With UN Troops Arriving, Congo Insurgents Have A Choice To Make

Militias in the North Kivu region are facing desertions as the UN armed contingent begins to move into the embattled territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But fighting still flares.

M23 troops in Bunagana, North Kivu
M23 troops in Bunagana, North Kivu
Jacques Kikuni Kokonyange

BENI - Colonel David Lusenge surrendered to the Congolese army at dawn on the second Saturday in April.

This former officer of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC), who had deserted the national army to help found the rebel group Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, had been plotting an attack for late March against the town of Beni.

“I’ve decided to come back to the FARDC. I have finally realized that I must serve my country in the regular army, and not in the bush,” he stated to representatives from civil society, who helped pave the way for his peaceful return.

Lusenge is not the only one to have turned his back on the rebel movement since the United Nations Security Council’s decision to send an armed contingent to stamp out the insurgency in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The celebrated leader of the Mai-Mai tribe, Muhindo Wikongo, very active west of Beni, has also given up the fight, along with some members of insurgent groups like the March 23 Movement (M23) and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Witnesses tell of Wikongo leaving his arrows, machetes and blades behind him, followed by his lieutenants, to the surprise of the villagers who were living in constant fear of attacks.

Still, the fighting is hardly over. This past week saw the worst violence since M23 briefly overtook the regional capital of Goma last year. Observers say the remaining militia are trying to undermine the arrival of UN troops.

UN flexes its muscles

Around the town of Beni, the rebels have been turning themselves in one by one over the past month, dropping their weapons on the way. At least ten armed groups have surrendered in total. Most of them go through civil society, which has been granted authority by the local administration after last February’s talks.

“We regularly receive calls from outlaws who tell us their wish to leave the bush and re-embrace civil life,” says Teddy Kataliko, president of Beni territory’s civil society. With its 3,000 soldiers, mostly from African countries (Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi), the UN special contingent is better prepared for assaults and owns better equipment than the standing Congolese army.

M23 troops in Bunagana, North Kivu - Photo: Al Jazeera English

According to Mussa Demba Diallo, head of the public information division of the MONUSCO (UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo) in Beni, the mission has infantry, artillery, a special forces unit and a recon team. “We advised the locals to leave the bush since fighting an international force is not an easy task. We are likely to lose friends and family,” says Christophe Kambale from civil society in Beni.

Warning of the coming effects of this mission, which is expected to be operational anytime between now and July, the provincial government in North Kivu and civil society leaders are urging the dissidents to make a choice between civil life or the army. Retraining centers have already been opened since February in county seats.

Timid returns

“We are in permanent contact with some of the children who have been ensnared in the fighting. Truth be told, their demands are not clear. Sometimes they claim they have been drafted by politicians fighting the current authority, sometimes they say they were promised rank and gold after conquering large cities,” says Jackson Kalongero, head of the Congo governmental program of reconstruction and stabilization in eastern DRC.

“Many rebels are starting to get along with this reintegration process, others timidly return to their villages,” noted North Kivu's governor.

Spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai said that since early April, 87 rebels from the M23 already surrendered to UN forces. They were regrouped into the Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration and Resettlement section of the UN mission in Goma. Governor Paluku reckons that “more than 500 fighters of the M23 have been reinstated into the FARDC since 2012.”

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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