BENI - For many years in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the military was the main seller of liquor imported from Uganda. But now soldiers have changed sides, and are now fighting those who try to import liquor into Congo.
In order to reduce the trafficking and consumption of banned liquors in the Beni region, soldiers and police forces decided to join forces last February. These banned drinks are being imported from Uganda through the city of Kasindi, in the eastern part of North Kivu. Last March, a major from the FARDC (Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo) brought two sacks of liquor to the offices in charge of animal quarantine and veterinary services (SQAV). He asked for the bags to be destroyed publicly, an army official recalled.
“We are doing it out in the open so that the importers cease their traffic immediately, and because without knowing it, we are digging our own graves,” the army chief said.
It is an abrupt turnaround for these men in uniform, who used to devote their energies to hocking booze. Said one hotel manager: “The soldiers who sleep in my hotel used to buy alcohol in Uganda, as part of the food ration. But since February, they stopped doing it and they are cracking down on all traffic and consumption.”
In this territory, the national army is fighting militias and armed groups in a protracted civil war that touches nearly every town or village -- and part of that battle is now also over imported alcoholic beverages.
All battalion commanders have received the order to dismantle these importation networks. On the way in and out of the Beni territory, soldiers and policemen are joining efforts to implement roadblocks.
The change of policy began at the end of 2012. According to Tito Bizuri, commander of the first army battalion in the 8th regiment, when they are drunk, soldiers tend to break army rules: they do not perform their guard duties, often falling asleep on their shift. In one case, a drunk officer killed four civilians on a rampage in the town of Mai Moya.
At the Beni military court, cases of rape, murder and armed robbery are often committed under the influence of alcohol. “We want to prevent any alliances between soldiers and civilians from smuggling liquor across the border,” a spokesman for the Garrison’s Prosecutor declared. “We want our troops to avoid breaking the rules, and we are also trying to keep them healthy.”
The alcohol being smuggled into Congo is usually called “beer”, and comes from small-scale factories in Uganda. These beers usually have odd names such as “machozi ya samba” (lion tears), “kill me quick”, “yoka naino” (listen to me first), “avion” (plane) or “goal”. They are sold in sachets or pouches, which makes it easy for people to carry them in their pocket and drink them while they drive their car or motorbike.
Today, the military is cooperating with civilians to uncover liquor traffickers and retailers. Informants are singling out liquor importers who hide the merchandise in food parcels. Usually, traffickers unload the liquors before entering the city, and then use motorbikes to smuggle it into Beni, as two-wheelers do not have to stop at the toll booth to enter the city.
Vehicles are being searched at every roadblock, and soldiers who refuse to join the crackdown are brought to trial. Meanwhile, retailers are brooding. A woman who wished to remain anonymous told us she was still selling liquor illegally but only to people she knew well, for fear of being arrested.