A Congo warlord – arrested for crimes against humanity – explains himself
Our correspondent remembers Mathieu Ngudjolo as 'disconcertingly reasonable.'
Kambutso is a typical African village of stick-framed huts plastered with mud set on a grass-covered hill in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. On a clear day you can see the sparkling waters of Lake Albert to the east and the thick rain forest that covers the Ituri region to the west. When I visited in August 2006, a dark cloud loomed as wisps of mountain mist wreathed the banana groves and mango trees.Skip to next paragraph
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In less restless times it might have been a beautiful place to relax for a few days, but I was there to meet a notorious Congolese warlord, Mathieu Ngudjolo Tchui, a powerful military leader and veteran of ethnic fighting that had convulsed the region. He claimed to command 10,000 fighters and was head of one of the last rebel militias there.
I wanted to ask him about the recent elections in Congo, about an amnesty agreement that he'd signed with the government, and about the atrocities attributed to him and his fighters.
Human rights activists had told me of attacks on villages by Mr. Ngudjolo's ethnic Lendu militia in which scores were killed (bodies mutilated and dumped in latrines), girls raped, children abducted into rebel ranks, churches burned, and hospitals turned into slaughterhouses. And, in Ituri, it was alleged that Lendu and other fighters used cannibalism to terrorize civilians who'd become inured to violent death during the war.
Some of these accusations would become the basis of International Criminal Court (ICC) charges for which Ngudjolo was arrested last week.
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At sunrise we set out from Bunia, a small, dusty garrison town where blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers peered from behind piles of sandbags topped with barbed-wire, armored personnel carriers trained their heavy machine guns down the main roads, and Humvees patrolled.
Our four-wheel drive wound its way up a rocky track into the hills, taking more than an hour to travel the 10-miles up an escarpment overgrown with elephant grass and scattered with grey boulders. As we rounded a corner, a dozen skinny stick figures appeared silhouetted on the road clutching AK-47s, heavy machine guns, and rocket launchers. Dressed in a motley collection of tracksuits, shorts, flip-flops, and T-shirts, they formed exactly the kind of roadblock you don't want to run into in Congo. Beside me, my translator Marrion P'Udongo, an evangelical pastor who makes a little money helping foreign reporters meet the people they want to see, smiled nervously, announcing, "We are here."
What did I imagine Ngudjolo might be? Perhaps an inhuman moral blank? Or an unhinged lunatic, passionate and quick to anger? Certainly I didn't expect the softspoken former Red Cross medical assistant and father of three who met me. He sat on a wooden chair, while outside his fighters relaxed by smoking cigarettes and fiddling with their guns. He was smartly dressed in civilian clothes and had neatly cropped hair. He was short and stocky with a pugnacious face and strangely tiny feet.
Ngudjolo spoke in Lingala, and Pastor Marrion translated for me. We discussed the recent elections (which would go to a second round vote before President Joseph Kabila was announced the winner), his childhood as a poor farmer's son, and his early schooling.
Born around 1970, Ngudjolo grew up during a period when coexistence between Lendu farmers and Hema cattleherders was punctuated by violence as populations grew and land disputes became frequent. A legacy of Belgian colonialism, this ethnic division, as in Rwanda between Hutu and Tutsi, was increasingly bloody.