It’s a relief when Dusan and the team leave Muhanga. Dusan’s complaining was becoming overwhelming and the quiet bustling of the village is easier to sink into without the team’s presence. In the morning I get hot water from the kitchen and walk around the house to the wooden enclosure, where I can take a bucket shower. Colonel Safari arrives shortly after I finish getting ready and we go to sit in our usual room. He’s brought his English dictionary with him, as I’ve promised to give him a one hour English lesson each day.
-Good morning, he says with a big smile and a firm handshake.
We ask each other about how the other slept and feels this morning, then on to business.
-So, I say. Today I’d like to visit one of your camps and meet some of the other soldiers.
-Yes, that is an okay idea. And then we will come back here maybe and spend an hour or so speaking in English?
He looks at me and there’s a flash of nervous uncertainty in his face. As if I could go back on a promise to a Mai-Mai Colonel. Not that he’d hurt me if I did, but my situation would definitely become more precarious.
-Absolutely, I respond enthusiastically.
-Great, he says relaxing his face. The other thing is, what the General was discussing with you earlier about friendship. If you are going to benefit from us we need to get something back in return. The General’s idea is that you meet with a local N.G.O. here and see if you can, over time, find finances for them. The people have suffered greatly because of the war here. And they haven’t received any help in this area because everyone says, no, the FDLR are there, the Mai-Mai are there the funds will be stolen so they don’t send anything. If you can help an NGO and help the local population that will help us a lot. The General is available for you and your security will be taken care of, but if you can help by helping this NGO that will be good.
I explain again the work I’ve been doing in Butembo and that even for an American it’s not easy to find funds. Safari nods his head in understanding and says they just want me to try and help however I can.
-We, the Mai Mai, can’t say we help the population much when there are financial needs, he continues. We want the people’s well-being to assured.
The Mai-Mai are absolutely not as unruly and violent as they’re made out to be, but they will also be putting on their best face for my stay.
-AAA—an NGO—helped us build another road and that was very important and a good help, he adds.
-Well, I’ll see what I can do but I can’t guarantee anything, I recite.
Safari grabs the Congo history book I’ve lent him and starts the motions of leaving. I run back to my room to put on sneakers and a coat and then join him at the top of the dirt road leading down into the village. The day is cloudy but not cold and there’s a soft wind tickling the banana trees. We start walking and Safari starts talking.
-We’ll go to Colonel Vincent’s camp right now so you can see what it is like, he says.
-Perfect, I respond with true enthusiasm. So, when did you join the Mai-Mai?
-The Mai-Mai here in this area started in 1999 and that’s when I joined here but I picked up my first gun as a military in 1993, when I was 14 years old. Then I was in and out of the military, one year in, then one or two years at school. I got my diplomat.
He says this last part proudly and shoots a side glance at me to make sure I heard him.
-Wow, I respond. That’s impressive. And they let you leave the Mai Mai and come back whenever you wanted?
-Yes, I was getting more schooling but I always went back. Sometimes I fought in the FaRDC, sometimes with the Mai-Mai. There have been so many groups integrated into the FaRDC and then soldiers flee to join another group. General LaFontaine used to be a major in the military when Kabila the father was in power. He was good friends with President Joseph Kabila.
-He told me that last night, I say.
We make our way into the village, and as Colonel Safari speaks he interrupts himself almost every sentence in order to greet the various villagers working outside of the mud huts.
-After the Rwanda genocide, he continues, all of the Hutus who participated fled. Kabila the son and LaFontaine went to Angola, Namibia, and Kenya together recruiting the Hutus for the Congo military. At that point, the FDLR and the Hutus were good, but as soon as Kabila the son became president, he switched and said Hutus must be chased out and the Tutsi CNDP are good. General LaFontaine saw that Kabila was working with Rwanda. When Kabila is near LaFontain, Kabila has nothing to say anymore. He can’t say anything because he has betrayed so many people and Kabila knows that LaFontaine knows all of it.
-You think Kabila is ashamed around LaFontaine?
At this point we’ve past the ten or so houses in the village and are walking down the dirt road with only the mountains and their green fur surrounding us.
-LaFontaine was FaRDC but then he was sent on a clandestine mission in Eastern Congo. He killed a Ugandan colonel in Beni and he was put in jail for eight months. They were going to kill him but the Ugandans realized that he was well-trained and intelligent so they protected him and eventually he was released.
The dirt road turns into a sharp incline.
-That was in 1999. Around that time there were three Rwandan soldiers in this area; back then they were called the ALR. They began pillaging the villages with their weapons so the villagers went to the nearby Mwami—king. They took up lances and machetes and they attacked those three elements. Two were killed and one was injured. That’s when LaFontaine came out here and began really organizing the Mai-Mai. We are an auto-defense system. We have established ourselves only when and where there is a need to protect the population. Right now, the Congo government is injuring its own population so there is a need for us to exist. You will see, the villagers feed us. When we are here they feel comfortable and there is security, so they help us. You are tired.
