AFRICOM in the Congo
Trainees try to be a force that can overcome child-abducting rebels – and their own horrific past
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 23, 2011
KISANGANI, Congo — Against the soldiers, he had no chance to resist.
The uniformed men, a motley mix of government troops and rebels, were patrolling in the village of Katanga in southern Congo, when they spotted the teenage brother and sister standing alone. The soldiers tied up the boy and went after the girl.
“She was raped in front of me,” said 2nd Lt. Babi Loveli Kalala, recalling a day of abuse that would change his life.
At gunpoint, Kalala was then forced to have sex with his sister.
It was 1997, and Kalala was living with his family in a rural mining area where government soldiers and rebels continue to clash over territory and natural resources.
“I was so ashamed after that,” he said. “I had to run away from home.”
Today, Kalala is a 31-year-old infantry officer in the Congolese army, which the U.S. government is spending millions of dollars trying to reform.
It was rape that drove Kalala into the army, offering him an escape from home. But he joined a fight where sexual assault was used as a weapon of war.
“It was an everyday thing,” he said.
An American gamble
For the past year, about 750 men have been working under the watchful eye of U.S. Africa Command and State Department trainers at a remote military camp in the riverside city of Kisangani in the center of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The U.S. has spent $15 million to build from scratch a rapid reaction battalion here — more than one quarter of the $51 million spent by the U.S. government on security sector reform programs in the country in 2010.
Now, after months of uncertainty about whether the Congolese government would send its new battalion into the field, deployment orders have come down.
The destination: hot spots in the northern Congo.
The mission: hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has waged a brutal and bizarre rebellion for more than two decades in central Africa, abducting children and forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes in fear.
Elimination of the LRA is at the top of U.S. Africa Command’s to-do list for the continent. It also is a priority for the White House, which has pledged support to governments in the region through training and logistical assistance.
The American-trained Congolese soldiers are mobilizing for the hunt for LRA leader Joseph Kony and his subordinates. But fundamental questions remain: Will the soldiers behave as the professionals the Americans hope they have become? Or will they revert to the habits of the former child soldiers and rebel fighters they once were?
When the Americans decided to train the Congolese, it was with the knowledge that some of troops they would be teaching to fight also had histories of committing human rights abuses. That meant the job demanded more than just establishing a fighting force to help Congo better secure its volatile border regions. The job also meant building a battalion of benevolent citizen soldiers, who could serve as an example to the rest of the Congolese military.
But in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where many people shudder at the sight of a soldier, the American training mission is a high stakes gamble fraught with risk.
Predator or protector?
“In the view of the military, civilians are inferior and don’t deserve respect,” said Dismas Kitenge Senga, who runs the Kisangani human rights organization Groupe Lotus. “Whenever you see a soldier, you feel insecure. They can kill you. They can rape you.”
While bolstering security in the Congo could bring more stability across the region and potentially open the doors for significant economic development in this impoverished but strategically important country, the effort doesn’t come without risks. The U.S. now finds itself working with a battalion of the traumatized.
“Their thinking is kill, kill, kill,” said Ken Spueil, a military trainer who works daily with the battalion. “We hope they continue to do the right thing without us looking over their shoulders. But nobody knows.”
In 2010, Special Forces soldiers from U.S. Africa Command descended on the rundown military camp in Kisangani, a remote jungle city that sits alongside the mighty Congo River, which arcs across 1,000 miles and empties into the Atlantic.
The goal was to transform a ragtag group of soldiers, many with checkered pasts, into an elite rapid reaction battalion that could be deployed at a moment’s notice to one of the many conflict zones in the DRC’s volatile north and east.
The effort to build a battalion from scratch pushed U.S. Africa Command into new territory. The program meant the U.S. military had to step outside of its comfort zone of teaching traditional soldiering skills, including marksmanship and logistics. It meant incorporating training designed to help soldiers overcome the trauma caused by rape, an all-too-common phenomena that many of the Congolese troops experienced as both victims and former perpetrators.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the unit in Kisangani will forever be known as the “American-trained battalion.” If something goes wrong, it could cast a negative light on U.S. military efforts in the DRC and taint AFRICOM’s already fragile reputation on a continent where American military involvement — even in the form of goodwill training missions — is widely viewed with suspicion.
The scale of the problems in a Congelese military infamous for human rights atrocities raises questions about how any attempted reform can succeed if it is not accompanied by meaningful reform within the leadership of the government and the military in Kinshasa, the capital.
