Report

Unbroken Violence

A brutal militia has surrendered in Congo -- but is the war-torn country any safer?

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — There was unexpected news in early November from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which has endured two decades of fighting in what has become Africa's deadliest conflict: The M23 rebel group, responsible for numerous atrocities since its inception in April 2012, had been defeated.

The M23 was the latest in a succession of armed groups led by ethnic Tutsis in eastern Congo with backing -- weapons, ammunition, recruits -- from neighboring Rwanda. It crumbled after Kigali, facing Western criticism and aid suspension, did not offer the group the same military support that it had in the past during new fighting in October. The Congolese army and the United Nations' new African-led intervention brigade, with its mandate to carry out offensive operations, quickly took control of one rebel stronghold after another. On Nov. 5, the M23 announced it was laying down its arms.

This is a significant development, especially for those who have lived under the M23's oppression for the past year and a half. It has prompted over 1,000 combatants and leaders from various armed groups, worried they might be new military targets, to turn themselves in to the government or U.N.

But it is by no means the end of Congo's brutal story.

M23 leaders with long records of serious human rights abuses -- for whom the Congolese government has rightly ruled out any amnesty or integration into the army -- are still at large. Most have fled to Uganda and Rwanda, and they could form a new armed group if they are not arrested and brought to justice. Just as concerning, however, is that much of Congo's east remains under the control of other armed groups who filled a security vacuum left when Congolese forces turned their attention to the M23 rebellion over a year ago.

These groups prey on civilian populations: killing, raping, extorting illegal taxes, forcing children to become soldiers, burning villages, and ill-treating those who resist them. Most have taken advantage of and manipulated existing ethnic tensions in an effort to gain control of land and mineral resources, including gold, tin ore, and coltan (widely used in electronic devices). Their alliances, leadership structures, and even names keep shifting. Some have allied with or received support from the Congolese army -- itself guilty of perpetrating atrocities, including rape, arbitrary arrests, and the mistreatment of suspected M23 collaborators.

The Congolese government and the U.N. have said one of their next main targets is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Many members of the FDLR -- which, after earlier iterations, formed in 2000 in opposition to the government in Kigali -- are Rwandan and ethnic Hutu. Some of them participated in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which claimed more than half a million lives. Others, however, were too young at the time to take part in the horrific violence. Some were born in Congo after the genocide, to Rwandan refugee parents; others are Congolese recruits.

The FDLR has committed numerous abuses against Congolese civilians. Gen. Sylvestre Mudacumura, a Rwandan who has commanded the FDLR's military forces since 2003, is already sought on an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes committed in eastern Congo. According to the ICC, he is allegedly responsible for "attacking civilians, murder, mutilation, cruel treatment, rape, torture, destruction of property, pillaging and outrages against personal dignity."

The fight against the FDLR has been inconsistent: In late 2008, the FDLR was estimated to have at least 6,000 combatants, controlling large areas of North and South Kivu provinces, including key mining areas. For years leading up to that point, the Congolese government had turned to the FDLR for support in its fight against Rwandan-backed rebel groups and the Rwandan army. This shifted in early 2009, when Rwanda and Congo made a deal: In exchange for Rwanda's assistance in removing the threat posed by another armed group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People, Congo's President Joseph Kabila permitted Rwandan troops to conduct joint operations with the Congolese army against the FDLR. The Rwandan army left after just one month, but Congolese forces, together with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country, continued military operations against the FDLR. The U.N. also increased its efforts to encourage FDLR combatants to demobilize and return to Rwanda. By early 2012, the FDLR was much weaker and its number of fighters had decreased substantially.

Yet after the M23 rebellion began, and the Congolese army and UN re-focused attention on the new threat, pressure on the FDLR waned again. FDLR combatants began surrendering at a lower rate, and the group continued attacking civilian populations, often in alliance with Congolese Hutu militia groups. I spoke to a woman in October who told me that FDLR fighters had rounded up and raped her and more than 30 other women and girls from her village in the territory of Masisi last year. While they raped her, the FDLR fighters told her she was "worthless." She lost consciousness, but she believes she was raped by at least five or six men. The woman also said that three girls from her village, ages 7 to 11, died after several FDLR fighters gang-raped them that same night.