Colonel Safari stops halfway up the steep hill we’ve begun climbing and stares at me. I’m breathing slightly heavily, but I didn’t think noticeably so. Safari stays still but continues talking.
-Even with the FDLR here. General LaFontaine has organized meetings between different groups, including the FDLR. When they first came they raped and pillaged the villages. But LaFontaine spoke to them and said no, you must protect the people.
-And they just stopped? It was that easy?
This is almost the exact conversation I had with LaFontaine but I’m curious what the Colonel’s take is.
-No, it wasn’t easy it took time. But now they speak some of our languages, they understand easily and they stopped pillaging the villages. And if a man wants to take a woman as his wife, he can ask her and arrange with her, calmly. The girl accepts, and they do what they want.
-So, the FDLR right now they’re not a menace?
-No. Right now, no. If we fight with the FDLR, it’s the population that suffers. The FDLR isn’t completely integrated here. The population knows they are here because they have guns.
I’ve heard many times from the population, Mai-Mai, and United Nations employees that the FDLR, though potential ex-genocidaires, have a rather strict system of law. There’s no real way to prove anything in Congo, so anybody can do anything and simply blame it on someone else. The media runs with it and the real perpetrators get off scot free.
-Last time, I say as we begin climbing again. When we were here, someone asked you if you ever are able to beat the FDLR. You said yes, but when you do they begin raping and pillaging the local population.
-Especially if the FaRDC attack the FDLR, then the FDLR attack the population .
-To do what? I ask.
-To claim revenge! Because they were originally brought here by Kabila himself. It’s Joseph Kabila and General LaFontaine who went to look for them. They helped him and now he has said they are the bad ones and he sends his troops after them. So when they feel it is Kabila who is attacking them, someone who needed their help at one point, they get their revenge by raping and destroying the local villages. Kabila came into power in 2001 after the death of his father. At the time, he himself said in an interview that the FDLR aren’t a force to fight against; that the people to fight are Rwanda because it’s Rwanda who hurts us always. Kabila betrayed the Congolese.
-You have such a complicated political history, I say, mostly to give myself a minute to absorb the flow of information.
Safari chuckles; it’s high-pitched, soft and full. It sounds like ice tea in the backyard on a hot summer day.
-Tres complique! He exclaims.
-So is PARECO the only Mai-Mai group in North Kivu?
-No, there are many Mai-Mai groups in Congo but PARECO is the largest movement. It has already been decided that we will have a deputy in the government soon.
As we reach the top of the hill I see tiny leaf huts begin to poke out of the foliage. It’s the Mai- Mai camp. Each hut is about the size of the couch cushion forts I used to build as a child.
-How many soldiers do you have here? I ask.
-I can’t tell you, that’s intelligence information and can compromise our security.
-Right, sorry, I say immediately. I didn’t think about that.
-You don’t need to know that information.
-True, very true, I say emphatically.
The General has let me in but he trusts no one and I don’t want him to start thinking I’m FBI again. I change the subject quickly.
-Did you guys build these yourselves?
-No, this is a permanent military camp. The FaRDC have lived here at times and they may again. It all depends on where fighting and security move you.
We walk through the tiny huts to a full sized leaf and stick gazebo with woven seats and an old campfire in the middle. Colonel Vincent, the commander of this camp, immediately joins us. Hehas an intelligent face and a bright smile, but he speaks rarely and smiles even less. We greet each other and he gives me the privilege of a rationed smile. Two other men, both younger than Vincent and Safari file in after him. It’s immediately clear neither of the young Mai-Mai speak French.
-I’ve heard, I continue once everyone is seated on the woven seats under the gazebo roof, that the name Mai-Mai comes from the belief in the magical properties of water.
The word Mayi (Mai) means water in Kiswahili, so the rebel name technically means Water-Water. Safari and Vincent both laugh.
-Yes, says Safari.
-It’s the magic? I ask.
-Yes it’s the magic of water. That when you are touched with the blessed water it is by the grace of God. It’s a great thing for us. God has blessed us.
-Ah, so it’s kind of like when Christians are baptized or they dip their fingers in holy water and make the sign of the cross?
-Exactly, says Safari. We’re people, not water! Man cannot become water.
Again, they laugh and it’s clear they’re laughing at my ignorance.
-Do you know who Simo Kimbangu is? Safari asks and I shake my head no. Simo Kimbangu came as a prophet in 1926 before Congo gained Independence. He was the first who blessed the water and said the black man could be independent. If you went to his house in Bas-Congo and you were sick and touched the water you would get better.
