Ka­sai marks year of blood­shed as doubt hangs over DR Congo poll

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

TSHIKAPA: “Be­fore, we were able to go to work in any mine to dig for di­a­monds. But to­day, we’re all afraid of dy­ing,” ar­ti­sanal miner Banayi Ilunga says grimly. Di­a­monds are the bless­ing of Ka­sai, a vast re­gion of five prov­inces in Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo that in many ways holds the key to the coun­try’s fu­ture.

To Ilunga, an 11-year min­ing vet­eran, the poorly reg­u­lated in­dus­try of­fers a life­line-but in the past year, his hard­scrab­ble ex­is­tence has be­come even tougher. He has had to aban­don the most prof­itable sites for the safety of mines close to the city of Tshikapa, where the pick­ings are slim. But that is the price to pay for stay­ing alive.

Ka­sai’s year of tor­ment be­gan on Au­gust 12, 2016, when se­cu­rity forces killed a lo­cal tribal chief, Jean-Prince Mpandi, who was at log­ger­heads with the state ad­min­is­tra­tion and pos­ing a chal­lenge to the rule of Pres­i­dent Joseph Ka­bila. The death of Mpandi-known by the tribal ti­tle of Kamwina Ns­apu-and the fail­ure to give him a fu­neral with rites be­fit­ting his sta­tus sparked an in­sur­rec­tion, which led to a bru­tal re­pres­sion, in which civil­ians are pay­ing a ter­ri­ble price.

The Ro­man Catholic Church es­ti­mates that more than 3,000 lives have been lost, in­clud­ing those of two ex­perts man­dated to in­ves­ti­gate the con­flict by the United Na­tions. On Fri­day, the UN gave de­tails of more than 250 “extra-ju­di­cial or tar­geted killings” in Ka­sai from mid-March to mid-June, in­clud­ing dozens of chil­dren. About 1.4 mil­lion peo­ple have fled the atroc­i­ties, many of them to An­gola.

In of­fice since he suc­ceeded his mur­dered fa­ther in 2001 while war wracked the na­tion, Ka­bila failed to stand down last year at the end of his fi­nal elected con­sti­tu­tional term. A deal was cut by the regime and a mi­nor­ity within the op­po­si­tion to hold elec­tions by the end of 2017. But whether the bal­lot can go ahead may well hang on what hap­pens in Ka­sai.

A mil­lion peo­ple cut off

Astride the Ka­sai river weav­ing its way past palm trees, Tshikapa is home to a mil­lion peo­ple who are largely cut off from the rest of the world. They live like a pop­u­la­tion un­der siege, for to take to the roads and wa­ter­ways is to roll the dice with death. “When the Kamwina Ns­apu ar­rived here in mid-De­cem­ber, a whaler (a light trans­port ves­sel) and a speed­boat of the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment were set on fire,” Mama Ngombe said, re­fer­ring to a tribal mili­tia of the same name as their leader. “There is still dis­or­der and killings of pas­sen­gers.”

In July, the As­so­ci­a­tion of Nav­i­ga­tors of Ka­sai-Tshikapa (Anakat) tem­po­rar­ily sus­pended river traf­fic in protest at the in­se­cu­rity. Nav­i­ga­tion has since re­sumed war­ily. The high­ways are es­pe­cially dan­ger­ous, and peo­ple are ad­vised never to travel alone but in con­voy. The road from Tshikapa to an­other ma­jor town, Kananga, is sim­i­larly un­der the con­trol of the Kamwina Ns­apu, ac­cord­ing to spe­cial­ists in the re­gion. The main road to Kin­shasa, mean­while, is in the grip of Pende mili­tia, from an­other lo­cal tribe. The en­forced iso­la­tion has sent prices soar­ing. In the marketplace, the price of corn, cas­sava and palm oil has risen by 50, 100 and 150 per­cent re­spec­tively.

Home­less and burned

Tshikapa has taken in more than 70,000 peo­ple dis­placed by fight­ing be­tween se­cu­rity forces and the Kamwina Ns­apu, as well as bloody ri­valry among com­mu­ni­ties such as the Luba, Tchokwe and Pende. One of the dis­placed, Agnes Mu­petu, 37, lost all her six chil­dren to the flames when her home was razed. She has vis­i­ble burn in­juries.

“I don’t know how I got out of our house when it was burned down. I woke up in the for­est with no medicine. I didn’t even have ac­cess to tra­di­tional medicines. Peo­ple picked me up with my wounds in the for­est,” said Mu­petu. Her hus­band went miss­ing in the fire. Food, cloth­ing and health care have been pro­vided for only 30,000 peo­ple by the UN Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion (FAO) and lo­cal NGOs. “We have lim­ited re­sources,” said lo­cal FAO of­fi­cial Moise Muhindo.

The UN body also pro­vides seeds, hoes, rakes and wa­ter­ing cans to farm­ing fam­i­lies in a bid to help them get agri­cul­tural ac­tiv­ity go­ing again. The au­thor­i­ties are keen to em­pha­size signs of a re­turn to nor­mal life since Ka­bila vis­ited the trou­bled Ka­sai re­gion in mid-June. Their lat­est an­nounce­ment, jointly with An­golan pro­vin­cial au­thor­i­ties, was that the 31,000 Con­golese refugees in An­gola can re­turn. But in the past few weeks, only about 1,400 are es­ti­mated to have come home vol­un­tar­ily. — AFP

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