Congo’s children lose a champion

Congo’s children lose a

10:17 AM
Saturday Oct 22, 2011



Eraste Rwatangabo was murdered
along with six others including on an expedition in the east of the Democratic
Republic of Congo. Photo / Children in Crisis

The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has
been the most faceless of conflicts. The unbearable statistics threaten to fade
into abstraction: an estimated four million people killed, tens of thousands of
women raped, countless numbers displaced and lives destroyed.

But last week the bloodiest and least reported
horror story of our times took on the indelible features of a single face.

At 46, Eraste Rwatangabo looked far younger. He
lived on the high plateau of South Kivu in the far east of the Democratic
Republic of Congo (DRC). No one who has been to that stark corner of the world
forgets its atmosphere.

It rises out of the dense jungle that flanks it on
all sides. Every morning a thick mist hangs over the plateau, which stretches,
gently undulating, for hundreds of miles. And almost every morning, for more
years than anyone can care to count, out of that soundless mist have come new
stories of displacement and terror.

The high plateau, rich in mineral resources,
including gold, has been a battleground in a conflict that over nearly two
decades has drawn in six countries; it has suffered both the brutal fallout of
the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda and the chaotic ethnic and factional war in
which the lawless Congolese army has been only one of many actors.

It is a few hundred miles upstream from the setting
for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The people here, mainly the pastoralist
Banyamulenge, have known little but relentless hardship and sporadic violence.

Rwatangabo immediately stood out. Educated to
degree level in history and articulate in several languages, he carried the
idea of a different future for this plateau in his easy stride and broad smile.
The local people called him “captain”, but his mission had never been
a military one.

Rwatangabo was a fighter for hope and education in
a place where there was precious little of either.

He had grown up in South Kivu, married in 1982, and
had eight children, two of whom had died. After completing his degree in Rwanda
he returned to the high plateau to teach and became a schools inspector before
working for the Red Cross.

In 2006, during the country’s first national
elections, he was the president of the election commission for the region,
travelling between villages explaining to people why they must vote.

Since then, in the most desperate corner of the
most ungovernable country on Earth, he had been responsible for wielding
perhaps the most powerful of all weapons for change: a teacher training
programme. This was no ordinary course of study.

Established by the Reverend Samson Muvunyi, from a
Christian mission called Eben-Ezer Ministries (EMI), it had grown out of a
peace and reconciliation movement that sought to include all the factions
divided by war; to give children a textbook rather than a machete to carry; to
build a fresh start.

In 2008, I had flown to South Kivu to report on an
emblematic story of that fresh start. Ron and Pauline Friend, from Orpington,
Kent, in south-east England, had sponsored a school in memory of their son, who
had been caught up in the conflict in 1999 while travelling on a gap year.

Martin Friend had been murdered by former
Interahamwe genocidaires from Rwanda, and Ron and Pauline were travelling to
the high plateau to open the school that they had raised the money to pay for
in their son’s name.

The school had been built in a place, Mishashu,
where there had previously been not a stick of chalk. It was constructed by the
women of the village, who had hauled stone and cement and water up miles from
the road. At its opening, the 300 children who would study at the school
couldn’t stop wondering at the marvel of desks and whitewashed walls.

The more time we spent on the high plateau, though,
the more we realised that Ron and Pauline’s school wasn’t an isolated miracle,
but part of a growing network.

That network was being established and strengthened
by the British charity Children in Crisis in partnership with the EMI programme
led by Muvunyi and Rwatangabo. A total of 192 schools over a vast area were
included in this programme. Many had been burned or destroyed in the conflict.
But nearly all, it seemed – with the efforts of EMI and Children in Crisis –
were being restored as brick-built symbols of possibility. This was made
possible in large part by Rwatangabo’s energy in inspiring his team, even as
the war in one form or another was still being waged.

Last week, however, the chaotic violence that
Rwatangabo had been born into, and which he had done so much to fight against,
finally caught up with him. On the long road through the jungle to the high
plateau Rwatangabo was ambushed by a militia group and murdered at the side of
the road, along with four colleagues and two of their relatives.

A leader of a theatre programme, Pastor Antoine
Munyiginya, was also on board.

They were ambushed by a Mai Mai Yakatumba group.
Mai Mai is the name given to any of the shifting and desperate gangs who get
hold of some semi-automatic weapons and call themselves a rebel militia.

