Members of the group "Véranda Mutsanga” armed with machetes have started doing daily patrols in Butembo. Photo taken on Oct. 22 by Anselme Wasingya.

After rebel attacks in the past few weeks killed 80 people, residents in numerous cities in the province of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo have set up self-defence groups. These armed militias patrol at night and say that they are compensating for the powerless Congolese army and police force. But not everyone agrees.

Mid-October saw a series of violent attacks by a rebel group in the area around Béni, a city in the west of North Kivu province. On the night of October 15 alone, 30 people were killed by blows from machete and hatchets. While the authorities pointed fingers at the Ugandan rebel group ADF-Nalu, which has rear bases in DR Congo, the Congolese army has not yet confirmed these accusations.

The armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) launched a mass operation in January 2014 to push back the rebels and secure the region. While there are no official figures for the campaign, experts estimate that between 5,000 and 6,000 Congolese soldiers were deployed in the zone, which is located between Goma and the Ugandan border. Despite that, many local citizens, doubting the army’s ability to put an end to the cycle of violence, decided to set up their own self defence groups, especially in the cities of Béni, Oicha and Butembo. This strategy for self-protection was already used in 2009 during the first Kivu war.

Before heading out on patrol, members of a self-defence group light a fire at their headquarters, signifying the start of their operation. Photo by Anselme Wasingya.

"We don’t have official authorisation, but the locals trust us more than the police"

In Butembo, a large city located 50 kilometres from Béni, a group called "Véranda Mustanga" launched a self-defence operation called "Akuna Ku lala,” which means “We don’t sleep” in Swahili. A number of local residents conduct night patrols between 8pm and 4am to chase away potential assailants. Tembos Yotama is a member of this group.

The massacre in Béni turned our world upside-down -- our cities are neighbours and what happened there could easily have happened in Butembo.

Our group has been meeting for the past two years to talk about the local security situation and to provide information to the police to help them arrest thugs. But in light of this exceptional situation, we decided last Saturday to take action by starting daily patrols. We’ll continue as long as insecurity grips the region.

We arm ourselves with machetes, with pointed wooden poles and sharpened pieces of glass bottles in case we are attacked. Our action is non-violent, but we do reserve the right to respond in case of aggression. To avoid confrontations, we make noise by whistling and hitting pots and pans if we come across a suspicious person. We hope the noise will alert local people of danger of potential attackers so that they can flee.
The "vérandistes" patrol with machetes and whistles but they also carry with a wooden cross in memory of the victims in Béni. Photo by Anselme Wasingya.

We don’t have official authorisation from the authorities or the police to do these patrols. Sometimes, we are stopped by police during our recruitment campaigns where we try to get new people to join our patrols [Editor’s note: Véranda Mustanga distributed images of the massacre in Béni as a way to get more people to join their self-defence group.] But, overall, there is a high level of tolerance from the authorities because they know that people trust us more than the traditional forms of security like the army and the police. If the locals see an intruder, they call us before alerting the police.

"These groups aren’t easily distinguishable, which could cause confusion"

The group claims to be made up of roughly 100 members who participate regularly in patrols. They also claim to have been at the origin of the arrests of 20 prisoners who had escaped from prison in Butembo several days before. Tembos Yotoma explains that that other operations have also been launched in different neighbourhoods in the city and that his group manages to more or less organise and coordinate the various militias in order to cover Butembo.

The members pf Véranda Mutsanga display photos of the victims of the massacre in Béni to try and incite Butembo residents to join them. Photo Tembos Yotama.

But some residents have reservations about these groups and their operations. One is Umbo Salama, a journalist and professor in Butembo, who often sees the groups on patrol.

At first, these groups were very useful for alerting the neighbourhood to any trouble. These days, it has become much more complicated because there are too many groups that walk by outside the houses at night and there is no way to distinguish one from another. There is a major risk of confusion and the possibility, also, that this could result in rivalries or even clashes between different groups.

While the initiative itself was commendable, now there is the fear that ill-intentioned people could use these self-defence groups for their own personal ends.

When the groups go door-to-door for collections, they also ask that each family in Butembo participate in the security effort by allowing their children, often very young, to take part in the patrols. Those who refuse can be stigmatized or forced to give money to pay for batteries for the torches carried by the patrollers, or to give them coffee to keep them awake. Indirectly, these groups, which exist to help with the security situation, actually contribute to the overall feeling of fear in the city.
The local authorities in Butembo contacted by FRANCE 24 had mixed opinions about these patrols. While some officials described them as “an example of dynamic and patriotic young people,” others admitted that they had banned these groups in their areas, calling them "disguised pressure groups formed at the approach of the municipal elections in 2015.”

During a meeting last Wednesday, the mayor of Butembo encouraged these groups to “put an end to their activities” or be faced with sanctions.

The "vérandistes" dance around a fire to give themselves courage and inspiration before heading out on patrol. Photo by Anselme Wansingya.

Photos from Anselme Wasingya. Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Alexandre Capron (@alexcapron).