Defeating the FDLR will not be easy: Its members, which have faced little government or U.N. pressure for months, are scattered in small groups across a vast territory, and they are experts at disappearing into the forest and blending in with civilian populations. Past military operations against the FDLR have also spurred the group to carry out large-scale attacks on civilians.

Several other Congolese armed groups claim to be protecting the population from the FDLR. One is the Raia Mutomboki ("outraged citizens" in Swahili). This is a loosely organized network of former fighters in other militias, demobilized Congolese soldiers, and youth who have armed themselves largely with machetes and spears. The Raia Mutomboki have killed hundreds of civilians since mid-2012: Often purposefully avoiding direct clashes with the FDLR, they have instead focused their attacks on dependents of FDLR combatants, Hutu women and children who are refugees from Rwanda, and Congolese who are ethnic Hutu.

Among the Raia Mutomboki's victims is Ernest*, a 12-year-old boy. When I met him late last year, he told me how the Raia Mutomboki had attacked his village in Walikale territory in August 2012. He said the combatants, shirtless and wearing traditional raffia skirts, entered his village, beating on drums and shouting out that ethnic Hutu civilians should leave the village. Ernest and his family -- who are Hutu -- quickly fled and hid in a thicket of reeds on the outskirts of the village. They thought they were safe, but the Raia Mutomboki combatants found them and proceeded to hack most of the family to death with machetes and spears. Ernest had been carrying his baby niece on his back, and when the Raia Mutomboki killed her, Ernest was covered in her blood, so the attackers assumed he was dead, too. After the attack, he had made it on his own to a displacement camp in a neighboring village several miles away.

Ernest spoke in a soft voice, staring at the corner of the ceiling and fidgeting his hands. He told me the names of those he lost that day: his mother, his father, his four brothers and sisters, his aunt, his uncle, and four little cousins.

Another militia allied with the Raia Mutomboki and currently opposed to the FDLR -- although it previously collaborated with the group -- has been responsible for some of the most brutal attacks on civilians in recent months. It is led by Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, a warlord wanted on a Congolese arrest warrant for crimes against humanity. Made up mostly of ethnic Nyanga combatants, Sheka's militia has killed, raped, and mutilated scores of ethnic Hutu and Hunde civilians in western Masisi and eastern Walikale territories.

A Hutu woman named Janine and some of her grandchildren escaped an attack by Sheka's militia in late September. Janine was going to her farm to look for food when militia fighters grabbed her and demanded money. She gave them what she had, and as they were counting the money, she managed to escape. She hid in the forest and soon heard gunshots coming from the direction of her village. When she went back the next day, she found that 11 of her family members and neighbors had been killed. Her eldest daughter had been shot in the head, and the daughter's six-month old baby had been stabbed multiple times in the chest, head, back, and ribs. Janine said that when she found him unconscious next to his mother's body, he had lost a lot of blood and was close to death. Janine and others took him to the hospital in the town of Bibwe, at least a seven-hour walk up and down several steep hills through the forest.

Janine was holding the baby when we spoke. She said she was worried because he wasn't getting milk, and she didn't know how she'd care for all her orphaned grandchildren -- there are now 10 -- on her own.

In the wake of defeating the M23, the Congolese government and the U.N. must address the threat posed by groups like the FDLR, the Raia Mutomboki, and Sheka's militia. This should include efforts to encourage combatants to disarm voluntarily, restore state authority in areas controlled by armed groups, and arrest leaders wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

To date, however, such efforts have been insufficient. Little has been done to curb abuses or investigate, arrest, and prosecute those most responsible for them. The government also has no official program for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former combatants. In the past, some combatants have gone to regroupment sites to await such a program, but many gave up on waiting and returned to their militia groups.

