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Survival and healing

Residents of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo continue to face attacks

A child sifts through the rubble of an Ituri province displacement camp that was attacked and burned in November by CODECO rebels. Alexis Huguet/AFP via Getty Images

Survival and healing

On a January morning, the Gospel and Reconciliation radio station began its daily broadcast with a message on God’s love.

The station sits strategically on a mountain top in the village of Nyankunde, located in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s restive eastern Ituri province. The radio’s signal reaches up to 300 miles, allowing its messages to reach a few other surrounding villages.

The Monday broadcast addressed the importance of loving one’s neighbors.

“If we have love in us, we can continue to live together,” Jean Luc Simbilyabo, who began the station six years ago, later told me.

The message of peace and reconciliation is timely for Nyankunde, which has a history of tribal conflicts and armed violence, the latest over the past year. A local rebel group fought government troops for control of the town shortly before the government imposed martial law across the wider eastern region in May, hoping to stem the violence.

The violence has eased in Nyankunde since the April fighting, but locals still live in survival mode. Many are trying to rebuild, even as violence persists across neighboring communities and the wider eastern region. DRC has the largest internally displaced population on the continent, numbering more than 5 million.

The conflict has added to existing tensions with DRC’s neighbors, with a resurgence of attacks targeting neighboring Uganda and the involvement of an Islamic State–affiliated rebel group. Despite the fragile conditions, missionaries and Christian leaders in Nyankunde are working to help the community move on from survival to healing and reconciliation.

Nyankunde’s historic 2002 violence inspired Simbilyabo to start the radio station. At the time, thousands of rebels from the neighboring Ntigi tribe descended on the village for seven days, killing more than a thousand people.

They destroyed several properties, including the Nyankunde Evangelical Medical Center, a mission-run hospital that once served the wider eastern region. It wasn’t until 2005 that many residents who fled the conflict returned home. That was after United Nations peacekeepers had swept the town for land mines.

“We had an idea to start a radio station to help people,” Simbilyabo said.

Congolese army soldiers and UN troops inspect an ambush site where ADF rebels attacked and killed three people traveling on a road south of Nyankunde last April.

Congolese army soldiers and UN troops inspect an ambush site where ADF rebels attacked and killed three people traveling on a road south of Nyankunde last April. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

LAST APRIL, American missionary doctor Patrick LaRochelle was sitting outside the rebuilt mission hospital with his colleagues discussing schooling plans for their children when someone from the village rushed up to them.

He shared that fighting between the military and the local rebel group Patriotic Force and Integrationist of Congo (FPIC) had intensified. FPIC members are mostly from the region’s majority Bira youths, who are angered over their exclusion from the provincial government and want to reclaim lands now occupied by the pastoralist Hema tribe.

That night, LaRochelle housed as many as 35 people in his family home as the sounds of gunshots echoed across the community.

At the same time, missionaries with Mission Aviation Fellowship also huddled together in safety, said John Cadd, an MAF missionary who has served in the region for 13 years.

“Our people were down on the floor with mortars going off before they could actually get out,” he said.

Several of the missionaries left Nyankunde mainly for the provincial capital of Bunia before the government imposed martial law across the eastern Ituri and North Kivu provinces. The April 30 declaration, which went into effect on May 6, empowered the military to control civil positions of authority until “the re-establishment of the peace.”

Civilians fled to the surrounding bush to escape the violence as others tried to get to neighboring communities. The Nyankunde lockdown lasted several weeks as the military battled to regain control of the town from the FPIC.

Unlike during the 2002 fighting, the Nyankunde Evangelical Medical Center became a refuge for the community.

As many as 120 civilians sought shelter there, said Dr. Lindsey Cooper, a pediatrician with Christian Health Service Corps who works at the medical center.

From outside the village’s borders, Lindsey and other missionaries worked to get food and medicine to people still stranded in the region. They implored the United Nations to provide a humanitarian corridor into the community, she said, but were told the agency couldn’t act out of the military’s jurisdiction.

Four staff members remained on duty, caring for the remaining patients and military troops who came in for treatment. Hospital staff buried those who died next to the hospital. They include a little girl who battled with terminal leukemia—one case Lindsey can’t forget.

“I didn’t want her last moments on earth to be filled with gunfire,” she said. “I think of her and I pray that God consoled her in her final moments on earth.”

More than 120 rebel groups operate across the eastern region. These armed groups have killed more than 6,000 people and kidnapped more than 7,000 others since 2017.

The eastern region increasingly became a conflict hub after the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Some armed members of the Hutu rebel group fled to the neighboring eastern DRC region. Despite two wars and peace deals, DRC and its allies failed to regain control over the growing armed groups. The persistent tribal tensions, lack of government presence, and natural resources in the region have created a complex setting for armed groups to start and thrive.

During the martial law, at least 55 people died and many others were injured after rebels staged two overnight attacks on May 30 in Ituri’s Irumu territory and North Kivu, also targeting displacement camps. Authorities blamed the Islamic State–affiliated Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group that began in neighboring Uganda but now focuses its insurgency mostly on DRC. In November, local authorities accused the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO) rebel group of attacking a camp in Ituri province that left at least 22 people dead.