James Entwistle, the U.S. ambassador to the DRC, said the U.S. will continue to look for ways to work with Congolese troops, despite their reputations for abuse.
“You could find lots of excuses to do nothing here. But I think it is in our interests to do what we can to help this country move forward,” he said. “In my view, one of the ways we do that is to help the Congolese develop their own military. A responsible military that protects the people, that can defend borders.”
Since 2009, the U.S. has spent more than $32 million in the DRC. During a visit to Congo in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called rape in the DRC the world’s “worst example of man’s inhumanity to women.” Men and boys also are victims of these abuses, but are often overlooked as a vulnerable population, according to the State Department.
Some of the men at the camp in Kisangani had raped women. Others looked on as atrocities were committed. Still others saw their loved ones assaulted.
Since its creation in 2003, the government army known as the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo has been one of the major perpetrators of documented sexual violence in Congo, according to Human Rights Watch.
The statistics are staggering: More than 200,000 women and girls are known to have been assaulted in the past 15 years, according to various groups including the United Nations. Rape and many other crimes often go unreported.
In Kisangani, there are soldiers responsible for some of those crimes.
“They were telling me things and they were laughing about it,” recalled Emmanuel Muhozi, a U.S. trainer of Congolese descent who helped launch the sexual violence prevention program with Africa Command staff.
Muhozi, 41, said the awareness program aims to re-educate soldiers who have committed rape in the past and explores some of the root causes of rape as a weapon of war. The program also provides a forum for soldiers who were themselves victims. By confronting painful memories, the soldiers have a better chance of moving forward and not committing acts of revenge in the future, according to Muhozi.
About 70 percent of the battalion has been affected by sexual violence, Muhozi said, as a victim, witness or perpetrator.
Though the soldiers made jokes in the beginning, the laughter disappeared as the troops dug into the problem. Eventually, a sense of guilt and shame emerged. Grown men broke down in tears as they shared their stories, Muhozi said.
The reasons for taking part in such terrible violence ranged from following orders or being numbed by years of unrelenting war, he said.
“Some of them said in war you cease to be human,” Muhozi said. And in Congo, “there’s nothing in the society to discourage this kind of behavior. It’s hard to change the core of a society, but I think more can be done here.”
As the weeks passed in Kisangani, more and more soldiers started opening up during their meetings.
“Despite what they’ve gone through, they keep telling you about the things they’ve done,” he said. “They want to change and I believe they can.”
The training delves into the origins of the problem, which include everything from revenge to the general lack of power among women in the society. Through role-playing performances, soldiers are forced to confront the damage caused by sexual violence.
“There are a lot of faces to this violence,” said Muhozi, who was born in Goma, a city on the Congo’s eastern border with Rwanda. He fled the country in the early 1990s; his parents were killed during the war in 2000. “For me it is kind of a personal thing,” he said.
Muhozi plans to ramp up his efforts this summer with curriculum that dedicates four hours per week to instructing soldiers on the problem of sexual violence in Congolese society. The goal is to raise consciousness among military and law enforcement.
Instruction on the rule of law has been incorporated into several American-led military programs here, and there have been signs of progress, with Congolese officials taking action against perpetrators of sexual violence.
Early in AFRICOM’s training in Kisangani, a lieutenant assigned to the new battalion was suspected of abducting two children in town. Instead of letting the crime pass, the officer was apprehend, prosecuted and is serving a prison sentence, according to an official familiar with the case.
A Congolese judge also convicted a high-ranking officer accused earlier this year of ordering his troops to commit a mass rape in the village of Fizi, on the eastern border near Lake Tanganyika. More than 60 women were assaulted.
For Kalala, the lessons from his American mentors have been sinking in, he said. His mind often goes back to the day his sister was assaulted in front him and what he was forced to do to her.
“I think about it a lot,” said Kalala, who credits the military counseling program with helping himself and other troops confront painful personal histories.
He said his goal now is to deploy with his battalion and make sure no one serving under him commits crimes against civilians.
As for the future, a reunion with his sister and other family members is anything but certain. Though they’ve asked Kalala to return home, the soldier said he isn’t ready yet. The shame is still too strong.
“The army,” he said, “gives me a chance to stay as far away as I can.”
Congolese soldiers assigned to the Congolese Light Infantry Battalion execute a training scenario on how to clear a building at Camp Base in Kisangani, Congo, May 5, 2010. The soldiers are attending a seven-month program to obtain training in field sanitation, gender-based violence, basic military principles and military professionalism as part of Operation Olympic Chase, an operation led by U.S. Africa Command.
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jocelyn A. Guthrie