When the Mai-Mai militiamen came, their faces streaked with flour and talismans hanging from their arms, the villagers in the DRC’s “triangle of death” ran for their lives.
“We saw them coming with arrows and weapons,” Kalongo Musonda told AFP from the safety of the Kipeto camp for the internally displaced, in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“They were singing as they came,” said the 46-year-old, flapping his hand before his mouth while producing high-pitched whoops in imitation of the feared fighters.
The Bakata Katanga are among the most powerful of the dozens of Mai-Mai militias still operating in the DRC’s east more than a decade after the end of devastating back-to-back wars, in 1997-1998 and 1998-2003.
“They wore ripped trousers and they had powdered their faces with flour. They had lashes tied round their arms with fetishes tied on,” Ghislaine Kibombe, who teaches the camp’s 150 children, recalls with horror.
The Mai-Mai insurgents are fighting for independence for Katanga province, which is the size of Spain and provides about half the world’s cobalt and boasts substantial copper supplies, along with diamonds.
They also want a greater share of the mineral resources concentrated in Katanga’s south, for the underdeveloped north.
The Kipeto camp lies about 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the town of Pweto, in an area in the heart of Katanga’s violence nicknamed the “triangle of death”.
Since 2012, insurgents have ravaged whole tracts of the “triangle”, where the UN mission in the country, MONUSCO, accuses them of murder, rape and looting, as well as burning down homes and entire villages.
‘Our brothers, our uncles’
Kibombe, 37, says she does not understand how “a group of civilians who weren’t heavily armed” could have “stripped all away” around them, while the Congolese army arrived “late, after they had destroyed everything.”
At the time, there was no military facility near her community.
“We saw atrocious things,” said Kasongo Tshombe, a community worker at the Mwashi camp, also in the Pweto region. “I saw my brother-in-law shot down and decapitated, just like that,” said the 49-year-old.
Even crueller is the fact that these rebels often come from the communities they now terrorise.
“They are our brothers, our uncles, our cousins who didn’t go to school and went away to enlist,” Tshombe said.
The United Nations estimates the number of displaced in the Pweto region at 178,500, many of them children taken out of school who now risk becoming recruits for the rebels.
Tshombe founded an association to try to keep local youths out of the militia, with many of those displaced unable to afford monthly school fees of $2 (1.6 euros).
In Pweto itself, a school for displaced children opened last year with the same goal, taking in 180 youths aged nine to 15—most of them orphans, some of them rescued from the clutches of armed groups.
Thirteen-year-old Adele was briefly held captive by militiamen after they murdered her parents.
“They used me as a cook, made me carry water,” she said. “I also carried a bucket full of bullets, and a weapon. After two days they let me go, along with my sister.”
Today, Adele hopes to become a schoolteacher.
The Pweto centre—financed on a two-year basis by a dozen different donors—is set to close in 2015 unless it finds a new source of funding.
For Ignace, who tells with a trembling voice how the militia shot his father in the back, that would spell disaster.
“Since I have no father, I have to study here to look after my little brother, the 13-year-old said.
His schoolmate Mariam, whose parents were murdered in similar circumstances, speaks of their killers without hatred: “May God forgive them for what they did to our parents.”
Her message to the fighters? “To stop what they are doing, and let us rebuild our country.”
‘Going to burn you!’
Between January and October this year, nearly 4,700 homes in 75 villages were torched in the Pweto area, according to the NGO International Emergency and Development Aid.
Along the road from Pweto to Kakolona, around 15 kilometres away, several villages have been razed to the ground.
“There’s one group that only carries out theft and extortion, while the others start fires,” said the group’s Jean-Pierre Ruti Mutembera.
The rebels are accused of enrolling fighters by force.
“They tell you, ‘You don’t want to join our movement? We’re going to burn you!’” said Marie-Louise Ngoy, a teacher at the school in Mwashi.
In Kakolona itself, a number of residents have dared return from exile to live beside what remains of the brick dwellings.
The army maintains a small outpost in the town, but a lieutenant explained that if the situation remains calm, the troops may be ordered to leave—a terrifying prospect for the displaced.
“If they ask the soldiers to go, the Mai-Mai will find out, and then they will come down on our heads,” warned one refugee, Kadjiba Katombo.