Bright orange flowers marked the execution spot. The bodies of 11 men of fighting age lay in a heap near a latrine. They had been shot. The 25 women, children and babies lying nearby had suffered much more: They had been hacked to death with machetes and then mutilated.
I witnessed this horrific scene in the Mugunga refugee camp in eastern Congo on a balmy November day in 1996. The passage was from an article I wrote at the time.
The dead were victims of an ethnic Hutu militia called the Interahamwe that spearheaded the 1994 genocide of more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda. The camp was a reservoir of hatred, ruled by the Interahamwe and filled with more than 1 million Rwandan Hutu refugees who had fled advancing Tutsi rebels after the slaughter.
By the end of that day, the extremist militia had fled into the forest. Rwandan Tutsi soldiers who had entered Congo to fight them and dismantle the camp drove the refugees back into Rwanda, a river of humanity in ragged clothes walking toward the border, less than 10 miles away.
But Mugunga remained.
I recently visited the camp for the first time since I was there reporting for the Sunday Times of London nearly two decades ago. It was still a vast, sprawling sea of U.N.-provided tents and tarpaulin ringed by lush green hills. Only now, its residents are Congolese, displaced from their lives and homes by the conflicts that have ripped through their nation since my last visit. Their stories follow the disastrous arc of Congo: the chaos and despair, the numbing violence, the inaction by the government and the world.
“Mugunga is a reflection of Congo, all its bitterness and insecurity,” said Faustin Mahoro, 34, a community leader in the camp who fled his village last year.
This week, one of Congo’s most brutal rebel militias, M23, abandoned its insurgency after several military defeats and pressure from African and Western diplomats. The group’s top commander and about 1,700 of his fighters have surrendered to Ugandan authorities, a Ugandan military official told the Associated Press on Thursday.
Analysts and U.N. officials say the development is a sign of great hope for the Congolese people. But the residents of Mugunga have a different view. The camp illustrates the extensive obstacles to peace and the hard challenges that remain for the Congolese government, the United Nations and the international community.
Most of the 72,000 people who live in Mugunga have been terrorized by at least one of the more than 40 militia and rebel groups that still roam Congo. The fighters rape women and men, commit massacres and force children to become soldiers. They burn down entire villages to control territory and access to Congo’s vast mineral riches, from gold to copper, cobalt to coltan, an ore used in cellphones and other electronics.
The militias are among the reasons that more than 5 million people have died in Congo since 1998, making this vast central African nation, roughly the size of Western Europe, the deadliest killing field since World War II.
“There is still fighting in and around my village,” lamented Celestine Chiza Mushi, who fled her home in the territory of Masisi, northwest of the city of Goma, in April 2012. “We are hiding ourselves in this camp. We are still living in insecurity.”
She came here with her husband and six children. Today, her family lives on flour, beans and corn donated each month by one of the aid agencies working in the camp. It’s not enough to feed her family, she said. So every day she chops firewood in the forest that she sells to families in the camp. Or she walks to Goma, a few miles away, to help unload trucks carrying goods and earn some money.
There’s a sense of permanence to Mugunga. Tents and shacks have been transformed into small restaurants and bars. Tailors and carpenters have set up businesses. Hardly anyone here believes that they will leave anytime soon. When one militia is ousted or leaves an area, another quickly emerges.
Mahoro remembers the exact date that he and his family fled their village after M23 rebels attacked it: Feb. 28, 2012. The M23 forces have since left the area, but other militias with names such as Mai-Mai-Cheka and Mai-Mai-Natura now control it and surrounding areas. They are as lethal, if not more so, than the M23, Mahoro said.
In recent weeks, he has watched with interest as a new U.N. intervention brigade has partnered with the Congolese army to strike at the M23. For years, he has mistrusted the U.N. mission here, which has been widely criticized as not doing enough to protect civilians. The new force, he has heard, is different, willing to fight and dismantle the militias. But how long that could take is anybody’s guess, he said.
For now, Mahoro is certain of only one thing about his life in Congo.
“I don’t think I will be going back home soon,” he said.