church. There were 750 houses burned down.”
One of those houses that was set on fire belonged to Félicienne Bozio, a teacher and mother of seven. She said, “That Christmas was a catastrophe. There was so much death and houses on fire. Desks and furniture in my school were smashed up and the classrooms destroyed. Families were torn apart and girls taken out into the bush.”
About 200 people were abducted, mostly children and women, according to the Bishop. Among those abducted was Dieudonné Pabiaki, a 16 year old boy who was finishing his primary school education at the time.
“We were treated very badly,” he said. “The LRA soldiers made us carry heavy burdens, including what they had just robbed from our homes. We had to walk all day without stopping. We had very little food. Some people were killed on the road. They preferred to kill adults and keep the children, even some who were as young as three.”
Dieudonné Pabiaki escaped in April after the LRA came under attack from the Ugandan army. He made it back to home, but says the problems are not over. When he came back his family were scattered.
Children escaped abduction only to return home to find their families murdered and their houses burned down. Women and girls were raped in the bush. Some have returned home pregnant, but face exclusion.
Robert-de-l’Armée Madrakele is another victim of the LRA attack on Faradje. “About 80 percent of the population were traumatized. I still have nightmares,” he said. “Yet another crime caused by the Christmas massacres is the stigmatization of the girls who have returned from captivity. Everyone knows that they were violated and now they face discrimination.”
Mrs Bozio says there will be no Christmas celebrations this year. Usually, the community and families comes together to share food. But this year, Mrs Bozio says, everyone is spending Christmas at home.“There is no food,” she said. “We lost everything when our house was burned down. Prices in the market are too high. My husband still cannot reach us because of the trouble.”
People in Faradje have been too frightened to travel to their farms to collect harvests or to plant new crops. It’s too dangerous to travel 5 to 10km into the countryside, although security has improved with the presence of troops from the Congolese army, the Ugandan army, and Moroccan peacekeepers who are part on the UN “MONUC” mission in Congo. But it’s too late for this year’s harvest.
“The populations of these regions are farmers.” said Raymond Lubanza, a member of the Team of Logistics of Caritas Congo. “They cannot work in their fields because of the presence of the LRA in the forest.”
The humanitarian condition of the people is poor. There is a lack of food, education, and the nearest “precarious” medical centre between Faradje and Kuruwata is a 45 km walk. A litre of petrol costs more than a school teacher earns in a week so going by car is not an affordable option.
Caritas was one of the first aid agencies to respond to the humanitarian crisis caused by the presence of the LRA. Caritas provided food to affected families and by April had given humanitarian packs to 11,500 families in Dungu, Isiro, Faradje, Ango and Watso.
The aid distribution has continued into October and November, with 800 families in Kpaika and 750 families in Dingila receiving help. More aid for 4000 families in the region is in the pipeline.
The Church is also promoting peacebuilding activities in Dungu. On National Peace Day in Congo 21 November, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission ran cultural events where people of different ethnic backgrounds sang, danced and performed in plays expressing compassion with those murdered, raped or abducted by the LRA and for greater security.
The Coordinator of Justice and Peace Commission of Dungu, Benoit Kinalego, said these cultural events helped the population overcome the trauma of the massacres and also acted as a challenge to the government to restore peace.
Congolese government spokesperson Mende Lambert said in October that the “foreign terrorists” have been forced out of the country, and that recent attacks in Congo are more likely to be home-grown criminals acting under label of LRA. Caritas Congo says that only with peace, will people be able to resume their lives and not be reliant on aid. Caritas says the international community must help end the suffering in Congo by supporting the government in bringing greater security to the north of the country and increasing humanitarian aid.
Robert-de-l’Armée Madrakele, one of the victims of the attacks, said, “The UN must help end these attacks of the LRA in Haut-Uéle and the Eastern Province. We must remove the LRA threat. Then we need to tackle trauma in the people.” He wants investment in community centres, roads, schools, and counselling.
Christmas looks to be a difficult time . “If only we had some little means,” said Fr Guillaume Abiandora, Parish Priest of St Jean-Baptiste in Faradje. “We could divide up bread and drink among the communities to mark the anniversary of the massacres.”
Midnight Mass has been cancelled to his great sadness, and instead there will be a simple service at 3pm on Christmas Day. The Mass will be in memory of the deaths last year at Christmas and other victims of the LRA. Flowers will be laid for the missing and those in mass graves.
“Christians will be celebrating the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, everywhere in the world at midnight except in Faradje,” Fr Abiandora said. “Our prayers with God during the afternoon Mass will be for a return to peace.”