Kidnapped by one side, maimed by the other: One teenager’s ordeal in Congo war

Innocent Bizimana had his left leg amputated after a shell exploded in front of him.
Innocent Bizimana had his left leg amputated after a shell exploded in front of him.

Summary

A new offensive by a Rwanda-backed militia and the government’s controversial response have civilians caught in the middle.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo—The pain that seared through Innocent Bizimana’s body was almost impossible to describe. Looking down his lanky frame, the 18-year-old saw his left leg torn to pieces, his foot askew, hanging on by shreds of flesh and skin. His lower right leg was perforated by shrapnel from the shell that had just exploded in front of him.

Scattered around Bizimana lay the remains of three older members of the militia that had kidnapped him in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo last fall and forced him to join their ranks.

“I was the only one who survived," said Bizimana, slumped on a government hospital bed in the city of Goma on Congo’s border with Rwanda eight weeks after the explosion, his left leg now amputated halfway down the thigh. An array of silver metal screws held together the shattered bones of his right shin.

This month, politicians from around the globe gathered in Congo’s smaller neighbor Rwanda to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the country’s 1994 genocide. Among them was Bill Clinton, who has counted it among the failures of his presidency. 

French President Emmanuel Macron in a video message acknowledged that France lacked the political will to stop the massacres, which began when ethnic Hutus blamed Tutsis for shooting down a plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu president.

More than 800,000 men, women and children, most of them Tutsis, were killed in a government-orchestrated campaign.

Less known is what is happening across the border, in eastern Congo, where people like Bizimana, who was 17 when he was abducted, still fall prey to the horrors that began three decades ago.

Deep roots

When the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by now-president Paul Kagame, took control in July 1994 and effectively ended the genocide, some two million Rwandan Hutus fled into eastern Congo to escape a spate of reprisal attacks. Intermingled with them were former officials of Rwanda’s ousted government and many of the perpetrators of the massacres.

But their arrival in a region with its own large Hutu and Tutsi population set off a fresh series of conflicts. No one knows for sure how many were killed or how many lives are still being lost. Relief agencies estimate some six million people have died, many of them from hunger and disease exacerbated by the violence. Congo’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, says as many as 10 million people have been killed.

In the years after the genocide, Rwanda’s military, supported by other regional governments, twice invaded Congo to contain what it said were threats to its national security and local Tutsi populations from Hutu militants. 

Local power brokers and dozens of militias have taken advantage of the instability to grab a share of the region’s natural riches—gold, tin, tungsten and coltan, frequently found in smartphones and laptops—and often smuggle them to Rwanda.

Now Rwanda is getting involved again—this time, say the United Nations, the U.S. and the Congolese government, by supporting a Tutsi militia engaged in a sweeping new offensive. Named the March 23 Movement, or the M23, after a failed 2009 peace plan, its advance has driven more than 1.5 million Congolese from their homes since 2022, swelling the number of those displaced by the cycle of violence.

“This aggression is happening for economic reasons, to pillage the resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo," Tshisekedi said in an interview from his office in the capital, Kinshasa. He said Rwanda’s close relationship with the West has shielded it from the kind of sanctions that were imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

“If this isn’t double standards, tell me what is," he said.

The Rwandan government deflects questions on whether it is supporting the M23, and says it is defending itself against Hutu militants sheltering in Congo. U.N. investigators say Rwanda has equipped the M23 with weapons and deployed large numbers of its own troops and surface-to-air missiles to help fight the Congolese army.

“What we’re doing is actively defending our territorial integrity," Yolande Makolo, Rwanda’s government spokeswoman, said in an interview. “We do not need M23 to do this. They’re fighting for their own cause, we are fighting to keep our borders safe."

Scars of the past

The response of Tshisekedi’s government has also drawn criticism. U.N. investigators say the Congolese army has been secretly arming and coordinating its operations with a collection of local armed groups to push back the M23, effectively setting up a proxy war with Rwanda. Tshisekedi says the groups are organizing themselves to defend their communities.

The alliance, known collectively as the Wazalendo, the Swahili word for “patriots," includes groups that are under international sanctions for war crimes, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Hutu militia that has launched attacks against Rwanda.

The U.N. and rights groups say the M23 and the Wazalendo are both now recruiting child soldiers, raping women and girls and committing other abuses. Caught in the middle are Congolese civilians such as Innocent Bizimana.

Growing up with his parents and four younger siblings, Bizimana, a Congolese Hutu, knew to stay away from the men with guns that hid in the forests around his village near the Rwandan border. The adults told stories of children kidnapped by armed groups. Some never returned. Others came back haunted by what they saw.