This is especially worrying given the recent wave of fighters turning themselves in after witnessing the M23's demise. For these defections to be meaningful, the Congolese government, with international support, must act quickly to step up demobilization and reintegration initiatives. Otherwise, whatever improvements in security the M23's surrender may have brought will be short lived -- and the road toward peace will remain as long as ever.

*Pseudonyms were used for the names of victims and witnesses mentioned in this article for their protection.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Report

Inside North Korea's Crystal Meth Trade

How shamed wives, rogue chemists, and crooked doctors move 'Ice' in the Hermit Kingdom.

I interviewed my first member of the North Korean crystal meth trade in the spring of 2011. My subject was a woman still living inside the country who was desperate to leave. Her family background was somehow shameful, hurting her husband's military career, she told me through an intermediary. And while she heard everyone in bustling, wealthy South Korea was "happy," she lived in a "small city, a dusty city."

Deeply in debt, the woman said she would travel across the border near the city of Yanji, a bleak and oppressing Tijuana, to smuggle contraband to a Chinese trader. They would meet in the middle of the Yalu, the river which runs more than half the length of the 890-mile border between the two countries, frozen during the winter and often laxly patrolled, and she would pass off the products, like North Korean antiques, that she said she carried.

I asked her if she ever smuggled Ice Drug, as it's known in the region. "You're asking the wrong person, this is not my kind of world," she responded." Then she paused. "Do you want to buy it from me? Are there people around you who want to buy from me?"

Crystal meth is everywhere, but there are few locations better suited for the drug than North Korea. Produced from chemicals accessible even in a country as isolated as North Korea, it also suppresses appetite; that makes it ideal for a nation scarred by hunger. And there are many underemployed scientists -- North Korea has a surprisingly educated populace -- with the ability and desire to toil away at perfecting the formula in remote labs scattered across the country's mountainous interior.

Now, seemingly for the first time, there is confirmation of a plan to bring North Korean crystal meth to the United States. On Nov. 20, prosecutors in New York unsealed the indictment of five foreign nationals who were being charged with conspiracy to import roughly 40 pounds of crystal meth from North Korea to the United States. They had agreed to sell the meth, at nearly $30,000 a pound, to a buyer who was actually working for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Few details are known about the men or how they procured, or had planned to procure, their North Korean meth. This is common for a story on drug trafficking, but difficulties are compounded when it involves North Korea, the world's most opaque country: Details about usage and production of crystal meth there are impossible to confirm. That said, here's my best guess as to how and why the drug could move from a factory town in eastern North Korea where it may have originated, to the streets of New York.

Amphetamines were first synthesized in 1887; crystal meth, a smokable form, became popular in the United States in the mid-1990s. Later in that decade, reports of crystal meth began surfacing in North Korea -- after a famine tore through the country, killing approximately 5 percent of the country's 22 million people. Along with the breakdown of social order and institutions, out-of-work scientists, especially in the industrial city of Hamhung, started looking for new ways to earn money and feed their families. With access to chemicals, scientists could use shuttered factories to produce the drug.

Perhaps the scientists chose factories hidden among North Korea's mountainous countryside, or perhaps North Korean authorities did not know or care about the notoriously pungent smell that ‘cooking' crystal meth throws off. More likely, North Korean authorities participated in the trade; they had been smugglers of other contraband, including bootleg cigarettes and heroin.

Three North Koreans I spoke with said the drug started appearing on the domestic market in the late 1990s -- a period also cursed by devastating rains, which damaged the opium poppy crop. As thousands of North Koreans began moving across the country's porous border with China during the famine, looking for food and work, they discovered a market for crystal meth on the Chinese side.

A former bicycle smuggler, who defected in 2009, told me the "word on the street" was that when then North Korean president Kim Jong Il "found out about Ice in 2003, he started asking around who had started this, and discovered it was the chemists and learned people in Hamhung. Originally he was going to have them sent up," the trader said, either to concentration camps or remote villages up north, riddled with starvation. But because it would destroy the field of chemistry, Kim Jong Il forgave them. He decided Ice would be called a "strong antibiotic." With the government's blessing, the drug spread. (As I speak no Korean, most of the interviews were done through a translator, who prefers to remain anonymous. Most were conducted over the phone.)

