WARNING: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence.
WATERLOO, Ontario (Canadian Mennonite) – Dozens of Congolese Mennonites have been killed, hundreds of their homes have been burned, and thousands of them have fled as violence consumes the Kasai region, birthplace of the Mennonite Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A collaborative Anabaptist response will soon reach some of the 1.4 million people (about 850,000 children) displaced by armed conflict in the Kasai region. This response is shaped and implemented by Congolese Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren relief committees. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is coordinating North American-based Anabaptist organizations and contributions from international Anabaptist communities.
Congolese church leaders have reported 36 confirmed deaths of Mennonites, 12 church schools destroyed or attacked, 16 churches destroyed or attacked, and 342 homes destroyed. Those numbers may rise in the coming days.
Speaking through a translator via Skype, Pastor Adolphe Komuesa Kalunga, president of Communauté Mennonite au Congo (Mennonite Church of Congo), said it is difficult for church leaders to communicate with their members because many are in hiding in the forests. Komuesa is also an elected member of the national government of President Joseph Kabila.
The violence started last year with tension between the government and a chief in Tshimbulu, a town in a region considered opposed to the government. After being snubbed by Kabila's government, the chief, who carried the traditional title Kamuina Nsapu, formed a rebel militia that destroyed a local government post. Government forces then killed him and refused to return his body to his family.
The chief's militia, also named Kamuina Nsapu, gained strength—fueled by resentment growing from unequal distribution of wealth, disenfranchisement, and adherence to a particular deity that rebel leaders claimed would render fighters invincible.
Government forces responded by reportedly killing indiscriminately door-to-door in areas associated with the rebels. This spring, as hostilities continued, a second infamously brutal militia—Bana Mura—was formed with participation of elements of the government, according to the UN. Much of the violence fell along ethnic lines, with all sides reportedly guilty of atrocities. Entire villages were destroyed on the basis of ethnicity, with a death toll exceeding 3,000.
Stories of violence
A Mennonite assessment team made up of Congolese church people heard stories of mutilations, beheadings, and sexual violence. The team met with a range of survivors, including some Mennonites, in Tshikapa and Kikwit.
Rod Hollinger-Janzen, executive coordinator of Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission (AIMM), which has been involved in the region since 1912, visited Congo in July 2017. He spoke with Joseph Nkongolo, a member of the assessment team. Nkongolo recounted the story of a mother handing a newborn baby to her 6-year-old daughter before being killed along with her husband. The rebels then sent the girl away with the baby.
Another woman witnessed her husband's decapitation and was then forced to carry his head to a sort of altar used by the killers. Children witnessed their parents being hacked to death with machetes.
Hollinger-Janzen expressed deep admiration for the strength of the assessment team members. "They are carrying the pain of so many people," he said.
Earlier this summer, Hollinger-Janzen learned via an e-mail from Adolphine Tshiama, president of the women's organization of the Mennonite Church of Congo, that her brother and several of his family members had been killed by the Bana Mura militia in two separate attacks. On Aug. 6, her sister-in-law, niece, and three of her niece's children—all thought to be dead—miraculously showed up after hiding in the forest for nearly three months. Tshiama was unavailable for an interview due to illness.
Cursed with wealth
The history of Congo is drenched in violence and exploitation. The second-largest country in Africa, it gained independence from Belgium's oppressive control in 1960. Four years later, Mobutu Sese Seku seized power in a coup, beginning 32 notoriously ruthless years in power. With massive mineral wealth generated in the country, he reportedly embezzled billions of dollars while enjoying American support.
In 1994, following the Hutu-led genocide in neighboring Rwanda, Mobutu sided with Hutus who fled to Congo and wanted to attack Tutsis in the country. That mushroomed into a war that cost 5 million lives. In 1997, Mobutu was replaced by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, whose son, Joseph, is now president.
Although the constitution required the younger Kabila to step down when his second eight-year term ended in 2016, he has delayed a vote, saying the government cannot afford the required voter-registration process.
As reported by The Guardian newspaper, polls indicate Kabila would lose badly if elections were held now. He, along with his family, reportedly control an extensive network of business interests in the country, contributing to foment and instability. (Despite vast mineral deposits, Congo ranks 176 out of 188 countries on the UN Human Development Index.)
Some have suggested the killing of Kamuina Nsapu was orchestrated to create chaos that would detract from the delayed election.
Mennonites in the middle
Congo is home to more than 235,000 Mennonites with membership in three denominations: Mennonite Church of Congo, the Mennonite Brethren Church of the Congo, and the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo. Only the United States, Ethiopia and India have more Anabaptists.
Dozens of Mennonite churches lie within the Kasai conflict area. The Mennonite Church of Congo—the main Anabaptist denomination represented in the Kasai region—reported 19 districts, each with five to eight congregations, directly affected by the violence.
Mennonites outside the conflict zones are working to address the needs. Families—many with few financial resources themselves—are hosting displaced people, and congregations are sharing what they have. The coordinated response of international Anabaptist organizations will reinforce these local efforts, especially around Kikwit and Tshikapa, the areas welcoming the largest influx of displaced people.
Bruce Guenther, head of disaster response for MCC, said it is "alarming" to see how few aid agencies are involved in the Kasai region. North American Anabaptists are proceeding "urgently and carefully" in collaboration with numerous organizations and churches on the ground in affected areas. Guenther says the coordinated Anabaptist response seeks to "accompany the local church to respond as they see fit."
Komuesa said the five priority needs at this point are food, healthcare, housing (especially with the rainy season approaching), schooling and reconciliation. While some sources indicate the ethnically charged conflict has tested the unity within the Mennonite Church, Komuesa said harmony still exists within the church.
"We need to reach out," he said, "and share the peace and reconciliation that we have with other people."
Komuesa said tensions are gradually subsiding. As a pastor and government official, his message to the militias is to stop using violence. He said the role of government is to protect the population and restore security.
Mulanda Jimmy Juma, the MCC country representative for Congo, said via phone that reconciliation starts with the aid response. The goal will be to get people of different ethnic groups working side-by-side to deliver aid to recipients without regard to background. With considerable peacebuilding experience in various parts of Africa, Juma also spoke of the value of bringing children from different groups together, partly because when parents see diverse children playing together, it helps change their perspectives.
Plea for prayer
Hollinger-Janzen emphasized the stress many Congolese live with; most people struggle to feed their families one meal each day. Add to that, he said, a legacy of colonial oppressions, Western interference, and a corrupt state system has never worked for the people. Then add a spark of violence.
"I try to think my way into that and imagine what it is like," Hollinger-Janzen said. "I want to believe that the God we worship can come to anyone in any situation ... that somehow God's love can be communicated no matter what."
He encouraged people to support the coordinated Anabaptist Congo initiative. "Now is the time to respond," he said. "This is what Jesus calls us to."
Like Juma and Komuesa, he emphasized prayer as the primary response. "Let's deepen our compassion. And when we do not know what to pray, the Spirit prays within us."
To support, click here to donate.
This story first appeared on Canadian Mennonite's website on Aug. 21. It has been adapted for Mennonite Mission Network readers with permission.