Congolese town mounts own defense against rebels
BANGADI, Congo - Rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army sent torture victims - including a man whose back was sliced with a machete - to warn the people of this Congolese town they would be next.
The town's three policemen fled, and there was no response from the military and United Nations peacekeepers to the increasingly panicked pleas for help. That's when residents realized they were on their own.
"We were sending warnings and begging for help practically every day for two weeks. And nothing happened," said community leader Nicolas Akoyo Efudha. "We finally understood that we were abandoned - in danger and without protection."
So Akoyo called a town meeting and told everyone to bring whatever weapons they had: pre-World War II rifles, homemade shotguns, lances, swords, machetes, hunting knives, bows with sheaths of poisoned arrows.
The women came armed with kitchen knives and log-size wooden pestles used to pound yams into flour.
Since then, the residents of Bangadi have successfully driven off two attacks by the Ugandan rebels, who have killed at least 900 people in this remote northeastern corner of Congo in the past seven weeks.
News of Bangadi's success - and the lack of military protection - have spurred hundreds of villages to form self-defense groups, according to Avril Benoit, a spokeswoman for Doctors Without Borders.
The ragtag groups are filling a security vacuum as Congo tries to recover from back-to-back civil wars that devastated the Central African nation over nearly a decade.
Aid workers and human rights activists are watching the phenomenon with trepidation. In a part of Congo with dozens of militias and rebels, they fear these self-defense groups could transform into a menacing force.
The Lord's Resistance Army has been waging an insurgency in northern Uganda for more than 20 years, and the conflict spilled over into Congo about five years ago.
Before dawn on Oct. 19, Bangadi became the rebels' target. They descended first on the former abbey on the outskirts of town, killing its residents. But as the fighters tried to advance, they were surprised by more than a half-dozen ambushes by residents armed with makeshift weapons, some hiding in ditches. Before the rebels reached the central market, they had been defeated and took flight.
Akoyo said residents counted 43 rebels who came into town. Seven got away and the rest were killed, he said. The civilian toll was 16 dead.
Today, the abbey is abandoned. Survivors, along with thousands of people from surrounding villages, are camped in Bangadi; its population has exploded from 15,000 to 35,000.
About 20 miles outside Bangadi lies evidence of what happens when there is no one to resist an attack by the Lord's Resistance Army: More than a mile of huts along a dirt track have been burned to the ground.
On Jan. 24, the army finally sent troops to Bangadi: 175 soldiers came. Their presence is more of a worry than a reassurance, said Akoyo, because the soldiers' rations have run out and they haven't been paid.
"This is a dangerous situation," Akoyo said. "They haven't started yet, but soon, if they don't get provisioned, they'll start requisitioning the little food we have."