The story’s similarities to Christianity immediately strike me. The “magical” property of water is often sensationalized, made wholly African and exotic; yet, this is no more radical than a middle of the road Christian. I decide to explore further.
-I also talked to a few demobilized Mai-Mai a while ago, I continue. They said they had tattoos that protected them from death as long as they followed the Mai-Mai law.
-Yes, there are conditions, Safari answers. You cannot rape and you cannot steal. If you rape, you break a condition. It doesn’t matter what bullet is shot it will find you and kill you. This is biblical as well; there are commandments that we defend.
-And if you don’t break a condition you will be protected from bullets?
Safari reads the incredulity on my face and laughs again.
-No, a bullet will not hurt a Mai-Mai who is keeping with the laws, Madame. You can see.
He takes off his baseball hat, leans forward and points to a scar on his forehead.
-This was a bullet. And if you feel here…
He leans over further and touches a lump on the back of his skull.
-This was also a bullet.
I’m dumbfounded. Safari doesn’t flinch when I reach forward and run my fingers across the scar. Vincent stands up and leaves the small refuge. Rain has begun to fall but none of it passes through the tightly woven banana leaves of the roof.
-You took a bullet to the head and you didn’t die? I stutter. It went inside your brain?
-No, it was a shot straight on and the bullet bounced off and didn’t go through my skull.
I sit in silence for a second, genuinely astounded and trying to figure out a scenario that would make sense. The bullet wasn’t good quality, it was too far away, it was shrapnel… I don’t make much progress, the scar looks like a large blueberry exploded in the form of skin. It looks like a bullet wound. Vincent returns with two other Mai-Mai. One looks extremely young and is wearing an I LOVE JESUS hat and a shirt that says GET WHAT YOU WANT. He sits down and Vincent starts pulling off the boy’s shirt. I’m confused at first but then I see a large oval of white denting the skin in the middle of his right shoulder blade with bolts of purple crackling from the center. It looks like a large, oblong potato chip.
-This is from a bullet, says Vincent.
The bullet clearly ripped a large hole in the boys shoulder, and the trajectory looks like it passed through a lung. The other man who entered with Vincent sees his cue and pulls up his right pant leg. His entire calf would be a scar, except there is no calf left. It looks as if someone sliced off the entire muscle with a machete. The guy pulls up his left sleeve then his right, and then pulls his pant leg higher each time revealing new bullet wounds.
-Did they go to the hospital? I ask.
Vincent translates this time.
-No, they were treated with traditional medicine. How are we to go to the hospital? If we are recognized as military we will be killed even in the hospital. And there is no means to go. We don’t have any money, we’re not paid. We live off of the hospitality of the villagers we protect.
Again, my Western, scientific mentality is utterly boggled.
-Can I see your tattoos? I ask.
-No, responds Safari calmly. We cannot show you them, and they are different for each individual.
I’ve seen the scars before on the demobilized child-soldiers. They’re simple, small scars.
-They’re not like this though are they? I say jokingly.
I pull up my right sleeve to reveal an American made ink tattoo. Everyone howls with laughter, but as it tapers off Safari’s face transforms into a soldier’s mask once again.
-No, they are nothing like that. There is no ink and it is not a joke.
-Yes, I’m sorry, I say, feeling a bit ashamed of myself. Can I ask these other guys some questions? I ask.
Safari translates and everyone consents. The first man I speak to is young, almost sickly looking, and sporting an inch long goatee.
-What is your experience with the Mai-Mai?
He responds without hesitation.
-I joined the Mai-Mai because we suffered for a long time, he says through Safari’s translation. It was the suffering. I was 12 years old; people were dying, we didn’t have any protection so I joined the Mai-Mai. I’m 27 now and I’m still Mai-Mai. I’ll stay Mai-Mai until there is peace in our country.
He stares at me without flinching throughout his entire story. He looks much younger than 27.
-Ever since the Tutsis came to find the FDLR there has been killing, he continues. That’s what pushed me to join. It’s not easy, we suffer but we stay Mai-Mai to protect the country. Because of the enemy I can’t visit my family. I saw them last in 2005.
The man finishes and Safari picks up where the man left off.
-You see it’s very difficult, he says. It’s a sacrifice.
I nod my head and then move to the next man. He’s a little bit older and looks much healthier than the first.
-I entered when I was 11. What pushed me to join was seeing the strangers who came and started to cultivate our fields and then make money. Then they started to buy guns with their money and to push us out. I’m 35 now. When the Mai-Mai fight, I fight with them. I’ve fought with the Tutsis before when they captured me and forced me to fight but I am back with the Mai-Mai and have stayed with them ever since.
