LUBERO, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Jean de Dieu and his 12-year-old son had spent the day husking corn. On a different day, they would have been working in the fields, but it was a Sunday. In the evening, they shared a corn meal. They went to sleep. Then, the Allied Democratic Forces abducted them.
Jean de Dieu, who prefers to go by his first name for fear of ADF retaliation, had moved north from Kirumba, in southern Lubero territory, to Ituri province, in northeast DRC, with his son in 2017 in search of farmland. A friend had told him that Ituri, on the banks of Lake Albert, was more fertile. Farming would be easy and more profitable.
Other farmers, like him, had moved to the region in search of fertile land. Each had a small parcel. At first, life was good. Although they were from different parts of the country, they lived like a family, sharing food and helping till each other’s land.
Now, many months after the kidnapping, Jean de Dieu sits outside his house in Kirumba, perusing a religious pamphlet as if to seek comfort. He is a well-groomed man who irons his clothes and neatly combs his hair. The father of four rests his cheeks in his hands. He speaks softly and rarely makes eye contact. From time to time, he forces a smile. The events of September 2021 are still etched in his memories.
That night, Jean de Dieu didn’t know the ADF were coming until they were almost in the house. He woke his son, who was sleeping next to him. “They forced us to open the door,” he says. “[They] looted my chickens and food.”
That was the last night of freedom for Jean de Dieu and his son. They would spend the next three months in the forest under ADF captivity.
Founded in 1995, the Allied Democratic Forces has for decades been one of the deadliest armed groups in eastern DRC. The group has its roots in the Tabligh sect, a movement active in Uganda since the 1970s, whose interest is to strengthen Islamic values and practices.
The ADF has mutated over the years and allied with other armed groups. One prominent alliance is with a secular Ugandan group called National Army for the Liberation of Uganda. Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled of Zaire (now DRC) between 1965 and 1997, supported the alliance in its fight against Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s government, which had tried to overthrow him in 1996, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, a Belgium-based organization that seeks to prevent deadly conflict.
Despite its Ugandan roots, the ADF operates mostly in mountainous eastern DRC, where members participate in cross-border trade and have established relations with other local armed groups and communities. Little is known about the ADF’s internal workings and motivations, given their secretive nature and strict discipline, according to a report by Congo Research Group, a research program at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. But, according to the report, information from defectors and videos on private social media channels suggest that the group has been attempting to align with other jihadist movements such as Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
Although cordial with Congolese communities at first, the ADF has become more aggressive, the report says, often in response to Congolese army attacks. Since January 2019, the group has caused an estimated 2 million displacements in Ituri and North Kivu, with some people displaced more than once. In 2021, the ADF killed at least 1,259 people (958 men, 262 women and 39 children) — a 48% increase from 2020, according to the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office. In March 2021, the United States added the group to its list of foreign “terrorist” organizations.
The Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) have made efforts to root out the group. In 2014, one of its operations caused the ADF significant losses, according to a report by the U.N. Joint Human Rights Office. Many group members were killed, and hundreds surrendered. On April 30, 2021, President Félix Tshisekedi declared a state of siege in North Kivu and Ituri. In November, the FARDC also launched joint military operations with the Ugandan army in North Kivu’s Beni region.
But these efforts have mostly been unsuccessful. ADF’s activities have only increased, and their methods have mutated, as members attack not only military operations but villages as well. The Kivu Security Tracker, a violence-mapping initiative between Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, and New York University, reports that civilian security only worsened during the siege.
Kidnappings are part of ADF’s operations. In 2020, the group abducted at least 534 people, including at least 39 children, subjecting many to forced labor such as transporting looted goods, working on plantations or fighting in combat, according to the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office.
Jean de Dieu, now 48, remembers a time before the ADF. “We were fearless,” he says. “We even walked at night.” Now, the group has become a constant source of fear.
The night after the ADF kidnapped him and his son, they walked for several kilometers in the forest, engulfed by darkness. Among the hostages were men, women, children, even babies. Some had been abducted from Jean de Dieu’s village. On the way, they came across other hostages. The group swelled. Whatever the ADF looted in villages along the way, the hostages carried.
“Anyone who got tired was killed,” he says. He worried for his son, so he helped him carry his assigned luggage.
They were housed in temporary camps. Children lived separately from adults. They ate what they plundered from fields abandoned by civilians who had fled, fearing the ADF. Sometimes, the hostages were forced to do fieldwork. Not even the children were spared. Each day, Jean de Dieu worried about his son and wondered why the world was so unfair to innocent people.
Days came and went. Nights too. Jean de Dieu says he began to get used to this kind of life. “The ADF were talking to us, we were talking to them, and we were talking to each other too,” he says. Still, the ADF remained in charge.
He saw things he wishes to forget — dead bodies in the forest, hostages killed or maimed to instill fear as the others watched.
Back home, Jean de Dieu’s wife, Kanyere, who chooses to go by her first name for her safety, worried. She’d gotten used to speaking to him on the phone regularly since he’d moved to Ituri, leaving her to take care of their three other children. But his phone had been off for seven days. “I couldn’t sleep anymore,” she says.
Rumors circulated in her village that her husband and son had been kidnapped. She couldn’t imagine the possibility of them returning safe, given what she knew about the ADF. They are cutthroat, she says. Once in their net, there’s little chance of surviving. After several days without news from him, the family assumed Jean de Dieu and his son were dead. “We organized a family mourning,” says Kanyere, 46. They held funeral activities, including a Mass.
Jean de Dieu struggles to estimate how long they had traveled before help came. But he remembers they were returning from a looting spree when they heard gunshots. “We went wild,” he says. Many of the hostages took the opportunity to escape.
Later, the FARDC would ferry the freed hostages in their vehicles, he says. “We arrived in Beni, then in Butembo,” Jean de Dieu says. “Finally, I [was] at home in Kirumba.”
On the day her husband returned, his wife couldn’t recognize him. He had lost weight, she says, and looked like someone suffering from a chronic illness. Still, she was overjoyed. “I cried with joy,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it, but it was real.”
When Jean de Dieu learned that his family had already mourned him and his son, he wept. “I understood that everyone dies on the day set by God,” he says. “I would already be dead.”
Though he felt some relief, his son was still captive. He later learned that his son was rescued during one of the Uganda-DRC joint military operations and was in the care of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Beni.
Kaniki Salomon, spokesperson for the International Circle for the Defense of Human Rights, Peace and the Environment, a local nonprofit that promotes human rights, says the international community needs to join forces and dismantle the ADF, which he considers a “terrorist” organization. The group, he says, has made areas where it operates unlivable, interrupting normal life. Schools, churches and markets no longer function due to growing insecurity, he says.
The Congolese government hasn’t made sufficient efforts to eradicate the group, Salomon says. “If the government could actively engage in tracking down these rebels today, we would not hear from them anymore.”
Although Anthony Mualushayi, spokesperson for military operations in Lubero territory and Beni, agrees that the ADF seems to be amplifying its activities, he says the army has been working hard to root them out. “The army will continue to do its best to restore peace and free hostages,” he says. Through their military operations, they have been able to rescue at least 55 hostages from the armed group, he adds.
But like Salomon, Jean de Dieu agrees that the government is yet to fully commit to eradicating the ADF. The issue has never been pursued with much determination, he says. If the government strengthened its efforts and treated it as a matter of urgency, it could succeed.
Since his return home, his physical and mental health have deteriorated. When he recovers, he plans to resume farming — but never in Ituri.
Although the International Committee of the Red Cross brought his son home, his mental health has deteriorated too. He struggles with school. He often sits close to his father, as if afraid of losing him.