Christmas Fear in the Heart of Africa

Marcel Stoessel visits the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where people terrorised by the Lord’s Resistance Army live in fear.

A house abandoned during an LRA attack. Photo: Marcel Stoessel/Oxfam
A house abandoned during an LRA attack. Photo: Pierre Peron/Oxfam

Last week I travelled to the geographic centre of Africa, the rainforest and savannah lands of north east Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s an area where the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) roams in small groups, killing, mutilating, abducting, stealing from, and terrorising the local population. It took days to get to Niangara, one of the most remote field bases that Oxfam runs.

Hundreds of thousands of people in this region still can’t return home, including the survivors of the Christmas massacres of 2009, when more than 350 were brutally killed, and more than 250 kidnapped in just four days. On the anniversary of the attack on 14 December, together with the community we honoured the dead with a minute of silence followed by speeches in which the people who can’t return home expressed feeling forgotten by their own government and by the international community.

An Oxfam Well in Niangara. Photo: Marcel Stoessel/Oxfam
Oxfam-constructed well in Niangara. Photo: Pierre Peron/Oxfam.

The next day, we drove north to a town called Nambia. We passed many empty, abandoned villages and an 8km stretch of road dubbed “le couloir de la mort” – the corridor of death. Most people had fled Nambia, but about 5,000 brave people remain. Oxfam has rehabilitated water points in this area, significantly reducing the danger of death, rape or abduction for women, who no longer have to walk miles and miles to fetch water.

An Oxfam meeting in Nambia. Photo: Marcel Stoessel/Oxfam
An Oxfam meeting in Nambia. Photo: Pierre Peron/Oxfam

But people still face the same threat when they venture out to their fields. This is more relevant than ever at this time of the year: as the harvesting season starts, survival for the months ahead depends on safe access to the fields. Our meeting with the community was sad and tense. They feel unprotected, dispensable: “How long will we have to live in fear?” they asked me. “We keep telling our stories, but when will the world do something?” One middle-aged man wondered aloud “if our president even knows Nambia exists,” looking at me intently as if the eye contact would increase his chances for a dignified life.

I promised the community that Oxfam is doing everything it can to bring this unacceptable situation to the attention of the world. Shortly afterwards, I found myself being interviewed over satellite phone by the BBC, Radio France International and Voice of America, and on many Congolese radio and TV stations. On 17 December, the last day of last year’s massacres, I get three minutes of speaking time via video-link to members of the Security Council in New York. Will anyone be listening to the voices of ordinary women and men from Nambia? One thing is sure: the people living in the heart of Africa will be praying to be heard this Christmas.

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