Congo warlord talked of politics, ignoring reports of atrocities

The Times of London
Goma, DR Congo

On a clear day, from the stick-framed huts of Kambutso in the Democratic Republic of Congo, you can see the sparkling waters of Lake Albert to the east and the thick rainforest that covers Ituri region to the west. When I visited in August 2006, a dark rain cloud bruised the sky as wisps of mountain mist drifted by.

I was there to meet Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, a notorious Congolese warlord. Human rights activists had reported attacks on villages by General Ngudjolo’s ethnic militia that left scores dead and mutilated, their bodies dumped in latrines. Girls were raped, children abducted into the rebel ranks, churches burnt and hospitals turned into slaughterhouses. There were even allegations that fighters had resorted to cannibalism to terrorise civilians.

At sunrise we set out from Bunia, a small dusty garrison town where UN peacekeepers peered out from behind sandbags. Our four-wheel drive bumped its way up an escarpment overgrown with elephant grass. As we rounded a corner, a dozen skinny stick figures appeared silhouetted ahead, clutching AK47s and grenade launchers. It was exactly the kind of roadblock you don’t want to run into in Congo. “We are here,” said my translator nervously. The leader of this 10,000-strong militia turned out to be a softly spoken former Red Cross medical assistant — a stocky man with a pugnacious face. Around his neck hung an ID card that identified him as “General” and leader of the Congolese Revolutionary Movement (MRC), one of the last militias then active.

Confronted with reports that he had organised massacres in villages like Bogoro (200 killed), Mandro (168) and Tchomia (250), General Ngudjolo listened, hands clasped in his lap, head cocked to one side.

Then, with palms upturned in a universal sign of innocence, he answered that whenever there was fighting, civilians died. He was defending the Lendu people.

He denied having child soldiers, despite the hairless faces of those around. Rape is so prevalent in Congo that he did not bother to address it. He showed no concern about local or international justice, saying: “I cannot fear international justice because for what can I be arrested?”

An aide added with a smile: “In Congo we have so many criminals, we can’t just talk about the militia leaders. If [the international community wants] justice they must arrest the whole of the Congo.”