EXCLUSIVE: Congo-Brazzaville’s hidden war

IRIN documents the humanitarian toll of a little-known 20-month conflict

SOUMOUNA, 18 January 2018, by Philip Kleinfeld

The shells of burnt-out vehicles rust in the rain and crumbling houses poke out through the overgrown brush. The village of Soumouna in Congo-Brazzaville’s southern Pool region lies empty and guarded by soldiers, but there’s undeniable evidence of what happened here 20 months ago.

Isma Nkodia, 25, said she was passing through the vllage at four in the afternoon when government helicopters laid it to waste.

At first she thought the attack would be over quickly: just as soon as the pilots had found and destroyed the residence of the rebel leader they were hunting.

But an hour later Nkodia still lay crouched in the forest fearing death as the bombs kept falling and the village she had known since childhood turned into dust and rubble.

“They wanted to destroy everything,” she said.

It’s a scene of devastation that can be found in village after village across the Pool region, where a hidden conflict between the government and a previously dormant militia called the Ninjas has left tens of thousands displaced and entire districts deserted.

A neglected crisis

IRIN was granted rare access to the region, and was able to document the toll of the 20-month conflict. The violence here has played out with little international attention, unlike the humanitarian “mega-crisis” in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

The conflict dates back to March 2016 presidential elections won by Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has ruled Congo-Brazzaville for all but five years since 1979.

His victory, which was marred by allegations of fraud, followed a heavily contested constitutional referendum a year earlier that removed term and age constraints that would have prevented the now 74-year-old from standing.

On the morning of the 2016 election results, with tensions high, a series of attacks were carried out in the capital, Brazzaville. Government, police, and military buildings were set alight in opposition strongholds and 17 people were killed, including three police officers.

The government blamed the attacks on a former militia group called the Ninjas, which had fought against Sassou Nguesso during civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s, but had largely demobilised.

The group’s leader, Frédéric Bintsamou, better known as Pastor Ntumi, denied responsibility. But the following day the government began major military operations against Ntumi and remnants of the group, whose fighters had been based in the forests of Pool, to the west of Brazzaville.

Sealed off from the press and human rights organisations, the operation in Pool has received little media coverage. But in advance of a ceasefire agreement between Ntumi and the government – signed in December – IRIN spent three weeks in the country.
 

Scorched-earth tactics

The most visible consequence of the crisis in Pool is the complete absence of people, in a region that was regarded as Congo’s breadbasket. On the 60-kilometre highway from Brazzaville to Kinkala, the regional capital, IRIN passed just 10 civilian vehicles. Village after village lay empty, most cordoned off by army checkpoints.

While the authorities claim to have conducted a “targeted” offensive against the Ninjas, IRIN found clear evidence of scorched-earth tactics.

In Soumouna, the first village to be bombed, back in April 2016, witnesses said government helicopters indiscriminately targeted the civilian population.

Jidele Lounguissa, 25, said helicopters rocketed Ntumi’s large compound, before “bombing the entire village”. She said she knew of five civilians killed during the attack, which she escaped from by hiding in the forest with her son, who was born the day before.                               

“I was afraid he was going to be killed,” she said.

Isma Nkodia said her 50-year-old friend, Adele, was hit by a bomb near Ntumi’s house, where she had gone to purchase traditional medicine.

“Many people died inside their homes,” Nkodia said. “When it was over, I saw houses and cars badly burnt, schools completely destroyed and trees that had collapsed.”

While former Ninja combatants have lived in Soumouna for many years, Nkodia and Lounguissa both said none were present during the raid.                                

“There were no Ninjas,” said Nkodia. “Just civilians”. […]

READ FULL EXCLUSIVE REPORT ON IRIN WEBSITE

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