Photos: “Living in Fear” Amid the Relentless Battle for Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo - Latest Global News

Photos: “Living in Fear” Amid the Relentless Battle for Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Kanyabayonga, Democratic Republic of Congo – The innocent Kasereka sits in a run-down hospital in the war-torn east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), his neck bandaged where he was brutally slashed with a knife.

The 30-year-old explains how he found himself in the middle of the conflict between the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) and M23 rebels, which has been raging since the end of 2021.

The attack on Kasereka occurred in early May on a coffee plantation in the agricultural town of Kibirizi in North Kivu province.

It had been seized two months earlier by M23 and the Rwandan army, which is fighting alongside the rebel group.

“When the M23 arrived in Kibirizi, they held a meeting and assured us that we were safe,” said Kasereka, lost in the hospital director’s office.

Instead, he said he was attacked by people “in M23 uniforms.”

Covered in blood and traumatized, he managed to climb a hill and reach safety in a government-controlled part of the city.

The innocent Kasereka sits in a hospital in Kanyabayonga in the southern Lubero Territory in North Kivu Province [Alexis Huguet/AFP]

The Congolese army, backed by a motley collection of armed groups called Wazalendo, Swahili for patriots, launched an offensive in late April to recapture Kibirizi from the M23.

Fighting raged in the center of the city, with FARDC mortar shells destroying houses and killing those living there, a colonel in the Congolese army admitted. “Collateral damage,” he said.

But the army failed to retake Kibirizi, leaving its residents at the mercy of the M23, which began “attacking the population” as the Congolese army withdrew, Kasereka said.

The men who cut Kasereka’s neck and the throat of his late friend Germain accused her of being part of a militia group that had ambushed them.

“They suspected us of being traitors and of facilitating the Wazalendo’s entry into the city,” Kasereka said.

In 2022, more than 100 people were killed for the same reason in Kishishe, a town about 10 km (6 miles) from Kibirizi.

The United Nations later determined that M23 was responsible for the massacre.

Children observe wounded pro-government militiamen in the courtyard of a hospital in Kanyabayonga.
Children watch wounded pro-government militiamen walk in the courtyard of a hospital in Kanyabayonga [Alexis Huguet/AFP]

Kasereka has been recovering for about 10 days in a hospital in Kanyabayonga town, about 10 kilometers from where he was attacked.

In the bed next to him lies an 18-year-old fighter, also named Germain, in dirty sheets and with bandages around his injured arm.

Germain has been fighting for four years for the FPP/AP (Front of Patriots for Peace/People’s Army), one of the largest armed groups in the Wazalendo region.

But he was wounded by rocket fragments during the failed attempt by the Congolese army and its allies to regain control of Kibirizi.

For almost two years, the FARDC and Wazalendo have not won a single victory, while the M23 continues its advance in North Kivu province.

Augustin Darwin, FPP/AP spokesman, said he had no confidence in the FARDC because it did not abide by agreements with armed groups.

He accused the Congolese army of making “withdrawal after withdrawal” and “running away from the enemy.”

Militia members of the FPP/AP (Patriotic Front for Peace/People's Army), one of the largest armed groups in North Kivu
FPP/AP fighters in North Kivu [Alexis Huguet/AFP]

His soldiers had “no boots, no uniforms [and] “They are not receiving rations,” Darwin said from the group’s headquarters in Mbavinwa, a small village about 10km from Kanyabayonga.

“They are demoralized,” he added.

If there were less embezzlement in the army, “the FARDC wouldn’t even need the Wazalendo,” he said.

Kanyabayonga has become a refuge for tens of thousands of displaced people fleeing fighting and abuses at the hands of M23 rebels.

But the city’s mayor, Chrisostome Kasereka, fears the area could be bombed. “We live in fear,” he said.

Three mortar shells have landed around Kanyabayonga in recent weeks, the mayor said, as his secretary showed the remains of a projectile rocket found in a field.

Civil society representatives from Kibirizi, Kanyabayonga and Kishishe also said that certain FARDC officials “facilitated passage for the rebels.”

The FARDC officers were called to the capital Kinshasa in mid-March as part of an investigation, but some of them have already returned to Kanyabayonga.

“Impunity means that things don’t work in our republic,” Kasereka despaired.

Congolese forces and Wazalendo fighters have launched a new offensive in Kibirizi.

“Trucks full of soldiers arrive here every day,” said one of the city’s civil society leaders.

“If you [the FARDC soldiers] “If we do the ‘strategic withdrawal’ again, we will see a fight between Wazalendo and the FARDC… and we ourselves will take up arms,” ​​he warned.

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