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Rogue Militia Terrorizes Southeast Congo


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

In the heart of Africa, near the headwaters of the Congo River, the Congolese Army is attempting to wipe out a group of renegade militiamen.

The Mai Mai were originally armed by the Kinshasa government as autonomous local defense forces. But the government says the Mai Mai are terrorizing people in remote parts of mineral-rich Katanga Province. People who've fled the Mai Mai say they're ruthless rebels with magical powers.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.


The Congolese government, with the help of the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, is attempting to regain control over the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the southeast of the country, the biggest challenge continues to be a group of alleged cannibals with no clear political agenda, who believe they're immune to bullets. In recent months, some 20,000 people have fled into makeshift camps around the town of Dubie to get away from the Mai Mai.

Ms. MAMBO WANGA(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Mambo Wanga says she arrived in Dubie in October.

Ms. WANGA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: My husband was the chief of our village, Wanga says. The Mai Mai killed him because he wouldn't allow them to bring their magic into our village.

According to people in the camps at Dubie, when the Mai Mai take over a village, they ban people from wearing clothes, force the locals to cook for them, and impose bizarre rules about what foods can be eaten on what days of the week. If someone breaks the rules, they'll be killed.

Mambo says after the Mai Mai killed her husband, she fled into the bush for almost a year with her children.

Ms. WANGA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: In the bush, we ate wild yams and fruits, she says. Sometimes we'd steal food from gardens, but we didn't know which villages were controlled by the Mai Mai, so we never went on the main roads. Eventually, she heard that the Congolese Army had controlled Dubie, so, like almost 20,000 other people, she came here.

The Mai Mai were set up in the late 1990's by Laurent Kabila, shortly after he overthrew President Mobutu Sese Seko. In the power vacuum after the fall of Mobutu, Rwandan troops were moving into the east of the Congo. In an effort to impede their progress, Kabila passed out AK-47's and other small arms to what were supposed to be local defense forces.

Mr. JEAN-MARIE CAFICA BOMWAY(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: These local defense forces changed over time, says Jean-Marie Cafica Bomway, the head of the lone secondary school in Dubie. They became cannibals, he says, who are now attacking the very people they were supposed to protect.

Almost everyone in this part of the Congo, from young boys to village elders, says the Mai Mai eat human flesh. The accusations are unconfirmed, yet people cite cannibalism as one of the main reasons they're afraid to go back to their villages.

There's also a wide-spread belief that the amulets and intimidating wooden masks the Mai Mai wear give them magic powers. Even their name, Cafica Bomway says, comes from a chant the fighters use to protect themselves in battle.

Mr. CAFICA BOMWAY: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: When the Mai Mai come under fire, they yell, "Mai Mai", which means "Water, water" in Swahili, he says. And the oncoming bullets evaporate in the air.

The Congolese Army is holding several hundred Mai Mai fighters captive in the dilapidated brick school in Dubie. Each morning, the Mai Mai prisoners and their armed guards go for a run through town. Many of the Mai Mai are just teenagers. Stripped of their amulets and masks, they look like a group of poorly fed, impoverished farmers.

Fifteen-year-old Justin Nocombway Nujinga(ph) says he was captured by the Mai Mai last year, and forced to join them.

Mr. JUSTIN NOCOMBWAY NUJINGA (Mai Mai): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: If you refused to become Mai Mai, Nujinga says, the Mai Mai would kill you. He says he was never involved in any killing himself. The Congolese Army's in the midst of an offensive to try to wipe out these militias and capture the most powerful Mai Mai leader in the region, Jedieaun(ph).

Jediaun used to control a gold mine near Dubie, and he gained control over several villages in this largely lawless part of the Congo. In August, two Catholic priests set out on a motorbike to try to open up peace talks with Jedieaun. The priests' bodies were later found mutilated and burned.

The current military offensive against the Mai Mai comes as the country's attempting to hold its first democratic elections in forty years. Last fall, the government in Kinshasa launched a voter registration drive in this vast country, but the Mai Mai have tried to disrupt that effort.

West of Dubie, Sumgo Wenambe(ph) is one of about 2,000 people who've moved to an island in the middle of a lake to get away from the Mai Mai.

Ms. SUMGO WENAMBE: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The Mai Mai came into our village, separated the people who had voter registration cards from those who did not, Wenambe says, and then beat the people who'd registered to vote.

The Congolese authorities in Kinshasa have originally said their military offensive against the Mai Mai would run through the end of 2005. Now they've pushed back that timetable indefinitely.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.