Congolese troops in the city of Beni, tracking down ADF-Nalu rebels. Photo taken on January 15 by Fiston Mahamba Larousse.
 
 
Since July, seven village chiefs have been killed in the Watalinga area, northeast Democratic Republic of Congo. These assassinations, which are the work of a militia called ADF-Nalu, have sent the local population into a panic.
 
The ADF-Nalu is a Ugandan rebel militia whose members are for the most part Muslim. It was formed in 1990 by opponents of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and has become increasingly radical since. Since 2001, the group has been featured on the United States’ list of terrorist organizations. It is suspected of receiving support from al Shabaab Islamists and of trying to control the resources of the northern part of the province of North Kivu. Congolese and Ugandan officials held meetings earlier this week to figure out how to best track down the rebels.
 
The latest assassination took place on January 10 in the village of Kahondo. Beni police estimate that since the beginning of the violence in the summer of 2013, nearly 150,000 people have fled the clashes between the Congolese armed forces (known as the FARDC) and the ADF-Nalu rebels. The Congolese army, backed by troops from the UN’s force on the ground (the Monusco), launched an offensive against the rebels on Friday.

"The chiefs who were killed had refused to give ADF-Nalu access to local resources"

Traditional village chiefs are officially recognized by DR Congo’s constitution. In 2012, the country counted 259 tribal areas, most of them located in the northeast. David Muwazé is the vice president of the tribal area of Watalinga. He is currently in Nobili, one of the three villages in the area where local residents have taken refuge.
 
We already had a displacement problem here due to the fighting between the army and the ADF-Nalu. But it’s become even worse since village chiefs started getting assassinated [Editor’s Note: the first one was killed on July 11, 2013]. The chiefs who were killed had refused to cooperate with the ADF-Nalu, notably on the issue of access to local resources. [The region is rich in gold, coffee, and wood]. In Watalinga, 22 villages out of 25 are now completely empty.
 
Here, village chiefs are the symbol of the state and of stability. They make sure people respect the rule of law, look after their people’s well-being, and contact the security forces if there are any problems… People here have total confidence in the authority and the wisdom of their chiefs. If their chief is killed, they are lost, and feel unsafe. Their only solution is to leave the village.
 
This killings are a way to terrorize Watalinga’s population. Today, tens of thousands of people have massed together in Nobili, as well as in two other villages [Kukura and Mfunvu]. Others have crossed the border to find refuge in Uganda. The humanitarian conditions here are deplorable, and people are traumatized by repeated killings [at least 50 people have been killed in attacks by the rebels since December]. Many people are sleeping outside and don’t even get one meal a day.
 
"We're worried that killing the village chiefs is just the beginning"
 
I’m in constant contact with those village chiefs who have so far been spared. They feel completely powerless, and are very scared both for their own lives and those of their people. I myself am worried about my own security, despite the presence of army troops around Nobili. The only road that connects us to the rest of the country is closed. We’re in limbo – we’re waiting for someone to save us. In the meantime most of us stay shut up at home.
 
Our biggest fear is that the rebels will attack the three villages where people have taken refuge. We’re worried that killing the village chiefs is just the beginning, and that they’re planning a larger extermination.