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In Sight

‘We are fighters, too’

Women of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo

GOMA, Congo — Since the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide fled into eastern Congo, the region has been consumed by war. Armed groups proliferated, some from Rwanda and others locally born, and now there are more than 120 operating in North and South Kivu provinces alone. Those armed, including militias called Mai-Mai and rebel forces, battle for land control against or alongside the government military. Many are small and protect just one or two villages, while others have merged and grown big enough to hold entire ranges of hills.

When women are mentioned in stories about Congo, it’s often as civilian victims of war-related rape. But women have always inhabited a much wider set of roles. In the country’s many fighting forces, women work as combatants, child-care attendants, medics, cooks and spies.

And their battles exist beyond just the front lines.

Photojournalist Allison Shelley traveled multiple times to eastern Congo between 2014 and 2018. There, she interviewed and photographed dozens of female fighters living in a time of great change for their country. This photo essay, “We are fighters, too,” tells their stories.

Mutuwimana Aimerance, 24

“I realized that I was ready to die if they caught me, and that’s when I left.”

Mutuwimana Aimerance grew up in a poor family and joined a rebel group alongside other women. She said she remembers her excitement when she was first handed a gun. "There were battles in which we ran out of ammunition and had to use machetes,” Aimerance said. “We would stand a few meters away from them, hurling insults until someone started combat.”

Eventually, she ran away from her rebel group, only to be intercepted by another armed group. She and a friend were nearly beaten to death before being rescued by the government army.

Sylvie Okito, 35

“Women are strong. … You have to respect yourself first. Then others will respect you.”

Sylvie Okito, a legal adviser to the government army, and her husband, a major and senior accountant, have an infant son. She joined the army after five years of university study and a two-year military internship. She believes in empowering soldiers, particularly women, through education. “There are female ministers, parliamentarians,” she said, “and in the army we are represented as well.”

Her job involves solving disputes with soldiers across the country. "Men and women, we are equal, we are colleagues,” Okito said. “You are a man carrying an AK-47; I am a woman carrying an AK-47. When they say shoot, we both shoot. Why should there be a distinction between us?”

Judith Amani, 32

“Men are scared of us. They think we'll wake up in the night and kill them.”

When Judith Amani was a girl, her village was often attacked by a Rwandan rebel group that spilled into Congo in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. They beat her father many times. Her brother was dead. She was the only one who could fight back. Amani eventually took up arms — but under circumstances that stole some of her autonomy.

At 17, she said, she was raped by soldiers from the Mai-Mai group she wished to join. The assault made her “lose all value” in the eyes of her village, she said. The group took her in, and she became a fighter with jobs that included carrying those wounded in battle, burying the dead or, if the fighting was too intense, hiding the bodies.

Janine Bisimwa, 40

“The war has absolutely changed me. It's taken everything.”

Janine Bisimwa was barely a teenager in the early 1990s when she said life as she knew it began to crumble. “I didn’t even know there was a war,” she said. “I saw only when groups from Rwanda started arriving in our village." The civil war in neighboring Rwanda first sent refugees, then armed rebel groups, and then war itself across the border.

Eventually, Bisimwa left an abusive spouse to join one of the Mai-Mai groups that brought conflict to her village. “I wasn’t concerned by their ideology or politics. I think the violence that I went through with my husband was much harder,” she said. Joining the militia was “good,” she said, “because even if I was beaten but eating, I went to sleep well fed.”

Claudine Chantale Maimuna, 31

“It pained my heart to fight with a group that killed my family. But I had no other choice.”

Claudine Chantale Maimuna was hiding with her sister in her family’s home in Goma when rebel fighters took the city in 2012. The soldiers forced her parents, brother and two older sisters outside and killed them, she said. They raped Claudine and her little sister, she said, then the soldiers forced the girls to join them.

“I was very scared,” she said. “I thought I would be killed as well.” Claudine was a medic for the rebel group, mostly cleaning wounds but at times fighting. In one battle, three fighters were killed alongside her. So was her sister.

Jasmine Zawade Likoko, 41

“I felt that the only way I could contribute or to fight back was to join an armed group.”

Jasmine Zawade Likoko — the daughter of a Congolese Hutu and a Rwandan Tutsi — never went to school. Her dad died when she was young, leaving her, her mother and her brother destitute.

So she joined a Mai-Mai militia and for three years worked in logistics, intelligence and food preparation. Sometimes she also fought. "There were Tutsis who wanted to kick out anyone with Hutu blood, and others telling us we were Rwandan and not Congolese because of our Tutsi blood,” Likoko said. “So we took up arms to fight against all of them."

Julienne Nsimire, 33

“Once I was shot, but the bullet never entered my body because of the magic.”

Julienne Nsimire fought with a Mai-Mai militia for seven years before it was absorbed into the government army and she was demobilized. She has considered joining another force because she could not find a job. "I preferred my time as a soldier,” she said, “because civilian life is so complicated."

In the militia she was a magic bearer, a role typically reserved for women. These ceremonial practices are commonly perceived to summon protective powers for soldiers and are essential to the war experience in Congo. Nsimire says she wore a special belt that protected her from bullets.

Capt. Fanni Katora, 35

“My goal was to change the regime and bring liberation for the Congo.”

Capt. Fanni Katora first joined a rebel group as a 13-year-old in 1996 and was among the first fighters to enter Kinshasa to oust then-president Mobutu Sese Seko. "Once you join the army you are a soldier,” she said, “not a woman."

Above Katora’s left eye is a visible scar from an injury she suffered in a car crash. She was on her way to the hospital with a battle wound when the vehicle flipped over. Now, Fanni is a mother of two and captain in the government army.

Nyere Benjamine Neema, 34

“The local villagers were so scared of us that they wouldn't sell us out.”

When Nyere Benjamine Neema’s husband joined a Mai-Mai militia, he worried their family’s proximity to the front line would be too dangerous for his unarmed wife. So she became a spy in the same fighting force.

She was among about 40 other women in the force. The female spies would “dress smartly and go into the villages to share a drink with people from the other armed group,” Neema said. She and her husband have been married for more than a decade and are raising eight children.

Capt. Rebecca Bandu, 39

“We are more dangerous than men.”

“If we are lazy or take ourselves for granted, men underestimate us,” Capt. Rebecca Bandu said, “so we have to be so strong.” She lead an all-female unit of the government army. For Bandu, signing up for the military was an empowering choice.

“I was married to a man; the man abandoned me,” she said. “After the divorce, I decided to join the army, so men cannot play with me anymore.”

Allison Shelley is an independent documentary photographer whose work focuses primarily on social justice issues as they relate to women worldwide. She is co-founder and acting director of Women Photojournalists of Washington, former staff photographer for The Washington Times and previously director of photography for Education Week newspaper.

She reported “We are fighters, too” with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International Reporting Project.