Photos by Caleb Kabanda. Photos taken in the shadows to protect the identity of the subjects.
*Name has been changed to protect identity
Kibumba, North Kivu, DRC —
Tantine Mabele* had been in the local hospital for two days, sick with malaria. She was five months pregnant.
“The heat of the baby is making her fever worse,” her husband Caleb Mabele* told me. Mabele, a soldier in the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC), had been trying to negotiate an advance on his paycheck so that he could buy the antimalarials his wife needed. The advance came with absurdly steep interest — about $5 for every $1 borrowed, according to Mabele — but his monthly checks of $87 rarely came on time, let alone early. It was his only option.
In the summer of 2014, I traveled to Kibumba from Eastern Congo’s hub, Goma, to talk with Mabele, 30, Patrick Honore*, 32, and Honore’s wife, Elise Honore*, 21, about challenges like these that Congolese military families face. It was against Army regulations for Congolese soldiers to speak with press, so Mabele, Honore and Elise met me at a civilian friend’s home, walking miles to avoid being seen by higher-ups. The house was small and wooden with cement floors, as temperate inside as the day outside — a nice home for this area, a poor farming region that hugs the border of Rwanda. Sun streamed in through a crack under the front door, but the curtains were shut, leaving most of the room dark.
“We got into the Army when we were children, so we didn’t know that when you join, you join forever,” said Honore, who, along with Mabele, had been deployed to this operational zone for two years with the FARDC’s 391st Battalion, an elite American-trained rapid-reaction unit. Mabele was thin and wiry, with a hard-set face. Honore’s features were softer, more boyish.
They had already, at this age, lived more than half their lives in the DRC’s Army: Honore was 13 when he joined — “a minor, a child,” he said — and Mabele had been in his early teens as well. They both joined because they thought it promised a better life than the one they’d been born into. But wages had turned out to be low, living conditions bare-bones, and commanders corrupt, their true alliances on the battlefield often hazy. Both Honore and Mabele said that they would leave the FARDC if they could. Barring medical discharge and certain rare exceptions, a soldier’s contract in the FARDC lasts until the age of 60. If they tried to leave, they would be arrested and thrown in jail.
In eastern Congo’s protracted conflict — often called the world’s deadliest after WWII — Congolese soldiers have, more often than not, been cast in the role of villain: the bandit, the rapist, the pillager. There is good reason for this. Since the wars began just after the Rwandan Genocide, the amorphous and disorganized FARDC has been implicated in an untallied number of civilian deaths and rapes. For three days in 2012, troops systemically raped refugee women and girls in the town and refugee camp of Minova; a 2013 UN report named members of 391st Battalion as some of the perpetrators. The atrocities took place as the rebel group M23 was running FARDC out of Goma, taking control of the city and the surrounding region. Civilians warmed a bit to the Army after it successfully seized back eastern territory from M23 a year later, but many Congolese still fear and despise troops, and soldiers continue to commit human rights abuses.
This is an accurate portrait of some Congolese soldiers, but it’s incomplete, Mabele and Honore told me. Many, like them, are husbands and fathers struggling to support families they rarely see.
“Not all soldiers are bad,” Honore said. And for those who are, he believes there are frequently root causes of their desperation. “You have very bad pay that doesn’t come on time,” he said. “You eat badly, you sleep in bad conditions. They put you in this condition, a condition you can’t overcome.”
Until their time in Kibumba, their unit’s deployments had been just weeks or months long; this operation had been by far their longest deployment to date. In their two years here, they’d seen control of the region change hands from the FARDC to M23, and back to the FARDC again. After successfully pushing back M23, the Army remained here, manning the area in hopes of keeping more rebels from infiltrating the border.
The baby Tantine was carrying would be her and Mabele’s third child, though their nest was empty: one child had died, Mabele said, and the other was living over 500 miles away in Kisangani province with his grandmother. Mabele lived permanently at his position in the bush in one of the small, bright tents that soldiers occupied. Driving that morning along Kibumba’s roads, I had seen them scattered throughout the landscape, little shocks of color in the grass. Tantine Mabele’s own home in Kibumba was not much more than a tent itself — a structure made of tarpulin, plastic, and corrugated metal. Mabele visited his wife there from time to time, but was never allowed to spend the night with her away from camp.
