"If you don’t behave, we’ll skin you and no one will know”, says one of the men dressed in suits. It is Monday 16 March, 4 PM, and I find myself surrounded after just having left a meeting in the neighbourhood of Bon Marché, one of Kinshasa’s central districts. About twelve men in neat suit-and-tie have suddenly materialized out of four black cars parked alongside the street. In a flash I am handcuffed and thrown into one of the cars.
I could have expected this. I am not supposed to be in this country, the DRC, after having left years ago because the stories I pursued were irking the authorities. “These articles have too much truth”, as an editor once told me. I found refuge in Australia, but still come back to my country, the DRC, to search for more truths. I guess this kind of thing can then happen.
There is ‘too much truth’ in my articles, an editor once told me
Two men sit on either side of me, silently pointing their revolvers at my temples. "We are ANR agents, sir”, the one in the front passenger seat says, mockingly politely. The ANR is the Agence Nationale des Renseignements, the secret service. “We have wanted to arrest you ever since Kintambo.” Kintambo is a suburb where I had had a meeting earlier. “It’s only that we wanted you to have your next meeting as well. But now you must know that you are arrested.”
While we drive off the man on my left starts to talk. "You’ll have lots of questions about what is going to happen to you tonight, but you mustn’t think you are as lilywhite as Monsignor Meena.” Monsignor Meena is the Catholic Archbishop of Kinshasa, a vocal opponent of the regime. “Monsignor Meena is the only saint here.” The men laugh and he continues: “You can’t run all over the world dirtying the image of this country to please your Western friends and think that you are without any sin.”
The convoy moves towards the People's Palace, the parliamentary office for the Lingwala area and I am worried because I know that there is no ANR office in that direction. “Are the handcuffs hurting you?” The man on my right seems suddenly concerned. “You must know that it will hurt more if you move.” Actually, it hurts quite a bit. One of my wrists is bleeding.
“You can’t run all over the world dirtying the image of this country”
We enter Kasa-Vubu, a district with lots of bars and restaurants. I notice that two of the cars in our convoy are no longer there. Meanwhile I am getting another lesson in good behaviour. "If you are good, we can free you tonight.” The two cars come to a stop in front of a bar from where music is blaring loudly. “We are intellectuals, not like the police,” says the first one of my captors. “We will now remove your handcuffs because it isn’t necessary that everybody knows. We can see that you are a responsible person.” As he takes the cuffs off I am beckoned to sit down with them in a corner of the bar. “We are just going to sit here and negotiate for a bit. Just be good to us and you’ll be free. You know that if we take you to the ANR cells, you’ll easily sit there for six months and get tortured every day, without anybody knowing what happened to you.”
There, in our isolated corner, amidst the blaring music, within earshot of patrons drunk out of their wits, I hand over all my money, my laptop and my passport.
My captors have made good on their word. They have abandoned me to walk the streets of Kinshasa without a penny. It is 2 AM before I reach the house of a friend who is able to loan me some money to rent a safe room elsewhere. I stay underground for a few days with only the friend knowing where I am. I change phone numbers and see people only at public places during peak hours. I don’t even visit my mom anymore, which of course worries her: why am I in Kinshasa, if not to pay her regular visits? I haven’t even told her I am still working as a journalist. After the threats chased me from the country my mom had kept telling me not to go back to ‘that dangerous profession.’ I feel bad for brushing her off and continuously repeating “all is well mum,” but I can’t tell her what has happened. She is a widow and alone, her life is difficult enough.
In my new room of safety, my friend and I reflect on the state of our nation, our Democratic Republic of Congo. This is a place where one is attacked for ‘dirtying the country’s image’, but where, remarkably, the attackers don’t actually care about that. They don’t try to make the country better. They didn’t even try to force me to write differently. They just laughed at me and robbed me. They knew they were agents of a state of thieves and they did not care.
They knew they were agents of a state of thieves and did not care
This is, in a way, the same chilling truth that I came to seek much earlier this month, when I entered the country from elsewhere in the region. I had used a rather porous border precisely to avoid official registration and surveillance. I knew the authorities had not taken kindly to my articles on corruption in the mining sector, the ruthless exploitation of the wealth of Virunga national park, Parliament’s failure to control the management of public affairs, or the ‘legal’ loopholes in our laws that allow for ever- increasing plunder of the nation by our elite.
Local Congolese media had refused to publish my stories. Most had cited ‘security fears’ save for the one editor who had, remarkably, stated that there was ‘too much truth’ in them. I had started to publish my articles independently, in French and English, on my own news website Wealth Magazine and had established some international links –among others with ZAM. Our rulers liked that even less.
This time I had come to investigate the Congolese military generals and police and secret service top brass who, it seemed, used western ‘peacekeeping support’ budgets to enrich themselves. The question in my mind was if these Generals’ mansions and expensive cars were just perks of the job or, rather, the goal of it? Did they benefit so much from war that they were not even trying for peace?
It didn’t seem too far-fetched as a hypothesis. War is after all still going on in my country after more than a decennium of peacekeeping, UN operations, and multilateral rebel containment programmes. Are our security forces so cynical as to benefit from war just so they could build another villa? The men who shook me down behaved in a similar way. They benefited from their privileged position as security officials to enrich themselves.
The second reason I was here was to establish a permanent investigative team for Central Africa, to work with me and Wealth Magazine from the DRC and its neighbouring countries.
I had managed to stay undetected for two weeks, but that period of bliss was now clearly over. I needed to get back to Australia and try another trip to Congo at a later stage.
