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Youth Vigilantes In Congo Crack Down On Crime, Worry Police

With crime on the rise, youth in the Congolese city of Beni have banded together to protect their neighborhoods. Though some bad guys have been busted, some worry that well-meaning crime-fighters can one day turn into dangerous militias.

Are the police enough in Congo? (Rachel Strohm)
Are the police enough in Congo? (Rachel Strohm)
Jacques Kikuni Kokonyange

BENI - Taking turns to keep watch, youths congregate on the roundabouts and crossroads to take on the thieves who prey upon the innocent in this city in northeastern Congo. These self-styled vigilantes of Beni manage to arrest a few, and discourage others.

But authorities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are warning against this new, dangerous practice: the issue of security of the population, they insist, is a matter for the State.

On Kalinda Road, in the town of Bungulu, where the avenues meet at the Catholic church, smoke fills the sky on a late June night. On a nearby strip of land, a group of youths are busying themselves by gathering tree branches and piles of leaves that they continually throw into the flames of a bonfire. On the other side of the Rwenzori village, on the main road Kasabinyole to the east of Beni, another fire is burning.

It's about 10 p.m., and with all the smoke, you might have thought it was a brick manufacturer chugging through the swing shift.

"We've kept watch every night since the start of April to stop and denounce gangsters who are killing our brothers," explains Emmanuel Palaku, a youth from the crime-plagued Kalinda zone.

In the past year, two Kalinda political leaders and a video-reporter have been shot to death. Across the city of Beni, dozens of murders by either shooting or stabbing have been registered. Even servicemen are not spared, notably Ozacaf and Paida military outposts were attacked recently.

With preventive measures nearly exhausted, the youths have decided to band together in small groups to take matters into their own hands. At nightfall, they do the rounds on the streets to watch over passers-by. Brandishing banners, iron bars and whistles, their presence discourages would-be crooks.

"We've taken this measure because the police and security officers can't assure our safety. They can no longer fight against armed thieves," explains one of the youths, Patrick Musavuli.

It seems to be working, with some of the lookouts from the Mupanda area recently catching two armed thieves, who were then taken to the police. Towards the Kasabinyole area in eastern Beni, farmers turned a gang leader into the authorities, who was suspected of several house burglaries in town. "Thanks to them the youths, we caught eight bandits, including Abdou, who admitted to having killed a police officer who was guarding a van near a local bank," said Bwanakawa Masumbuko, mayor of Beni.

Useful but dangerous

Opinions are divided about the security provided by the youths. During a meeting at the Kasabinyole stadium, the mayor called on the people to support the authorities in securing the town. For Joly Kahebe, a public official in Mulekera, the people should support anyone who assures the safety of the town and spares its residents of violence. "There's nothing wrong with the youths bringing peace to the town. But we shouldn't rest on our laurels," she said.

But some human rights activists and local officials are not convinced. "Security is everyone's business, but that doesn't mean that youths should replace the authorities," says Angélus Kavutirwaki, who coordinates civil society in Beni.

Meanwhile, Esai Katavu, president of the student committee at the Christian Bilingual University of Congo, , notes that it is dangerous for the youths, who could find that the same police officers they think they're helping, could one day turn on them.

Others fear that the vigilante approach resembles the beginnings of a militia group. "It would be better if the State assumed its sovereign duties," recommends one captain of the army. The African Human Rights Association in Beni believes that the best solution would be if the government pays a decent wage to the men, or increase the number of police officers so that they could fulfill their role.

Read the original articel from SYFIA in French.

Photo - Rachel Strohm

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