Yakatumba is the name of one of the more notorious local

The Mai Mai that attacked the Land Cruiser had,
apparently, only one aim. They wanted to kill any Banyamulenge on board,
members of the Tutsi-related ethnic group whom the “indigenous”
Congolese Mai Mai consider incomers. Stopping the car, they ordered “the
Rwandans” to get out of the vehicle. Two men and two women of different
ethnicity who were travelling with Rwatangabo and his team were told to leave.

The account of what happened next comes from a man
who spoke to Pastor Munyiginya, who survived the attack. The driver of the
vehicle, Musore Ruturutsa, who had worked with Eben-Ezer for three years, was
shot in the back. The others were taken a little way into the jungle. They were
led by Munyiginya in songs and prayers. Each one, systematically – Rwatangabo;
Kandoti Tite, his deputy education manager; Gifota Edmond, a newly recruited
teacher trainer; Nabisage Rganza, 24, the sister of another colleague; and two
others – was murdered in turn.

Eventually only Munyiginya was left. He was told to
lie face down and the Mai Mai commander gave the order to “finish the
job”. A gun was put to his head, but he was shot in the hand. Antoine did
not know why he was spared. Perhaps to tell the tale. He is in hospital with a
bullet still lodged in his wrist and there is no doctor in the area capable of
removing it.

The seven people murdered were buried two days
later. In a place where any journey takes on the quality of an epic quest,
2,000 people attended the funeral at a day’s notice.

Sarah Rowse, project director for Children in
Crisis, was still struggling to comprehend the news.

“There are probably contexts in which you can
try to understand it,” she said, “but the thing about Eraste was that
he always just seemed bulletproof.”

President Joseph Kabila, whose family ties are in
the Kivu area, has made the (extremely relative) stability of the region in
recent years the main platform of his campaign. “No more fires in the
east,” he said “only embers”. In this sense the murders could look
like a premeditated effort to give the lie to that slogan.

It has been suggested that it was inconceivable the
Mai Mai did not know the work of EMI, and who they were killing. He and
Rwatangabo had spent years negotiating with various militias to explain their
mission. As Rowse said, “Eraste worked tirelessly talking to commanders
saying let these teachers travel in peace, [urging them] to not make the
children carry munitions or weapons as they tended to do. People have listened
to him. That’s one of the reasons it just seems so unbelievable. Why it is a
pure hate crime.”

Despite their anger at the loss, Children in Crisis
is determined that the education programme will continue. The immediate
concern, they say, is to try to look after the families of those who were
murdered and who have no means of support. A fund has been established. After
that, the programme must find a way to continue. “Although Eraste’s life
has been cut short, and those of Tite and Musore and Edmond, what they have
done can’t be lost,” Rowse said. “We must continue to believe that
the foundations for peace are there in those schools and those teachers.”

Region’s troubled and bloody

In 1994, after the genocidal Hutu government was
overthrown in Rwanda, an estimated two million Hutus fled across the Congolese
border into North and South Kivu in eastern Congo. They allied themselves with
the government of President Mobutu Sese Seke and waged war on Congo’s native

Backed by the governments of Rwanda and Uganda, the
Congolese Tutsi fought back and, under the ruthless Laurent Kabila, Mobutu was

When Kabila failed to destroy the Hutu, the Tutsi
government of Rwanda sent a further force against him. Kabila called on the
support of Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia and for five years a proxy war was
fought in the eastern Congo, driven by ethnicity and control of gold, diamonds
and coltan, a key component of mobile phones.

The war officially ended in 2003, with four million
casualties, and Kabila’s son Joseph was elected in 2006 in the first democratic
elections. Despite the presence of 17,000 UN peacekeepers in the east, the
killing and mass rape continues, with those suspected of Rwandan loyalties
targeted by ethnic Congolese gangs.

The Banyamulenge, a minority population of ethnic
Tutsi Rwandans, are targeted as “foreigners” by Congolese militias,
known as the Mai Mai.

How to help

To make a donation to support the families of those
killed, go to



2011, APN Holdings NZ Limited and TM © Rugby World Cup Limited 2008 – 2011. All
rights reserved.


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4 Responses to “Congo’s children lose a champion”

  1. gf revenge password Says:

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    Congo’s children lose a champion | Unsung Heroes


  2. craiglock Says:


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  3. craiglock Says:



  4. craiglock Says:

    Reblogged this on The Foreign Correspondent.


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