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In Congo, Army wives battle for normalcy in a decades-long war

From overcrowded barracks to the frontlines, Congolese Army wives are an unseen and vulnerable population with next to zero support from the government. They struggle to make full lives out of little. Here is a story of one wife.

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    Madracule Mandale, 27, and his wife, Alphonsine Bipendo, 24, talk with visitors in the home they share with others in the Katindo barracks neighborhood in the city of Goma, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 22, 2014. The neighborhood is on land covered in volcanic lava and containing the Congolese army leadership's offices. Residents are mostly soldiers, who follow an unofficial system in order to live on the land, paying fees to their superiors for the right to build modest homes. Most structures are makeshift, sided with corrugated metal, tarps or less frequently, wooden planks. Most soldiers make no more than $85/month and cannot afford other housing options.
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Alphonsine Bipendo anticipated a tough life as the wife of a Congolese soldier. But when she married her husband at the age of 16, she never expected to find herself in the trenches with him, caught in the thick of a gunfight. 

“When it happens, you don't think about anything else, even your kids,” she says of her occasional brushes with rebel fighters.

She frequently visits her husband in the operational zones, where his special forces unit is deployed, to bring him food and retrieve his pay. When fighting erupts, she winds up crouched behind him for cover, loading his assault rifle as the bullets run out. She has watched her husband clean, load, and unload his gun so many times, she knows her way around the weapon by heart. 

“You start fearing and caring for yourself, and if it’s your day, you’ll die,” she says, speaking with the calm bearing of a soldier. “If it isn’t your day, you’ll be saved.” 

Ms. Bipendo, who is 24, spends most of her days in a more tranquil setting, though: at camp Katindo in Goma, the site of eastern Congo’s only military barracks. If it weren't marked as such – with a hand-painted sign on the camp's leadership offices, reading Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) – you wouldn't initially guess that Katindo houses soldiers and their families. It looks more like a displaced persons camp, most of its families living under makeshift structures fashioned out of tarpaulin and corrugated metal. 

Bipendo and her husband, Madracule Mandale, who is 27, have been living at Katindo for five of the eight years they've been married. On a temperate Sunday morning, the two are spending the early hours here, their three children chasing each other in and out of their home. Bipendo is taking a break from working at the camp's market, where she spends most weekends selling fish and tomatoes to supplement her husband's income of roughly $85 per month. 

There are some signs of Army life here: men walking around in camouflage pants, and Kalashnikovs leaned up against doorways. But much of Katindo looks like everyday life in Goma, its hard-packed footpaths busy with women laughing, girls carrying baby siblings, and children playing with improvised toys made of plastic bottles.

This side of war in eastern Congo is rarely seen in the press. Journalists aren't exactly barred from entrance here, but it's technically illegal to take photos or notes, and against regulations for soldiers to speak with reporters.

Like many in eastern Congo, a region that’s been leveled by what some call the deadliest conflict since World War II, FARDC soldiers and their families face a daily struggle to survive. Even in the period of relative calm the east has been experiencing since November 2013, when the Army defeated M23 – a rebel-group that took control of Goma the year prior and wreaked havoc throughout North Kivu Province – fighting continues, wearing away at the soldiers' morale.

Trust on the battlefield, perhaps the most crucial component of survival and sustained morale in any Army, is often shaky at best. The ranks are in constant flux, as surrendering rebels once absorbed into the fabric of the FARDC frequently defect.

Many soldiers, like Mr. Mandale, who began training with Belgian forces when he was 16, joined in their teens, and thought the government would sufficiently take care of them. It seemed an opportunity, a way out of the lives they were born into. But many now liken their contract – which lasts until the age of 60, barring a couple of exceptions – to a life sentence. 

The wives themselves are a vulnerable population, receiving little help from the government or the many NGOs in Goma. Many struggle alone for months at a time while their husbands are deployed, acting as single parents and often undertaking dangerous journeys to the front lines to collect meager pay that rarely arrives on time.

It is not an easy life, but for this couple, their relationship has outweighed the hardships they expected from the beginning. 

“It's a matter of accepting the consequences of your choices,” Bipendo says. “We do this for love.” 

Surviving on love

In the barracks, Mandale and Bipendo share their small home with two other families, their semi-private living areas partitioned by sheets hanging from wooden poles. Most residents of Katindo pay fees to their superiors for the right to build primitive homes on the land. This is the best living situation these soldiers can afford. 

When Bipendo visits her husband on the frontlines, her home is his bright-colored tent built for one. Solitary tents like this are scattered throughout the dense forest along the road that leads to Virunga, the oldest national park in Africa and a slowly stabilizing battleground that has often been a nexus of violence since the conflict began at the end of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. 

Bipendo travels to see her husband by foot and cargo trucks, hitching rides on top of precarious loads of goods. During M23's grip on the region, the journey was particularly risky: the rebels sometimes targeted Army wives, taking them prisoner or raping them. Bipendo tried to find ways to bypass their checkpoints, and never traveled with items that would associate her with the Army. 

If she didn't make these trips, she says she would have no access to her husband's pay while he is gone, which her family needs to scrape by. And Mandale would have no access to fresh, home-cooked food. Soldiers receive canned and dry rations of bread, corned beef, cookies, and sardines, so Ms. Bipendo brings her husband his favorite childhood foods: a traditional dish called fufu, tomato soup, and stewed vegetables and meats. More than anything, her presence lifts his spirits.

“When my wife is there near me, I become very determined to fight the rebels,” he says. “When you see the person you love, the mother and wife you love, you have courage and joy.”

Finding alternatives

Bipendo and Mandale are lucky to have a shared home away from the fighting, and reprieves between deployments. Special forces units in the Congo are used for fighting backup and intervention, so their deployments tend to be briefer – days, weeks, or months, rather than years. 

Other troops can be sent to rural defense positions for years at a time, and wives are often expected to stay in their home provinces. In these instances, it's common for wives to travel to a village near their husband's defense position and set up camp there permanently. Others live with their husband and children at their position, sharing the one-person tent.

Spouses are not authorized to follow soldiers, but there's really no alternative, says Lt. Col. Cyprien Sekololo, the head of administration for North Kivu Province, who oversees such things as promotions, dispensation for military widows, and proposals for reform within the FARDC.

“Because we only have barracks for soldiers in Goma, and we don't have the means to rent houses for the wives, it's common for the wives to follow [their husbands],” he says. “Even if it's not allowed, there is no other solution.”

Parliament recently proposed a project to build new barracks for soldiers' families in the region, Sekololo says, but it is a costly plan that will take the FARDC years to launch. Progress in the FARDC is painstakingly slow, and invisible to the soldiers who make up its forces.

“The reform of the Army is not something that will happen in one year,” Sekololo says. “Changes are five, 10, 20 years ahead.”

For now, though, Mandale relishes the chance to see his wife. Bipendo's presence brings clarity and energy to a mission that often feels murky and dangerously mismanaged to him.

“I know if my wife dies there, that is the thing for which I’ll fight that has no equivalent price,” he says.

The International Women's Media Foundation supported Simone Gorrindo's reporting from The Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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