KIRUMBA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — In December 2020, Bosiza Mbusa was working in his cassava field when three young men, all armed, appeared. They forced the 60-year-old father of eight to follow them, slapping him and pulling him along.
They traveled several hours from Mwimbya, about 150 kilometers from the Rwandan border, to Virunga National Park, where they spent the next six days. Bruised and exhausted, Mbusa drank stagnant water and ate only roasted sweet potatoes. It rained heavily in the mountains, but he had no shelter.
“I assure you it was difficult,” Mbusa says, bending over at a table in his living room, hands to his face.
His release came only after his wife borrowed money and sold many belongings – including his plot of land – to pay the $7,000 ransom.
“Because of the currency crisis due to the coronavirus, it was difficult to find the $7,000,” says Mbusa, who has no idea why the kidnappers targeted him. “I was released ill, and my health is still precarious. I no longer want to live.”
Mbusa lives in Lubero territory in North Kivu province in eastern DRC. It has been more than a year since the coronavirus struck North Kivu, but even as they fend off the pandemic, Lubero residents face another public health crisis – a scourge of kidnappings, which has confounded government officials, wrecked residents’ routines and left scores dead.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
“The most worrying thing is the kidnapping,” says Makombo Musafiri, 40, who lives in the commune of Kirumba in Lubero territory. “Unlike the coronavirus, there are no measures to protect ourselves from it.”
Kidnappings are just one challenge residents must contend with in a region where robberies are routine and communities are riven by decades-old conflicts between armed groups.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based research and advocacy group, reports that North Kivu and neighboring South Kivu were among the world’s most violent regions between 2017 and 2019, as armed groups kidnapped more than 3,300 people.
As Cases Rise, Young Adults Flout Coronavirus Restrictions
As Cases Rise, Young Adults Flout Coronavirus Restrictionsclick to read
“The population no longer knows what to do,” says Georges Katsongo, president of the civil society of Lubero territory. Assailants appear to be mostly unemployed young people or groups fighting for land or political power, he says.
At least one kidnapping a month is reported in the vast, lush territory. Captors often demand a ransom ranging from $500 to $5,000. It’s not unusual for assailants to kill captives, even after receiving their money.
As a result, the region’s farmers – who grow beans, corn and cassava – live in fear, sometimes staying out of their fields to avoid being kidnapped. Growers who are poor scuffle to feed their families and fall deeper into poverty.
Because many kidnappings also occur on National Road 2, which crisscrosses south Lubero, the territory’s administrator has enacted a curfew from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.
At the same time, the administrator, Richard Nyembo wa Nyembo, urges residents to follow the government’s coronavirus measures: wear masks in public, practice social distancing, wash hands regularly and use hand sanitizer.
“The population has to respect the barrier measures to fight against the coronavirus and be patient as the government is reflecting on how to eradicate kidnapping,” says Kapako Makuke Siwako, a member of the provincial assembly elected to represent Lubero territory, which has around 1.4 million people.
Since the coronavirus showed up early in 2020, Katsongo says, Lubero territory has recorded only one case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. But he knows of at least 27 kidnapping cases in the past year. Most involve multiple captives.
The pace of kidnappings began to ease even before the government declared martial law in the eastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri in early May, Katsongo says, “but that doesn’t mean that kidnapping has been eradicated.”
He informally surveyed Lubero residents and found that more than 60% of respondents worry about kidnappings, most of which occur in south Lubero.
Mbusa’s experience wasn’t unusual. According to Human Rights Watch, armed groups have taken scores of captives to Virunga National Park, where they have “beaten, tortured, and murdered hostages, raping women and girls, who make up more than half of them, while using threats to extort money from their families.”
Kambale Ngwana, 45, says the stress of both the coronavirus and being kidnapped has raised his blood pressure and caused stomach pains. He recalls a kidnapping in 2017, when assailants took a neighbor from home and ordered a ransom of $3,000. After the money was paid, Ngwana says, his neighbor’s body was found in a river.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
Benjamin Kombi, a physician at a health center in the commune of Kirumba, says he still urges patients and others to adhere to the government’s coronavirus restrictions. So far, he says, he has seen no COVID-19 cases at the Reference Health Center of the Baptist Community in Central Africa in Kirumba.
Kombi recalls being kidnapped himself in April 2018. At about 10 a.m., he was on a bus when armed bandits shot at the vehicle, ambushed it and took eight passengers to an unknown destination. For three weeks, he says, they were blindfolded, bound and tortured.
His captors released him after receiving a $4,000 ransom.
The kidnapping left him depressed and in debt. But with the help of counseling from his church and relatives, he has now emerged from both.
“I realized that the world is a bad place,” Kombi says. “If I have not left the community, it’s because of how much I love helping people as a doctor.”
But he no longer takes the road where the bus was ambushed.