As I lounged in the back of Mama Koko’s compound, a round mud and thatch open-air gathering spot for the family, 20 or so brothers, uncles, cousins, babies, and new moms all gathered around in celebration of Koko’s homecoming, their long-lost relative who lives in America. I presumed we would have a casual, lighthearted reunion. But when we ate the home-cooked meal Koko’s sister made to welcome us, Koko’s elderly, frail uncle steered conversation towards the incident last year when he was seriously beaten by the LRA, prompting his move into town. The recent attacks were foremost on everyone’s mind. They wanted to talk about it.
The attack last week happened less than a mile from here. Mama Koko’s sprawling home compound is in a residential section of Dungu, scattered with cracked mud huts topped with thatched roofs that are propped up with crooked, polished wood posts. The family has started sleeping at home again after four nights on the ground in the courtyard of the UN compound following the attack. (Before the attacks began, they used to go there just to play tennis. Koko pointed it out as we passed through the center of this crumbling colonial town). The Congolese army set up a night watch right next to Mama Koko’s compound for a few nights, but they haven’t been back for several days now.
School had let out, so a few children went to do their daily chore of gathering water. As they stood at the community faucet collecting water in plastic jugs, they spotted men in long coats with guns. Lord’s Resistance Army. The children ran. The militia followed.
A young woman walked along the roadside with her one year old baby boy when she saw them. The LRA fighters shot a man near her, fleeing with his three-year-old daughter in his arms. The bullet hit his arm, but hit the child, passing straight through her stomach. The father lived, but the little girl died in the hospital two days later.
When the young woman started to run, they shot her, hitting her butt, the bullet passed through, blowing apart the whole area between her legs. She collapsed to the ground, but held her baby to her chest and dragged herself on her back to the bushes to hide. If she had had immediate medical treatment, she would likely be alive. But everyone who could have helped had already run away, searching for safety.
In the morning, a neighbor saw a trail of blood mixed with road dust. Following it into the bushes, the neighbor found the young woman’s dead body, with her baby boy, alive, cradled in her lifeless arms.
The baby was still nursing.
I asked Koko’s family if they knew the young woman. Their family has already suffered multiple losses in LRA attacks over the past two years, but again the answer was yes. Koko’s eyes widened, her jaw dropped when she heard the name.
It was her cousin Antoinette.
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.