Mon, Jul 03, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Militia's reign of terror comes to an end in DR Congo

DISARMAMENT Members of the `mayi-mayi' warrior-mystic militia are living in fear of retribution as they lay down their arms after 10 years of senseless slaughter


One of Africa's most-feared militias has crumbled and now faces the wrath of the population it terrorized. The mayi-mayi, warrior-mystics who have ravaged the Democratic Republic of Congo for 10 years, are surrendering in droves.

Exhausted and hungry, in recent weeks entire units have emerged from the jungles of one of their last redoubts, Katanga Province, to lay down weapons and plead forgiveness.

For hunters who used spears and arrows as well as guns to slaughter thousands, it is now their turn to be hunted. There is pressure for the leaders to be tried for war crimes and a backlash against the soldiers and their families.

Other armed groups still prowl volatile eastern provinces, but the end of the mayi-mayi in Katanga is a significant boost to stability and should open the countryside to aid agencies tackling one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

"One can no longer speak of the mayi-mayi as a political force. Their influence and visibility have greatly diminished," said Kisula Ngoy, Katanga's governor.

The Congolese army and UN troops swept through their strongholds and splintered the once mighty militia into ragged bands to prepare the country for an election scheduled for July 30.

The campaign has been controversial -- the Observer revealed last month how UN troops participated in the destruction of civilian hamlets -- and the UN has launched an investigation.

However flawed, the offensive has broken the mayi-mayi.

"You could see it when they surrendered," said Gerson Brandao, a senior official with the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which helps to demobilize combatants. "They couldn't keep running any more, they were exhausted."

Hundreds of guerrillas have flooded demobilization centers in remote towns such as Dubie and Mitwabe, performing elaborate and emotional ceremonies as they remove amulets credited with magical powers. Some wept, others looked resigned, as they handed over bracelets and pouches which supposedly rendered them invisible and bulletproof.

"There are remnants still hiding in the bush ambushing people, but the militia as such has no military strength. It's the end of the mayi-mayi phenomenon in Katanga," Brandao said.

It is an ignominious demise for what was hailed as a patriotic force at the outset of the 1998-2003 war, a murderous affair involving six foreign armies and myriad homegrown groups which left 4 million dead, mostly from hunger and disease.

To repel Rwandan and Ugandan troops President Laurent Kabila turned to tribes of hunters and farmers loosely known as the mayi-mayi. With cursory training and AK-47 assault rifles, the militia had some success, bolstering a widespread belief that its fighters had magical powers, a superstition which paralyzed some opponents.

Foreign forces withdrew with the war's official end in 2003, but the mayi-mayi, fractious and lacking effective command, missed out in the transitional government's carve-up of power and spoils. Alienated from its former sponsors in the capital, Kinshasa, the militia laid waste swaths of eastern Congo for three years, displacing hundreds of thousands and making a mockery of the supposed peace.

"In some cases the mayi-mayi publicly tortured victims before killing them in public ceremonies meant to terrorize the local population," said the New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch.

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