As campaigning begins for crucial elections in crisis-wracked Democratic Republic of Congo, the east of the country remains gripped by inter-ethnic violence, militia attacks and a deadly Ebola outbreak.
Impoverished and battle-weary, residents of the Beni region hold out some hope for peace as a December 23 election turns the page on outgoing President Joseph Kabila’s nearly 18 years in power.
In Boikene, a northern neighbourhood of Beni, 21-year-old Dieme Bumbere lamented the regular sight of tearful funeral-goers trampling across lush green fields holding aloft giant white crosses.
“I demonstrated after the death of my brother,” said Bumbere, an unemployed computer scientist, who lives with his family in the conflict-torn area.
His brother was killed in an attack a few months ago by unknown assailants.
“We demonstrated because we were angry… We took the body to the town hall and called for peace.”
Much of the local anger is directed at the authorities’ failure to contain the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) militia, a shadowy armed group rooted in Ugandan Islamism that has killed hundreds of people since 2014.
Last Friday, UN peacekeepers of the MONUSCO force repelled an alleged ADF attack in Boikene on their base in Boikene, the DR Congo’s health ministry said on Sunday.
MONUSCO has about 17,000 troops and police in the vast central African nation.
“The insecurity affects all sectors of the society. People are gone. The shops, the clinics, the pharmacy have been looted. There is no business anywhere right now,” Bumbere said.
– ‘Killing people, burning houses’ –
The ADF is based in the mineral-rich east, where numerous armed groups have caused havoc in the decades since the official end of the 1998-2003 war which claimed millions of lives.
While the group is often described as Islamist, analysts say its motivations for attacks can vary in a region where poverty and instability are endemic.
The government has blamed it for killings, robberies and kidnappings, but sometimes it is unclear who the true assailants are.
Boikene resident Zawadi Kavugho says suspected ADF attacks have become more frequent since September.
“They are killing people, they are burning houses,” he said. “After they have finished, they take the goats with them, and they kidnap children too.”
But, Kavugho adds optimistically: “I think if the elections are held, whoever is elected may be able to help us. The killings will end and we will return to our fields.”
The apparent increase in ADF attacks has complicated the authorities’ response to a growing Ebola outbreak, which has killed 217 people since August 1.
– ‘Peace could come back’ –
The World Health Organization was forced to temporarily evacuate 16 staff members from Beni last weekend after a shell hit the building where they were lodged.
Michel Yao, WHO’s coordinator for Ebola response operations in Beni, told AFP Saturday that no one was injured, and said it remained unclear whether the shell had come from the ADF or MONUSCO forces.
The UN has repeatedly said the unrest is hampering efforts to contain the disease in the region.
As election day draws nearer, 21 candidates have registered to replace 47-year-old Kabila in a country that has never known a peaceful transition of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.
For Bumbere, the possibility of finding work and living in peace may seem far off, but he remains cautiously optimistic.
“I think that if Kabila leaves power peace could come back,” he said.