BETWEEN heeding a message from officials to remain calm and another to flee looming attacks by Ugandan rebels, the choice for many residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) town of Beni is clear.
“I left my home because there are leaflets saying that (the Ugandan rebels) are coming to kill people,” said Solange Sekera, 27, who was leaving town with her three children.
Sekera had not actually seen the leaflets herself but she was not taking any chances.
Terrified by Thursday’s rampage by Ugandan rebels who slaughtered 26 people with machetes, many residents have decided that the town in North Kivu province is no longer safe.
“Those who tell you that we are safe are lying,” said a lawyer who requested anonymity.
“We have to take care of ourselves. The authorities have promised to restore order in the city… but we have no faith in them,” he added.
Despite mayor Nyonyi Masumbuko’s best efforts to calm nerves—including going on radio to send the message: “I assure you that all security measures have been taken. Stay calm at home, the authorities are in control of the situation.”—residents were deaf to the appeal.
On Sunday, dozens of inhabitants were carrying bags and even mattresses as they headed out of town.
Others have formed vigilante groups to keep watch all night at key junctions, armed with batons and whistles.
Children ‘bashed against the wall’
Violence has never been far from mineral-rich eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where rival rebel groups have terrorised local populations over two decades, committing a slew of atrocities including murder and mass rape.
The Congolese army, supported by UN peacekeepers from the MONUSCO stabilisation mission had dealt the rebels a series of severe blows earlier this year, including defeating the M23 militia, once the strongest group of insurgents in the region.
But one militia group—the Allied Democratic Forces and National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU)—remains active in the region.
The ADF-NALU was chased into neighbouring Congo by the Ugandan army in the 1990s and has been hiding in the Ruwenzori mountains along the border since.
Led by Jamil Mukulu, a Christian who converted to Islam, the rebels have financed themselves by trafficking gold and wood. Beni is a major hub for wood destined for Uganda.
The rebel group counts about 400 fighters today.
After being pushed back by the Congolese army and UN forces, the group has in recent weeks began to attack isolated villages again, killing at least 80 people over the past fortnight, the lobby group Civil Society of North Kivu said.
Thursday’s attack in Beni was followed a day later by another massacre just about 50 kilometres (30 miles) away in the town of Eringeti.
Some 22 people, most of them women and children were hacked or clubbed to death in Friday’s violence that sparked calls for UN forces to protect the local population.
Most of the victims were killed with machetes, axes and hoes, and several children had their heads “bashed against the walls”, the North Kivu civil society group said.