Their story

Dominique* was raped in August but had no access to health care for three months.

UNHCR/Brian Sokol

Inside the Triangle of Death

Rich in minerals, Katanga is a magnet for conflict. Burned villages dot the landscape and women’s bodies are part of the battleground.

Their story
  • Written by
    Céline Schmitt
  • Photos by
    Brian Sokol
18 November 2014 18 November 2014
DR Congo

Running her fingers across a hand-drawn map, Marie points out the latest hotspots in an area known as the “Triangle of Death” – a volatile wedge of resource-rich land bounded by the towns of Manono, Mitwaba and Pweto.

We’re standing in her office in Manono, worryingly close to the conflict still raging in the northern Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As the local coordinator for IEDA Relief, an aid group that partners with UNHCR, Marie helps to bring assistance to people displaced by the fighting – especially women and children.

But the humanitarian and security crisis here is worsening by the day. Since 2011, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Katanga Province has soared to almost 600,000, and thousands of human rights violations – including killings, torture and sexual violence – have been committed.

Later that day we drive to Kanteba to visit a site for IDPs that was set up last March. It now hosts more than 2,000 people. Some of them escaped attacks by the Mai Mai Bakata Katanga militia group; others fled violent clashes between the Luba and the Twa communities, sometimes still referred to as bantu and pygmies, respectively. Since March, more people have been arriving in Kanteba every month.

Among them is Faustin Kakudji, now president of the Kanteba IDP site.

“We heard the crackling of the bullets and knew that the Mai Mai were in the village,” Faustin tells us, recalling the attack that forced him to flee to Manono with his wife and five children. “We walked for five days. We had to walk slowly with the children. We were tired. As we were many, it was difficult to enter the house of someone to spend the night. We were spending the nights outside. We were asking the pastors for food. Sometimes they gave porridge to the children.”

“We heard the crackling of the bullets and knew that the Mai Mai were in the village,” he says. “We walked for five days. We were spending the nights outside. We were asking the pastors for food.”

Faustin says that even if his family are now safe and sleep soundly at night, they are struggling to survive. They have to fetch water from a lake and have no access to drinking water. The nearest source is five kilometres away, but because so many people go there, including the host communities, there is not enough for everyone. Faustin also notes that the displaced lack the means to pay for care at the nearby health centre, and that only one or two displaced children out of 10 go to school because their parents can’t pay for the school fees.

IEDA works to document problems like these and refer them to the appropriate authorities and the humanitarian community.

At IEDA’s office in the Kanteba camp, women leaders from the IDP community report that many displaced women here were raped as they fled in search of safety. Before long they introduce us to a 50-year-old survivor I’ll call Dominique*.

“I was in the fields with the second wife of my husband when we were told that our husband was attacked with arrows,” she tells us. “A pygmy [Twa] came and took me away. He took me to the bush. There were three [men] and they slept with me. They took me to a place where they were keeping other women. I also became their wife. I was cooking for them, washing their clothes and one after the other they were coming to sleep with me. When one was finishing, another one was coming, during the day and the night. When the one who was doing it was getting tired, he was stopping and another one would come. Anyone who had the desire could come.”

“I am scared to tell my husband what happened,” she adds. “He knows that I have been kidnapped but he doesn’t know the details. If I explain it to him, he will ask for divorce.”

Dominique has had no access to health care since she was raped in August, but today the protection team from IEDA will refer her to the hospital in Manono.

Access to health care for survivors of sexual violence is limited. There are only a few medics working in the area, and the health centres and hospital lack the means and funding to do more. Although they treat the women survivors of sexual violence who come to the hospital, they are unable to organize mobile clinics that could reach survivors in the field.

“To respond in a better way, we need the means to sensitize women on how we can treat sexual violence and that they should not hide,” says Yves Monga, a medical doctor who serves as director of Manono hospital. “We need to go and meet the survivors and not stay in our offices waiting for the survivors to come to us. We heard that 20 women were raped in Kyambi, but we did not have the means to go there. There are many cases like this when women can’t reach us here.”

The next day, IEDA’s protection monitors take us to Kamala, a village that had taken in many displaced people before it came under attack in August. Many houses were burned, forcing villagers and the previously displaced to flee. Although they are gradually coming back, a large number are returning to nothing. The rainy season further exacerbates their plight.

“They burned our village,” she says. “I left everything and I fled.”

Bavuye, who is over 70 years old, lives at the very end of Kamala village. She fled her village of Halay in June and sought refuge here in July. Her husband died a few days later. In August, when Kamala was attacked, she was forced to flee again – this time to Manono, alone – and has only recently returned. Like the others here, she relies on the hospitality of lifelong residents. But the host community also suffers and struggles after the destruction of their homes, so now Bavuye is left by herself. She can barely see, but must take care of everything alone. She lives in a makeshift shelter with a roof made out of leaves to protect her from the rain.

“I fled when the conflict started in Kyombo,” she tells us. “The bantus [Luba] came to chase us away. They burned our village. I left everything and I fled.”

Today, Bavuye survives on a diet of cassava leaves and occasionally works in the fields. “I force myself [to work]. Often I fall sick. I go once a week. I go alone, it is five kilometres away. I can’t go home [to her village]. My husband died. I have no house. I stay here.”

The next morning, after a five-hour journey by truck, ferry and speedboat, we arrive in Kasonsa, on the banks of the Luvua River. Lumbwe Kazumba, its chief, tells us the village was home to about 3,500 people before recent clashes between the Luba and the Twa, who have been marginalized for generations and are often denied the right to mine or farm their own land.

“A big part of the population was fleeing,” says Kazumba, recalling a recent attack. “At around 1 a.m., the pygmies [Twa] started burning the houses. The population that had stayed started fleeing by pirogue [traditional boat] or by swimming [across the Luvua River]. They killed eight people.”

While the perpetrators of the attack were brought to justice, members of the Twa community here have also paid a heavy price, having been forced to flee the area in fear of reprisal. They lost their houses, their fields and their crops. Now, living in makeshift shelters in and around Ankoro, they struggle to find food and access basic services.

After a few days inside the Triangle of Death, it’s clear that resolving this conflict will require wider recognition and protection of the rights of minorities and indigenous groups, especially the Twa. At the same time, there must be an end to impunity and stronger efforts to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate former combatants to return to civilian life.

Until that happens, the IEDA protection monitors will carry on, doing all they can to aid the displaced.

*Name changed for protection reasons.