The next day, after making a statement at the police station for the insurance, I make my way to the Canadian Embassy. This Embassy represents the interests of Australian nationals and residents in the DRC. The nice people there try to help by contacting the ANR directly and complaining about their agents. But these were not ANR agents, comes the answer. They were ‘isolated criminals’ and ‘fake agents.’ Regrettably the ‘real’ ANR can’t do anything to help find these criminals.
According to the secret service head office, these were ‘isolated criminals and ‘fake agents’
That was in itself remarkable. The ‘fake’ agents had detected me entering the country in an ‘unofficial’ way, in a rural area, and had been able to follow my movements for two weeks. But the real ANR, with all its money, vehicles, and spying equipment cannot find twelve men in suits who are pretending to be ANR personnel and who go around kidnapping people whilst driving around in a convoy in the country’s capital? It is often difficult in the DR to distinguish between real state officials and criminals posing as state officials. The categories are just too intertwined.
"These gentlemen are exactly like your corrupt generals," says an acquaintance, an expert on military issues and security in DRC, to whom I narrate my ordeal. Can’t you see? The police, the traffic officials, the immigration officers, the secret service, the military. They all protect their networks. And they all benefit from impunity. In the case of the generals, you know that they even protect the rebels they are supposed to be fighting.”
“These gentlemen are exactly like your corrupt generals”
I am aware that our corrupt generals have been accused of engaging in such, let’s call it alliances of convenience. United Nations reports on the armed conflict in our mineral-rich East have highlighted such ‘smuggling’ friendships, which have culminated in actual military assistance from Congolese army bigwigs to rebel groups they are formally at war with. Old kinship between different ethnicities and regional origins in the region, and in our amalgamated army, also plays a role. With central command in Kinshasa negligent or completely absent, all military parties in the region regroup on the basis what is most beneficial to them in the here and now.
Earlier this month, the UN tried to get Kinshasa to do something about the military mess in the eastern Congo. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reported that he had asked the DRC government to replace two army generals who had been accused of human rights violations in the region. He explained that the UN human rights policy forbade its peacekeeping force to fight in an alliance with known war criminals. Whether Joseph Kabila was unwilling to do that, or whether he has long lost authority over the army, I don’t know. But the government issued a statement rebuking Ban Ki-moon, stating most tersely that it was the prerogative of the sovereign Democratic Republic of Congo to decide who should be a general and where and that “the DRC (was) not under the guardianship of the UN or anyone else”. The government army then launched an attack on FDLR rebels without the UN.
The government refused to replace the generals who had been accused of human rights violations
I guess it will be a while before I can get to the region and find out more about the generals I am interested in.
I manage to leave the country with a false identity document (they are not difficult to acquire in Kinshasa) and an invite from a friend to come and join her in Nairobi to ‘get married’. It works, even though I spend a few extremely nervous hours trying to stop suspicious immigration officials at Jomo Kenyatta airport, who don’t believe that a passport could be ‘that much unstamped,’ to send me back. I don’t consider telling them the truth about my predicament as a political refugee from a neighbouring country. I would likely be sent back immediately or jailed.
Thank the gods for the internet: the officials decide to let me in after googling me and seeing that I have international press links and contacts -‘white friends’, as my captors in Kinshasa said.
When I make it to the Australian embassy in the hope to finally receive some help –I am after all an official resident in that country- a new nightmare comes up. Since I don’t live in Kenya, my application for a new Australian passport must be co-signed by a person who lives here; who has known me well for at least twelve months and who can vouch for my good behaviour. The person must also be a professional, with a regular income and a good reputation.
The day of my arrival in Nairobi is the day of the Garissa attack
I don’t know many such people in Nairobi. Only journalists. But at dawn after my arrival, on 2 April 2015, all my journalist friends have something else on their minds. From 5 o’clock this morning, gunmen have been shooting students at Garissa University in the east. 147 young students are dead, executed by Al Shabaab. My journalist friends are in Garissa, recording survivors’ statements amid the screams and tears, filming blood, filming parents’ desperate searches for their children, counting bodies. I know that some of the colleagues I was thinking of asking for help are themselves marked by violence and death, hailing from communities and families that have seen way too much blood and suffering. In Kenya, too, top brass is living the good life whilst people die.
The war in Somalia and the related violence in Kenya’s border regions remind me in a number of ways of the spiral of violence in the East in my country. Here, too, social media carry desperate, tearful ‘J’accuse’s’ against the own national government. The newest massacre is, like others in the recent past, said to be the fruit of corruption, where money is not spent on security but on mansions and cars. Here, too, commentators point out that fat, wealthy top military and security brass didn’t act on intelligence warnings. Key security commanders in the area are even said to take bribes from Al Shabaab insurgents in exchange for passivity. It all sounds way too familiar.
In spite of their difficult jobs today my friend Kassim Mohamed and others do also try to help me with my ‘guarantor’ letter. They send me some names, some contacts on Facebook; it is all they can do.
The next day, Good Friday, more death is revealed in Kinshasa. A mass grave in the Fula-Fula graveyard in Maluku, on the rural outskirts of my home town and discovered by locals, is said to contain 425 bodies. According to a spokesperson for the government these were “just corpses for which there wasn’t sufficient place in the mortuary.” But my sources tell me that some have been identified as activists who participated in marches in January this year, held to protest against a third term for president Joseph Kabila.
The United Nations’ Radio Okapi reports that Belgium will fund a UN investigation into the matter of the mass grave.
The Australian Embassy, meanwhile is closed for Easter.
Eric Mwamba is a Congolese investigative journalist who won international acclaim for, among other stories, his reports on the Ivorian cocoa mafia, the international trade in young African football players and, most recently, his deep-digging exposure of the system of corruption that reigns in the DRC. He is a member of ZAM's partner, the African Investigative Publishing Collective.