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Tuesday 15 November 2005
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CONGO: In the forgotten Pool, Kindamba’s residents have yet to return

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]



KINDAMBA, 16 Sep 2004 (IRIN) - Before the series of civil wars that destroyed much of the Republic of Congo since 1993, the Pool region distinguished itself as the country’s granary. Its fertile soils supplied Brazzaville, the capital, with fresh groceries and livestock aplenty.

Today the Pool is a devastated region: its villages are razed, its fields burned, its roads demolished, and most of its population displaced by fighting between the army and pro-government militias against “ninja” rebels.

Every armed group has committed appalling atrocities against the civilian population.

Despite a ceasefire agreement signed on 17 March 2003 by the government and the ninjas of the Conseil national de la résistance (CNR, or National Resistance Council), peace is still elusive in this region where ninjas regularly preyed on civilians, and where the army’s presence is mostly symbolic.

Flying over the Pool reveals an endless horizon of dry, yellow hills that surround lush green valleys of dense forest. The few visible villages are mostly deserted. Fields are black as far as the eye can see, either burned by frequent bush fires, or as a result of the scorched-earth policy during the fighting.

Kindamba, sub-prefecture in ruins

Ten years ago, Kindamba was one of the main towns in the region. What now remains of it is mostly rubble and ash. The indiscernible town centre consists of a few partly bombed out buildings.

Kindamba’s infrastructure has been systematically targeted during the fighting. Electricity was cut long ago. The numerous pre-war telephone lines are but a distant memory, their charred poles a constant reminder of the town’s once prosperous past.

Kindamba is effectively cut off from the world, as is the rest of the Pool. The roads that once led to it are now tracks, hardly accessible even to all-terrain vehicles.

The bridge to Vinza
Credit: IRIN
The bridge on the road to the neighbouring town of Vinza is now a crumbling pile of wooden boards. Roads in every direction are in a similar state.

Kindamba’s market was destroyed during fighting between the “cobras”, a civil war militia loyal to President Dennis Sassou-Nguesso, and the ninjas. Nowadays, a few market stalls sell small piles of tomatoes, tiny pieces of dried fish, a bit of soap and some sour palm wine. The war has, naturally, killed business. The local authorities shut down the only butcher, in an attempt to end cattle rustling by armed men.

Kindamba market
Credit: IRIN
Basic supplies hardly make it from the nation’s capital to Kindamba. Only four to five trucks a week attempt the return trip to Brazzaville. They no longer carry anything other than green bananas, which usually ripen by the time they cover the 66 km in two to three days to the capital.

Kindamba’s supermarket, once the town’s pride, has been flattened. Bits of its weed-covered foundation are all that remains.

Most of the town’s schools had also been targeted. The Roman Catholic mission is now abandoned, its buildings bombed. Classroom walls are peppered with bullet holes, and wells have been filled with rocks. No child in Kindamba has attended school since 1993.

Hiding in the woods

Ruins of the supermarket
Credit: IRIN
Before the war, Kindamba had around 16,000 inhabitants. Adrien Batantou was then responsible for the town hospital’s laboratory. He estimated that only 2,000 to 3,000 residents had returned, based on the number of consultations the medical NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has recorded since it started rehabilitating the hospital in October 2003.

Most inhabitants fled to nearby forests to escape attacks. The lucky ones were sheltered by relatives in the capital, where the fighting stopped earlier than in the Pool.

Patients at the hospital
Credit: IRIN
Batantou had to flee to the forest on three different occasions, with his entire family, for several months at a time. They survived in improvised straw huts that offered no shelter from the rain.

“We sometimes managed to eat, thanks to God and to nature, a few fishes from the river, and a few cassava leaves the women would prepare at night, otherwise the fire would attract the militias and they would attack us,” he said.

Civilians were methodically targeted by all parties to the conflict. “We had to stay constantly on the move. By day, we would hide separately, so as not to be captured all at once, and we regrouped at night, to get a few hours’ sleep together,” he said. No one knows how many civilians were executed, how many women and children were raped. But at the height of the fighting, the whole of Kindamba was deserted.

Meanwhile, the town was being thoroughly looted, first by government troops, then by the ninjas. “They looted all the equipment we had in the hospital, even the three microscopes from the lab, and the chemicals we use for analyses. Of course they threw them away, they didn’t how to use it,” Batantou said.

Kindamba’s protestant church, bombed during the fighting
Credit: IRIN
Most private homes were also stripped bare, then set alight. “They took everything, even the plates and the tin roofs,” he added.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has launched a distribution of non-food items. The 5,000 kits to be given out contain a mat, blankets, cloths, cooking utensils, and vegetable seeds, evidence of the absolute destitution of Kindamba’s inhabitants. Given the poor condition of roads, flying the kits in was deemed more cost-effective than shipping them by truck.