North Korea's lack of options means this probably-apocryphal Kim anecdote isn't quite as outlandish as it sounds. The former bicycle smuggler spoke of a doctor administering Ice to a friend's sick father. "He took it and could speak well and move his hand again five minutes later. Because of this kind of effect, elderly people really took to this medicine." A South Korea-based NGO worker, who claims to have interviewed over 500 defectors, told me "People with chronic disease take it until they're addicted." Unlike heroin, crystal meth is mostly smoked or snorted, and a threadbare medical infrastructure means it's difficult for North Koreans to find needles, Hazel Smith, a North Korea expert at Cranfield University in Britain, told me.

Of course, crystal meth -- intensely addicting, with side effects ranging from blurred vision and insomnia to heart attacks and strokes -- is not a good medical choice. Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy, a book about ordinary lives in North Korea, recalls interviewing a 17-year-old whose parents gave her Ice for a headache. "It wasn't like they were corrupting her, but that she wasn't feeling well," Demick told me. "She said she didn't like it. She couldn't sleep."

Throughout the 2000s, the drug spread. "We started hearing rumors in 1998," says one defector living in South Korea. "But there was nothing on the scale there is now; it wasn't like people you knew were addicted." Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul-based broadcaster that pipes programs into the North, reported in 2010 that residents of some cities in the North "consume crystal meth like food." In 2011, a defector told me that every time she asks her mom, who was living in North Korea as of March 2011, about different alumni from the school, her mom replies how the girls are "ruining themselves" with Ice. "They lived well originally," she said. And then they end up "living like beggars."

The North Korean government apparently tried to crack down, but their efforts seem to have failed. The Daily NK, a news organization run by defectors that sends journalists into the country, reported in 2010 the story of a ‘Grandma Choi,' who went to meet a guard after her grandson was arrested on suspicion of drugs. The guard told her if she wanted to see her son freed, she must bring Ice as a bribe. Grandma Choi bought the guard a carton of ice cream. He became angry and said, "Your son's lived all he's going to live." A friend of her grandson explained the situation, and with his help she purchased two grams of Ice for a bribe and gained her son's freedom. The Daily NK also reported that in January of 2011, a 34-year-old Taekwondo teacher murdered someone in a drug deal gone wrong. "A public trial was conducted at the school gymnasium but the presiding judge was clearly a user. Our correspondent said that the judge wasn't speaking properly and kept grinding his molars, along with other indications that he was high. The public who witnessed this were sharing complaints with each other such as, ‘doesn't he have any sense of shame,' as they left the ‘court.'" The teacher received the death penalty. (Both these stories are impossible to confirm.)

Unsurprisingly, attempts to stop the spread of the drug appear to have failed. In Spring 2013, the journal North Korea Review published a study entitled "A New Face of North Korean Drug Use: Upsurge in Methamphetamine Abuse Across the Northern Areas of North Korea." Kim Seok-hyang, a co-author of the study, told the Wall Street Journal that "almost every adult" in those areas of the country "has experienced using Ice, and not just once." He estimated "at least 40 to 50 percent are seriously addicted."

The study found that meth production over the last few years has shifted away from government-owned factories to underground laboratories and "home kitchens." It's unclear if the five men attempting to smuggle meth into New York were able to produce the 99 percent purity drug they allegedly possessed from a home kitchen, or a state-run factory, or something else entirely. It's also possible that the North Korean meth -- which ABC News called "Breaking Bad" quality -- was the brainchild of a chemist from the desolated city of Hamhung. But much of the meth probably is used domestically, as a natural outlet for escape. One of the defectors I interviewed in 2011 for my reporting on crystal meth went on a business trip in 2001; when he returned to his hometown, he found that his wife had starved to death in his absence. "There's no hell like North Korea," he said.

 

Reporting for this piece was made possible by a grant from Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images