“We were always scared when we went into the bush," he recalled. “Normally when we saw armed men we would run."

Last fall, Bizimana was still finishing primary school, his education held back by conflict and his parents’ struggles to pay his fees. When he wasn’t in class, he looked after the family’s small herd of goats, often accompanied by a close friend. Justin, who was also 17, was with him the day a group of men armed with Kalashnikov rifles ordered them to follow them into the bush. It was the beginning of a monthslong ordeal.

“We were just unlucky," Bizimana said.

Some of those press-ganged into the militias are far younger. In 2022, the first year of the M23 offensive, the United Nations Children Fund verified the recruitment of 1,545 children—some as young as five—by armed groups in Congo. It warned that its official statistics were a gross undercount of the actual scale of the problem.

Provisional figures for 2023 suggest that verified cases of child recruitment were up by at least 20%, Unicef says. Congolese officials say some join up out of a lack of opportunity and frustration over the recurring violence that defines their lives.

Other regional governments, first from East Africa and now from Southern Africa, have sent soldiers to help defeat the M23, but without success. Tshisekedi’s government has also declined to renew the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping force, which has been ineffective in stanching the bloodletting since it arrived in 1999. 

This month, the first of more than 16,000 U.N. troops withdrew from two southern bases, although many observers expect them to remain in the areas hit by the M23 offensive beyond December.

Bizimana said the men who abducted him and his friend were part of the Wazalendo coalition. After marching them through the bush for two days, Bizimana said the men confined them at a base deep in the bush belonging to their faction, the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo.

For four months, the two didn’t see much of the war and none of the fighters told them why they were taken. The men, Bizimana says, would boast of their battlefield exploits, while he and Justin kept looking for ways to return to their families.

“We tried to come up with a plan to flee, but we couldn’t find one," he said.

In late January, an M23 attack killed and injured several members of the militia. The survivors handed Bizimana and Justin a Kalashnikov rifle each and, after a quick demonstration of how to use the weapons, split them into two separate troops and sent them into the bush.

Hours later, the mortar hit.

A future at risk

The M23 is now within 15 miles from the outskirts of Goma—deepening fears that the group could take the lakeside city of some two million people, like it did during its last major offensive in 2012. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have sought refuge in makeshift camps, often sleeping directly on the region’s distinctive black volcanic rocks. Lack of proper sanitation has caused outbreaks of cholera and many residents say they only eat once a day—if at all.

Wazalendo have taken up positions on hills outside the camps and are now themselves a threat to the civilians there. Drunk Wazalendo fighters have fired weapons at residents and, according to health workers in the camps, are known to slip into women’s tents when it rains and rape them.

In recent weeks, misfired M23 mortars targeting Wazalendo positions have landed in several camps, killing and injuring residents.

Nene Morisho, a senior researcher with the Goma-based Pole Institute, which works on conflict resolution, says the situation is worse than it has been since the 1996 Rwanda-backed invasion that ousted Congo’s longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. “We are seeing nearly the same level of violence, the same level of suffering and the same level of over-militarization of the region," he said.

At the Goma hospital, doctors say they have treated nearly 400 war-wounded patients since Feb. 1, when the M23 advanced to within 15 miles outside Goma, compared with around 600 in all of 2022.

The Red Cross has helped boost the hospital’s capacity from 64 beds to 146 by constructing tents in the courtyard. But the fighting has closed down hospitals in territory now held by the M23 and patients often arrive on the backs of motorbikes, in private cars or carried by relatives, overwhelming the meager facilities.

Around 40% of those injured have been wounded by heavy weapons, including mortars and artillery shells that are now being used by each of the warring sides. Over the past three months, doctors at the hospital have performed more than a dozen amputations—including Bizimana’s left leg and the foot of a three-month-old baby—compared with two or three a year previously.

Experts and international officials worry that Kinshasa’s support for local armed groups is planting the seeds for decades of further conflict. Wazalendo fighters, frustrated by the mounting death toll in their ranks, regularly fire at positions of the Congolese army they are supposed to support. Documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal show similar Wazalendo attacks against bases of U.N. peacekeepers.

“When the Wazalendo rise, it will make what is happening now with the M23 like a hurriedly arranged Sunday school concert," one international security official said. “That is my biggest fear right now."

Bizimana is still struggling to deal with sometimes unbearable pain from his injured right leg. He doesn’t know his parents’ phone number or whether they remain in their village or have themselves been displaced.

Until he finds a way to reach them, he says, he can’t think about what the future will hold in eastern Congo for a young man missing a leg. “I just want to try to find my family and live with them."

He said he has no idea of what became of his friend, Justin.

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