Elias Nagwano is Congolese. In 2012, when a new war breaks out, he is a 25-year-old businessman. His life is overturned when he is directly targeted by government forces and rebel militias, and endures torture. He tells us how war crimes made it necessary for him to flee his country.
It happened in 2012. My country, Congo-Kinshasa, was already one of the richest and least governed states in the world. The province where I was born, Sud-Kivu, hosts some extremely valuable, extremely sought-after deposits of natural resources. For a very long time, my city has been held hostage, back and forth between rebels and the government forces who foght them. Every time, the civilians were the ones who paid the heaviest price. Nevertheless, though, before 2012, things were going well. I had a profitable business. My brothers and I had a shop where we sold groceries and supplies to people in the neighbourhood — wheat flour, manioc, oil, canned goods… As the shopkeeper, I was a public figure in the community. People came to borrow money from me, to ask for advice…I was supporting several families so they could pay their youngest children’s school fees, and every day brought in a bit more than the day before.
Even if the country had been bogged down for years in a latent civil war, we managed pretty well. Like everyone else, we would have liked it if the government had invested more in roads, provided us with a bit more electricity and sent qualified teachers to our schools. But at that time, the only political demands being made were those of the rebel groups, who jealously guarded their monopoly on such things, berating the “lazy government” in Kinshasa, the capital. In our region, the M23 rebel group had started to run rampant. The M23 was an organized group of former rebels who were supposed to have been reintegrated into the regular Congolese army in 2009, but not even three years after the peace accord, they mutinied and threatened to overturn the government. Then they started stirring up trouble near where we lived. They hoped that by taking control of the city, they could buy the residents’ support, extort resources and money from them and recruit the young people to join their ranks as child soldiers. Businesspeople like me were their favourite targets, because they wanted to take advantage of our influence. At the beginning, the M23 guys came to ask me, almost politely, if I would finance their operations and spread their ideology to the young people. I smelled a rat and didn’t agree. We didn’t really believe in their “liberation” project, and we hoped that the area would eventually be restored to government control. It was only a matter of time. If we gave in and allied ourselves with the M23, then the regular army would be the ones accusing us of aiding and abetting the enemy — accusing me and my family. It was too risky.
But the regular army never came, and I couldn’t keep sending the rebels and their demands away forever. They kept coming to see me; every time there were more of them, and every time they were more heavily armed. They came at all hours, they threatened me, they even beat me up in broad daylight. I didn’t give in, but I felt that they weren’t going to stop in their efforts to force me to collaborate. Then, suddenly, they changed tactics. Instead of humiliating people and beating them up in public, they started kidnapping people. People were locked up in secret locations for days at a time, deprived and tortured. There were more and more kidnappings, and some of us didn’t survive. We had proof that anything could change at any time, that they wouldn’t hesitate to attack our relatives to make us change our minds. When I finally managed to make it home, I saw houses that had been reduced to ash, mothers with children who had become widows. They didn’t dare explain that they had been raped, some as their families watched, that as they were being humiliated, their husbands and youngest children had been killed, and those children who were old enough to go to war with the rebels had been taken away. Some families managed to run away after learning that others had been found dead. The M23 killed people. Just like that. For nothing. To spread fear in our neighbourhoods. And they did — we were all scared.
And then, one fine day, the moment we had all been waiting for arrived. The army regained control of the city. We were celebrating, hoping that the army would catch and punish the rebels. But it was too late. It only took a few hours for the M23 to vanish into the bush, leaving the government with nobody to punish. Kinshasa had to get the rebels, annihilate them, take back control at any cost. Unable to find any rebels, the government intelligence agents started to look around for their accomplices. The atmosphere changed from one of relief to one of mistrust. Everyone became a suspect — especially those who had been away for long periods without explanation, who came back and who kept to themselves, those who the neighbours had begun to fear. I had been in M23 custody for long periods, and a ball of terror settled in my stomach at the idea of telling people what they put us through; that was enough for the agents to consider me an accomplice of the first degree, and to try to get a confession out of me.
I was hoping for reparations, but all I got from them was a new wave of violence. Accused of treason, I was once again kidnapped, locked up and tortured. They needed evidence, names, places, any information that would allow them to pick up the trail of the M23 guys. They needed to use force against someone, to prove to the people of a terrified city that they were liberating them from the invaders and punishing their accomplices. For days on end, their violence answered my silence, their mercy answered my admissions. Once they had finished beating me, I was almost dead. They thought they were getting rid of a body, throwing it away in the bush. I’m telling you this now, but I don’t remember it myself. I was half dead when a group of nuns found me, lying in the bush, and drove me to hospital. I recovered, slowly. I still didn’t know what had happened to my parents and my brothers and sisters, but I knew I couldn’t just go back home and start living a normal life again. I couldn’t be free while the government was still on the hunt for alleged M23 accomplices. If I hid in the bush, I would be going back into lawless rebel territory; I couldn’t stay there. As soon as I had the strength to move, I left everything behind and headed for the eastern border. For the first time, I set foot on Ugandan soil. Once a Congolese citizen, I was now an asylum seeker. That’s how my exile began.
In collaboration with Lou Thaller
Translated from French by Ruby Pratka