March 2, 2017
GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — The entrance to Katindo Military Camp, an army base in Goma, has turned into a market where secondhand clothes, cassava leaves and other products are offered for sale.
The women who run the stalls come from all over Democratic Republic of Congo. Their common bond is tragedy: Nearly all are widows, and many of their husbands died in military engagements. The women say they are due lifelong pensions because of their husbands’ sacrifices, but they haven’t received the money.
According to DRC law, war widows are eligible to receive their husbands’ full salaries until the point at which the man, if living, would have reached retirement age, says Kenzo Mahamba, a lawyer who has helped the women. Even then, he says, the widows should continue to receive retirement stipends.
Victorine Masudi, a 44-year-old mother of four, sits outside a small, blue plank home at the army base. Her husband was killed in a December 2013 military offensive against the M23 armed group. Masudi was born and raised in Katanga province in southern DRC, and she has sent her children to live there so they can escape the poor conditions on the base. She plans to remain at the base, she says, until she receives her money.
“Over one year has now passed since we last received pay from the authorities,” she says. “Today, I’m completely at a loss to know how I can survive.”
According to Masudi’s estimates, there are more than 100 widows in a similar situation. Other sources suggest that number might be in the thousands. Of the 4,400 war widows in DRC, only 920 have received their husbands’ salaries, according to 2015 estimates stated on Okapi, a radio station operated by MONUSCO, the United Nations stabilization force operating in the area. Local officials say there’s no way to confirm the exact number of military widows.
Many of those widows have taken to the streets to protest their plight, chanting, “Dad, you gave your life for your fatherland, but in return for your shed blood, your fatherland is starving your wife.”
Maj. Gen. Celestin Musese Mbala, the chief of staff of DRC’s land forces, traveled in September to Goma, where he spoke with the widows and promised to take a report to officials in Kinshasa, DRC’s capital city.
“We hope that we can fix the problem in the coming months,” he says, adding that the women’s husbands were valiant soldiers who defended the country’s honor.
Capt. Guilaume Ndjike, the spokesman for DRC’s armed forces 8th military region in North Kivu province, says the technology that the military uses for payment purposes now includes biometric data, which helps clerks find names easily. The trouble, he says, is that some widows aren’t listed.
“We’re faced with a problem of those who pretend to be widowed and whose names appear on the register,” he says. “Most of these women were not legally married.”
In other cases, the deceased men aren’t listed on the payroll — a claim made by Perpétue Mukaji Mwenyi, a widow chosen by other women to lead them in their efforts to get their money, and one that Ndjike confirms.
The computer system is difficult to master, Ndjike says, and that might be why some names are missing.
That’s not the only problem. Ndjike says fraudulent claims are common.
“Sometimes, one widow can claim for pay for 10 deceased soldiers,” he says. “How come one woman can become a widow of such a number of people?”
Madelaine, 40, says her husband was killed in a 2008 battle. She received money for a few years, but hasn’t received anything since 2011.
“I have two children, and it is a struggle to feed my family,” she says.
Madelaine, who asked that only her first name be used to protect her identity, says she’s reprimanded by soldiers whenever she requests the pay due to her. She is from Kinshasa, about 2,400 kilometers (1,491 miles) from Goma. She came to Goma with her husband, but says she would return home if she could afford a plane ticket.
Philomena, a mother of three, was 23, she says, when her husband died in 2013. She still uses the last name of her deceased husband, and asked that it not be published out of respect for him.
Two years later, she met a man with whom she had a child.
“Because of that, authorities don’t consider me as a soldier widow, even if I had two children with him before his death,” she says.
Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated this article from French.