After a string of ADF attacks in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, the Ugandan military launched a joint mission with Congolese troops early in December in the eastern region. The joint operation stoked concerns about civilian safety, given the two nations’ uneasy history. (In 2005, the International Court of Justice ruled the Ugandan army broke international humanitarian and civil rights laws during its incursions into DRC in the 1990s and again in 2003.)

The unrest is also stoking international concern. The U.S. State Department last March declared the ADF a foreign terrorist organization after it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP).

The Islamic State claimed its first attack in DRC in 2019. Signs of further cooperation have grown since then. In September, the Congolese army detained a Jordanian for working with the Islamic State affiliate on its drone program.

In a 2021 report, the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization said the extent of the group’s connection to the Islamic State remains contested. But it noted reports of training links between the ADF and the Islamic State affiliate in Mozambique.

“Relying on intelligence information from member states, the reports describe ISCAP as IS’s regional province covering Somalia, DRC, and Mozambique,” it said. “The group in Somalia has been designated as the command centre for ISCAP, meaning that it is acting as the link between the affiliates in East and Central Africa and IS’s central organization in the Levant.”

Red Cross volunteers in the village of Dhedja bury the bodies of people killed by CODECO militiamen.

Red Cross volunteers in the village of Dhedja bury the bodies of people killed by CODECO militiamen. Alexis Huguet/AFP via Getty Images

IN DECEMBER, a health zone vehicle from the Nyankunde Evangelical Medical Center drove past the road leading to the center and stopped at the major roadway. The bus picked up two patients from the Hema minority tribe, drove them to the clinic, and dropped them back at the same spot on the highway when they were done.

The medical center began the pick-up and drop-off process after last year’s violence. Dr. Warren Cooper, a surgeon and Lindsey’s husband, said they found that patients from minority tribes were afraid to come for treatment. “Tribal animosities still remain between the tribe of Nyankunde and some of the surrounding areas,” Warren said.

It’s one sign of the uneasy calm that still blankets the village, making Warren believe many people are still in survival mode and not yet at a point of healing.

Violence has stalled in Nyankunde, but attacks continue in surrounding communities. Residents say displaced people continue to come into the town, seeking refuge.

Dr. Bungishabaku Katho, a theologian who has worked for nearly two decades on reconciliation, said the conflict and subsequent peace-building efforts must involve the larger community.

“They’re not just out in the forest somewhere,” Katho said of the rebels. “You don’t deal only with the rebels. You deal with the community because they’re coming from the community.”

The fragile peace has also hindered many missionaries from receiving clearance to return to Nyankunde.

The Coopers are serving at a much smaller hospital in a village closer to the Ugandan border. Yet their hearts remain in Nyankunde.

The couple has made short trips back and continues to consult with their colleagues at the medical center through phone calls and photos.

They hope to return full time. Over the years, Warren has operated on ­several battle injuries, giving him a unique opportunity to interact with some rebels.

“We do feel called to work in this area,” he said. “Our prayer is that we can speak to the underlying tribal hatred.”

Refugees camp in a field in southwestern Uganda after fleeing the violence in eastern DRC.

Refugees camp in a field in southwestern Uganda after fleeing the violence in eastern DRC. Nicholas Kajoba/Xinhua via Getty Images

ALTHOUGH MAF moved its base to Bunia, the capital city of Ituri province, after the latest fighting, John Cadd said they have continued to support the local Christian community. The mission has continued to fly Congolese pastors who want to serve in remote areas.

The population in Bunia has also supported the displaced people who have continued to pour in.

“Sometimes the harder things get, the more you feel like it’s important that you’re there,” Cadd said.

Simbilyabo’s radio station has steadily worked to speak peace into the community. He said the station received calls from listeners asking if they can broadcast to more villages.

Once, when the station couldn’t function because it had no power, community members brought kerosene to fuel its generator.

In another sign of its impact, one villager who lost his home and other properties in the recent fighting called the station to share how he worked through forgiving those who hurt him. He now preaches on the station.

“He’s going to study at the Bible school here in Nyankunde,” Simbilyabo said.

Katho has also embraced a direct approach. He returned to Ituri after completing his studies in South Africa, with plans to aid the rebuilding efforts in Nyankunde. His efforts earned him widespread respect, even among the rebels.

His team now speaks with community and rebel leaders, hoping to negotiate living arrangements and reconciliation across the region.

After attending a provincial security council meeting in May, Katho said, he learned the military planned to send in as many as 2,000 troops to clear out the FPIC rebels from the town.

“We didn’t want a confrontation,” he said, because the community was still reeling from the earlier violence. “We managed to convince the local militia to leave.”

The work comes with its risks. Katho was placed under house arrest for four days in January at his home in Bunia after someone accused him of starting a militia group. During his detention, dozens of people steadily streamed into his home, praying and singing.

He sees the risks as part of the uphill battle to end the complicated crisis and bring peace.

But, he said, “there are those who are benefiting from the conflict and don’t want peace.”

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD’s Africa reporter and deputy global desk chief. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University–Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria.



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