-Is your family still alive?
-My parents and some of my family died in the fighting in Masisi. My parents were murdered. Others are still alive, he says without changing his tone or facial expression.
The youngest looking Mai-Mai, with the potato chip bullet wound in his back is the only one who seems uncomfortable. He’s constantly shifting his weight and turning his head to gaze outside of the gazebo.
-Safari, I say turning back to the Colonel. The Mai-Mai are well-known for using children as soldiers. Even you said you joined when you were 14 and all of these men joined as children as well. The Western world views this as a very bad thing, but what do you think?
-We don’t have knowledge of a law that forbids children, he says leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. Nothing that says this person is too young and this person is not. But now we understand that using young children is not good, and you do not see any children here.
-Yes, I say. And Dusan told me that recently PARECO demobilized many child-soldiers in order to cooperate with the U.N.
-The problem is, that many of these children, like this man.
He waves his arm towards the last man who told his story.
-They don’t have parents because their parents are killed in the fighting and then the children are not safe. We do not steal the children or force them. The children come to us because they need protection and many want to fight back to protect their families and their people. When these children are demobilized through the U.N. or we tell them they cannot fight with us because they are too young, they come back to us and say, ‘you took care of us and now you’ve deserted us.’ They have nothing. If we can find someone to take good care of those kids, it will be more effective.
I nod my head and remember the thirty some children Dusan demobilized months ago. The kids were given to Save the Children and placed in homes, but the adoptive families needed financial support. The children ended up being pay checks and field labor, so many fled back to the bush. Children are often demobilized more than once.
-We’ve understood it’s not good, continues Safari. But we’re still responsible for the children. They don’t have any parents and they come to us.
-Is it difficult to kill other humans? I ask, in a puerile manner.
-It’s difficult the first time, because you’re not use to it, Safari responds after considering the question for a few moments.
-It’s more difficult, he continues, as kids because we still have that maternal love even when we are not with our mother.
-Are you often afraid?
-We don’t have fear because we believe in our protection, water and tattoos. Because of that we aren’t afraid, even if they come in a big number. If they kill two Mai-Mai, we know we will kill 20 and we will remain with their weapons. Our enemies don’t chase us as a joke, they must come seriously when they come.
It’s getting late in the day so I begin to move more quickly through my questions.
-What do the men here think of sexual violence as a problem in Congo? I ask.
Safari translates to the group, but only the well-spoken, sickly, young man with the goatee volunteers a response.
-Aside from protecting our conditions as Mai-Mai, if someone rapes and is captured he should be in prison for twenty years. We speak with all groups about not raping; if you’re a patriot you shouldn’t rape.
Again, Safari takes over the conversation.
-I don’t know how to explain the sexual violence, he says. If it’s a problem that comes from the wars or because of ignorance, or a problem of poverty, I don’t know. Or maybe they see the sexual violence outreach in Congo is well-funded internationally so they think they should rape to get money. Truly we can’t explain. But it’s also culture. In Rwanda, you propose to marry a woman after you rape her!
His voice gets high as he says this.
-If people with that mentality come to Congo, what will they do? The same thing.
I nod my head in agreement, even though this reference is over-generalized and over-simplified.
-There was a Mai-Mai, he continues, who raped a girl of 18 years old one month ago.
-Did he say why? Do you know what happened?
-He said that he saw the girl and he told his friend to go and tell the girl that he loves her. The friend spoke to the girl and when he came back he said that yes, she accepts. When the man went to be with the girl she refused and said she had never accepted. He said, ‘the girl was playing with me so I used my gun and took her by force.’
-But they caught him?
-Yes, he is in jail now in Beni.
Safari leans his head out of the gazebo and looks at the sky, smeared with grey clouds like a frosted cake.
-It is becoming late, I think you should take a small tour of the camp, he says standing up.
I follow him out of the gazebo and the other Mai-Mai form a line behind us. As we walk amidst the tiny huts Safari points to little plots of land and explains what different Mai-Mai soldiers are cultivating. There are a few women and toddlers outside of the huts. Safari explains that most of the Mai-Mai are married and their wives are able to live at the camp. We pass several marijuana plants that are several feet taller than I am. One of the Mai-Mai grins and puffs out his chest next to one of the plants. This must be what he’s cultivating. Vincent chides me some more. Every time a rebel comes out of a hut or moves into view, he points to the man and shouts “Look! A Water!”
After walking through the entire camp Safari and I say good bye to the others and leave for the village together. The rain is sharp and cold but light. Something about it is soothing. As we walk Safari explains that if the fighting ever ends, all he wants in this world is a small plot of land on the top of a hill so he can build a house, grow crops, and start a family. Maybe, if God is willing, he can even have a few goats and put those future children through school.