The turns in a warlord’s life, and in Congo’s war

The turns in a warlord’s life, and in Congo’s war

Ethnic hatreds and a sense of betrayal help fuel a long and brutal conflict

Published on September 27, 2014

RUSAVE, Congo — The warlord brimmed with anger.

For more than a year, Kasongo Kalomo had ruled this region through guns, beatings and extortion. He then agreed to disarm and, as part of a demobilization program, to join the national army.

But he soon grew suspicious of the government’s motives. He returned here, to the place where he was born, where everyone knew him by his first name only, where other ethnic Hutus would protect him.

It was the latest hairpin turn in a turbulent life and in eastern Congo’s long war. One reason why peace has been so elusive lies in the lives of warlords like Kasongo, united in their quest of power and wealth but divided by ethnic hatreds, mistrust and a sense of abandonment.

Above: Kasongo Kalomo (center, in green shirt), a warlord who once ruled Kivuye, Congo, is pictured with his lieutenants and bodyguards. (Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post)

“I was betrayed by the Congolese army,” Kasongo raged. He had shed his military fatigues for a green Adidas T-shirt and tan jacket. His bodyguards also wore civilian clothes and carried no weapons. They blended seamlessly into the village, making it difficult for outsiders to find them.

When he was 18, he joined the Congolese army. It was 1994, the year of the genocide in neighboring Rwanda and the beginning of the turmoil in Congo, when it was still called Zaire.

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At 20, Kasongo defected to join rebels who ousted the country’s corrupt dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. At 22 he joined another rebel group and fought in a war that primarily involved half a dozen countries and became known as “Africa’s first world war.”

He returned to his village in 2003, several months after a peace deal was signed.

Three years later, a Tutsi-led rebellion widely believed to be backed by Rwanda erupted. Within months, Kasongo helped form the Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance, an ethnic militia known by its French acronym, PARECO.

“They were killing Hutus,” he said. “We had to protect our community.”

In 2009, the Tutsi rebels splintered. Many joined the national army, as did Kasongo and other PARECO fighters who voluntarily disarmed.

But soon, the army began fighting the FDLR, the Rwandan Hutu militia, one of Congo’s most vicious armed groups. In 2011, Kasongo left the military because he “couldn’t support the killing of my own people” and opened a shop in Goma, the provincial capital.

A rebellion erupted the following year, led by Tutsi soldiers who had defected from the army and formed a group called The March 23 Movement or M23, named after the date of a peace treaty that later failed. They were allegedly supported by Rwanda. That summer, Kasongo helped create another militia with the financing of sympathetic Hutu politicians and businessmen. He made himself a colonel, and by the next year the militia, known as the Forces for the Defense of Human Rights, controlled a large swath of territory that included Kivuye.

For more than a year, Kasongo Kalomo had ruled the region through guns, beatings and extortion. (Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post)

Many consider Kasongo a hero for battling against what most people here believe is Rwanda’s meddling in the Congo. His wedding last year in the Catholic church in the town of Mweso attracted dignitaries from around the region and from Goma.

In Kivuye, some villagers also praise him for fighting off the Mai Mai Sheka, a militia accused of mass rapes and beheadings. It is named after its notorious warlord Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, who is wanted on a Congolese arrest warrant for crimes against humanity. In 2010, Sheka ran for a parliamentary seat. Had he been elected, he would have been immune from prosecution.

“If it wasn’t for Kasongo, Sheka would have reached here,” said Celestin Nzabarinda, a village elder in Kivuye.

But most villagers have far less appreciation for Kasongo. His “right-to-life” taxes left them broke, and his fighters beat those who failed to pay. They recruited from the refugee camps and schools. Kasongo denied the allegations and said the villagers willingly paid the taxes to support his men.

In December, after the M23 rebels surrendered, Kasongo and his 486 fighters also agreed to disarm and enter the program to be integrated into the Congolese army.

Days after he left, a rival warlord called Col. Bigirabagabo seized control of Kivuye.

But by spring, Kasongo was a renegade again. The government had disrespected his fighters and not given them adequate medicine or food in the disarmament camp, he said.

So Kasongo and dozens of his men escaped “one by one in the night” and returned to their strongholds.

Seated in a hut where a poster of Congo’s autocrats hung next to a poster of Beyoncé and Jay Z, Kasongo produced a paper showing the mini arsenal of weapons he had handed over: machine guns, Kalashnikov rifles, Chinese-made grenades and mortars. He professed to have given up fighting and said he wants to return to farming. He warned that if the government continues to pursue him, some of his fighters could join Bigirabagabo’s militia for protection.

But nobody in Kivuye believes Kasongo has changed his ways.

“If other militias come to this area, he will find a way to get weapons,” Nzabarinda said. “He has friends in the government.”

The Congolese army’s 804 regiment shares that belief. On a recent day, after moving from Kivuye to other front lines, government soldiers returned to Kasongo’s former bastions. They had been informed that the warlord had no intention of living a peaceful life.

“We hear Kasongo wants to start another militia,” said Lt. Col Gabriel Kangwinoli, without a trace of emotion as he marched with his men through the thick grass.

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About the series

War has plagued eastern Congo for two decades. Millions have died in successive conflicts, some backed by neighboring countries. Dozens of militias have seized entire regions. Deposits of gold, coltan and other natural resources provide perpetual temptation for war. One village - Kivuye - illustrates the plight of ordinary Congolese and their bleak world.