One of the most remote, isolated regions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Shabunda, can only be reached by helicopter. Every bar of soap, every grain of rice that people need to survive there has to be freighted in by air.
Rwandan Hutu rebels belonging to the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) had been hiding in the Shabunda forest since 1996. They had sought out the region because of its inaccessibility and gold mines.
The FDLR rebels used the village of Nduma as their South Kivu headquarters for more than ten years. It was home for the rebels' wives and children, and they called it "Kigali Two."
The fertile land, on which pineapples, bananas, guava fruit, lemons and mangoes hang from the trees, seems to exude peace and harmony, yet it has an ugly scar. Black ash on the otherwise white sand is all that remains of the huts of local residents which were burnt down four times.
Behind the huts that are still standing looms the forest, like some vast impenetrable wall. But the FDLR rebels who used to hide in it have since fled. This is because the men in many of the villages have risen up against the rebel invader, arming themselves with machetes and spears. Nduma was where the villagers' militia, called Raia Mutomboki, was founded and it is now active in two provinces, according to local priest Maurice Sambamba. "Raia Mutomboki means angry people and that is what we are," the cleric explained.
Villagers forced to hand over possessions
Their anger has deep roots. When the FDLR fled from Rwanda after the genocide into neighboring DRC, the Congolese treated them like brothers in Nduma even though they had committed heinous crimes in their home country against the Tutsis. Sambamba feels deeply disappointed: "We let them have land on which they built their own village. Then they started to turn against us," he said.
During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Hutu militia killed more than 800,000 Tutsis in around a hundred days. Then the culprits fled into the forests of eastern Congo and formed a militia, the FDLR, reputed to be one of the most brutal in the whole region because of its systematic looting of the local population. They were also active in Nduma, Sambamba said. One day after the troops had pulled out, the FDLR went marauding through the village at eleven in the evening. They plundered the homes of local residents, who fled into the forest where they hid for several days. A week later, the FDLR appeared again, ordering every household to hand over their possessions. "Many had to part with their goats, pigs and chickens," Sambamba recalled. "In July they burnt our village down yet again. That was when we decided to form the Raia Mutomboki militia!"
Calls for help
The villagers grouped around the priest nod their heads in assent. Only a handful of young men are present. The rest of the village youth, who make up the core of Raia fighters live in the forest. The militia leaders are two young men who call themselves "the lawyers." They did indeed study law in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province. But then the money run out and they couldn't afford to take their exams, so they returned to their village of Nduma to fight for their own personal style of justice.
On the morning of the next day, the air pulsates with the rhythmic beat of drums. A group of powerfully-built young men emerge from the undergrowth of the rain forest and take up positions, like troops protecting their commander. A man appears with a sack over his back. Carefully, he places it on the ground and opens it, letting out a foul stench. From the sack, he retrieves the remains of human skulls and bows down before them. "I show these skulls so the whole world sees the truth, sees how our people have suffered," said the man who is known as deputy commander Kikuny. "These are the skulls of our relatives, friends and neighbors, who were massacred by the FDLR. We keep them because they call on us to wreak revenge," he added.
The villagers had long ago called for help. They had appealed to the international community, the government of the DRC. Kikuny is furious with their lack of response. "The government told us to defend ourselves," he explains. "That is exactly what we are doing. We are taking action against the FDLR and taking our security into our own hands."
As Kikuny stands up to return his headquarters in the depth of the forest, the women of the village burst into song, praising Kikuny and other militia commanders.
"May God watch over them, for they protect us from rape and pillaging," they sing.