This post follows from a story about the death of Antoinette that Lisa Shannon wrote about last week.
Yeah, it’s like that.
I talked to Antoinette’s father today, in Mama Koko’s living room. A modest man, mid-50s, pressed, tucked, and in a baseball cap – visibly wearing the weight of his recent loss. He sat on the far end of the sofa, with Koko’s elderly uncle, who had been badly beaten himself last year by the Lord’s Resistance Army, on the other end.
The father was at home on the day of the incident, taking care of his grandchildren while his daughter worked. He heard gunshots, then screaming, and grabbed the two young children. Along with thousands of neighbors, he ran toward safety in the town center, which houses the U.N. compound. But by the time they reached the river, Congolese soldiers, or the FARDC, had blocked the bridge—the only route into the town center— intentionally preventing those escaping the attack from crossing to safety.
"Why didn’t you just swim across the river?" I asked.
"It’s deep. We can’t swim,” he said. “And if we tried, the Congolese soldiers would shoot us like we were rebels."
Thousands of people were forced to sleep outside, less than a mile from the site where the LRA was in the middle of an attack, abducting an unknown number of townspeople.
I’ve written about the FARDC’s failure to protect civilians and their human rights abuses before. Hearing the news of this attack before I left for Congo last week, I found their failure to intervene shocking, especially since the LRA attackers had walked right past them on the way to their target. But this? Preventing locals from reaching safety? Effectively corralling thousands of potential victims into a holding pen in the middle of an LRA attack? Astounding.
"They didn’t want the LRA to slip into the center of town with the people," Koko’s brother offered.
I asked the grieving father, "Does that seem like a reasonable explanation to you?"
He shook his head defiantly, "No. It’s not right. The soldiers should be in the front and the people in the back so they can protect us. But the soldiers were in the back, and we were up front when the LRA was coming."
Thousands of people slept in the road next to the bridge until daylight, when they headed home. At 7 a.m., a 12-year-old boy, whose own sister had been injured in the attack, came with the news: Neighbors had found Antoinette’s body. They found her still holding her baby. The neighbors left the child in his dead mother’s arms until the family arrived. Antoinette’s sister swooped down and collected the little boy.
I asked, "If you could say something to Americans—the government or just regular people—what would you say?"
"I don’t know what to tell the American government if I can’t even talk to my own government. Because they don’t care about the way people are dying from the LRA. They don’t do anything about it."
A few days ago, this father gathered with his fellow citizens and marched through the center of Dungu in protest of the Congolese government’s failure to protect.
"If you could have five minutes with President Joseph Kabila, what would you say?"
"I would ask him: Why did I vote for you? Everything that is happening to us, you don’t do anything. We don’t even hear your voice. You say nothing. You don’t care."
"It sounds like you blame the Congolese government and the Congolese army for what happened,” I remarked. “Is that right?"
Both men on opposite ends of the sofa look at me with a mix of sadness and indignation. Koko’s uncle couldn’t contain himself, "Yeah, it’s like that."
"Yeah, it’s like that," the grieving father echoes again, and then again. "Yeah. It’s like that.”
Lisa Shannon is the founder of Run for Congo Women and the author of the forthcoming book A Thousand Sisters. She is currently traveling in eastern Congo and posting regularly to her blog AThousandSisters.com.