Kibumba is a quiet hamlet bordered by the lush volcanic range of the Virunga mountains. It feels very much apart from the noise and life of nearby Goma. The only sounds outside the home where we met were bleating goats, the occasional motorbike rocketing by on the hilly dirt roads, the clanging of pots and pans as women cooked outside. Elise said locals were generous-spirited and treated her as just another villager, but there was no work available to her in such a rural place.
The FARDC gives almost no support to its families stationed in these villages: no housing, medical benefits, or even food. Under the corrupt dictatorship of Joseph Mobutu in the 1960s and ’70s, the Army did offer relative stability, and veterans from that time I spoke with were nostalgic for it. The trains, so to speak, ran on time: pay, though still meager, arrived like clockwork. The government gave families cement homes, a few of which still stand today in Goma. Today, the force itself does receive some international aid. Eastern Congo is home to one of the biggest UN peacekeeping missions in the world; a MONUSCO base is nearby Kibumba, and its “intervention brigade” — a group of a few thousand peacekeepers — helps the FARDC maintain the security of the Rwandan border. According to Mabele, their aid had kept recent fighting to a minimum.
But when it comes to daily survival, there is little infrastructure in place to support and sustain military families. While Goma is crowded with non-governmental agencies, western support in the province thins dramatically as you get further out from the city. Barracks exist for those stationed in Goma, but there aren’t nearly enough of those Mobutu-era homes to go around. Most residences are like Mabele’s: primitive structures fashioned from tarpaulin and corrugated metal. The residents pay the higher-ups a small fee to pitch them on the land.
The FARDC’s budget is too limited to give the rest of the families shelter, said Lt. Col. Cyprien Sekolo, the head of administration for North Kivu Province at the time I was there. Sekolo oversaw proposals for reform in the Army, and plans were in the works to create new barracks, his assistant told me, but building wasn’t forecasted to begin for several years. As a last resort, parents often send children to live with family far away, and spouses share their soldier’s tent long-term. If spouses can afford rent, it is common for them to shuttle back and forth, visiting their husbands in the field with soups and stewed vegetables from home. This is a dangerous journey, and, at times, the women get caught in crossfire. For this reason, the Army does not technically allow families to follow soldiers to the field, but it is common practice.
“Even if it’s not allowed, there is no other solution,” Sekololo told me.
Mabele preferred that Tantine stay in the village at a safe distance. From there, she had ample time to flee if he called to let her know rebels were overtaking them. This had already happened to them once, just a few months after their arrival in 2012 when the area fell to M23. After that, Mabele and Tantine sent their remaining child to live with family in Kisangani so that he wouldn’t get lost in the tumult of such an episode.
There were everyday dangers to contend with too, like Tantine’s malaria. Mabele and Honore told me that, in the past, the Italian NGO Cooperazione Internazionale (COOPI) supported the local hospital where Tantine was staying, subsidizing the cost of medicine and hospital stays. But the agency had since departed. When I asked Honore and Mabele what other forms of support they’d seen in the two years they’d been in Kibumba, they both laughed.
“I’ve never seen any other assistance since I ,” Honore said. “But even if assistance comes, commanders will take it.” I’d heard soldiers, their wives, widows, and even Lt. Col. Sekolo echo this sentiment. Both private and official assistance often goes missing in the FARDC’s poorly managed ranks. While transparency in the Army is improving, its leadership is still rife with corruption, and commanders are notorious for taking military widows’ dispensation and aid from NGOs, putting it into their own pockets.
“Congo is sick,” Honore said at the end of our afternoon together, his face dark.
Mabel nodded. “The government is a snake,” he added. Because the Army had absorbed so many rebel factions over the years, the battlefield itself could feel like a mess of confused alliances, Mabele said. Your commanding officer could be your ally — or your enemy. Both men felt certain that they’d been led unknowingly into ambushes at times. That fundamental lack of trust in their leadership was an insidious force in their lives that made the basic hardships of their days particularly demoralizing. They weren’t always sure what, or who, they were fighting for. Despite this, the two men seemed to take their jobs manning the border extremely seriously.
“If we fail, the country will fall,” Honore said.
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Simone Gorrindo’s reporting from The Democratic Republic of the Congo.