Medical emergency

When MSF arrived in Kindamba in October 2003, it diagnosed an exceptionally acute malnutrition rate, especially among children, as well as endemic incidences of malaria.

Destroyed home
Credit: IRIN
MSF restored the hospital, of which only a few rusty bed frames survived the looting. The medical department held 17,000 consultations from December to May 2004.

The maternity unit also resumed its operations. According to a medical official who did not wish to be named, for fear of reprisals, many women who were raped by armed men during the conflict died in labour, and because of the trauma of witnessing combat.

“Gunfire and artillery shelling caused many spontaneous miscarriages and premature births,” she said.

The head of the maternity unit is known to everyone as “Maman-la-sage” (Mother Midwife). She stayed in Kindamba during the fighting and had to close the unit at 4 pm instead of 6 pm to avoid patients being raped on their way home at night. When fighting was at its worst, she stayed home, but kept on helping patients give birth in her home, she said.

MSF also reopened the hospital’s laboratory, essential to diagnosing malaria that is a constant threat to the people in this tropical region.

The hospital is buzzing with activity, as it provides the only health care services available for residents of the area. Some walk up to 50 km to reach it. Norbert Makila had accompanied his wife from their home, 15 km away from Kindamba.

“We left yesterday at midnight, because my wife was unwell. We got here at 8 this morning, and my wife is with the doctor right now,” he said.

They have had to walk all the way because the few roads that exist are impassable to trucks. “The only traffic is the ninjas, and they don’t offer help to anyone,” he added.

Neither war nor peace

Frederic Bitsangou, alias Pasteur Ntoumi, who heads the CNR from his stronghold in the town of Vinza, some 20 km northwest of Kindamba, supposedly leads the ninjas. The ninjas are easily recognisable with their short dreadlocked hair, purple robes and scarves. They frequently threaten humanitarian workers and demand goods from local residents, casting doubt on the rebel movement’s coherence and whether they are really under control.

The government authorities and the ninjas agreed that no one should carry weapons in town. However, ninjas occasionally wander in town with their AK-47 assault rifles. One such group refused to talk to IRIN out of fear, except to say: “You are going to make us look like bandits.”

M. Mouzital, CNR representative in Kindamba
Credit: IRIN
Mouzital is the official representative of the CNR in Kindamba. He said nothing had been done to rebuild the region since the rebels and the government signed the peace accord in March 2003. He lamented what he termed the lack of interest of the government in Brazzaville, as well as the United Nations.

“No one helps us because we don’t have any oil [in the Pool]. If the war was in Pointe Noire [the oil-rich part of the country], everything would be sorted by now,” he said.

Although there has been no major fighting since the beginning of 2004, Mouzital thinks it could ignite again in a flash. “I keep four weapons under my bed,” he said, nodding towards his house.

Some government army officials are stationed in Kindamba, their presence more a symbol than anything else. They are rotated every three months, picked up by a helicopter that flies in from Brazzaville. In between these movements, they sit around, chatting with the ninjas near the improvised offices of the sub-prefect in the hospital.

Jean de Dieu M’Boukou is the sub-prefect, Kindamba’s top civil servant and administrator in the eyes of the government. He said the situation had been relatively quiet for the past months, except for a few incidents he felt were due more to petty crime by idle armed men rather than to political or military necessity.

Banana producers waiting for transport to Brazzaville
Credit: IRIN
But he agreed with the rest of the inhabitants that before the war, the region was rich with cattle and crops. “Now, there is nothing left,” he said.

He would like to resume some sort of legal system in the area but lacks the means to do so. He agreed that Kindamba’s primary problem was its isolation, due to the bad roads. “It’s very hard to transport anything we produce, doing business has become impossible,” he said.

Soon, with the onset of the rainy season, the few dirt tracks that cut through Pool will become rivers of mud. Then, Kindamba’s encirclement will be complete.

 Theme(s) Peace Security
Other recent CONGO reports:

Teachers return to school in Brazzaville,  15/Nov/05

Regional Summit postponed,  8/Nov/05

Teachers end month-long nationwide strike,  8/Nov/05

First batch of ex-Mobutu soldiers return home,  2/Nov/05

Kinshasa team in Brazzaville to identify former soldiers,  31/Oct/05

Other recent Peace Security reports:

SUDAN: First APCs to arrive in Darfur on Friday, 15/Nov/05

SOMALIA: Heavy sentences for murder of aid workers in Somaliland, 15/Nov/05

AFGHANISTAN: Election results finalised, 14/Nov/05

IRAQ: Ongoing violence sees rising concern for journalists’ safety, 14/Nov/05

BURKINA FASO: Blaise Compaore, a president on a quest for legitimacy, 14/Nov/05

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