Death falls on Beni
Text by Daniele Bellocchio
Photographs by Marco Gualazzini
Hell: Death Falls on Beni
Dawn in the hills of North Kivu is in the absence of the sun: a dense sulphurous fog shrouds the forests and villages. It is eerie and carries with it the phantoms of the night. As it lifts like a theatre curtain, it reveals to the world yet another massacre. Onlookers are ferociously forced to witness death: innocent, unjustified, destabilizing, questioning all convictions and certainties. The village of Erengeti is on the border between the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu, enclosed in the high areas of the territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo known as “the death triangle.”
Over 50 militia groups run rampant here tirelessly carrying out executions. They are professionals specializing in massacres, rebels orphaned of a rebellion, child bandits with no questions, besieging these lands in the attempt to gain control of a street, a hill, a mine or simply to loot in total impunity. A squad of irregulars taking advantage of the darkness, hounded on the cluster of homes and like a pack of demons intoxicated with hatred and folly, opened fire on the houses. Brandishing machetes and Kalashnikovs, shouting and shooting. Any action, even the most brutal, for them is only an exercise of blind obedience to the imperative of extermination.
The signs of what occurred during the night are now clearly visible. The FARDC government forces surround the village: the machine gun barrels scrutinize anyone who moves along the main road while soldiers on foot search fields and paths. The entire community has gathered outside the hospital in deafening silence. Inside the morgue, where the smell of clotting blood and urine makes the air unbreathable, two bodies have been laid out on cold stone slabs. George was an 18-year old student. He was listening to the radio when the irregulars attacked the village shattering the darkness with gunshots. Two bullets pierced his abdomen. He died even before he could question what was happening or even ask “Why?”
Kahambu, who lies next to him was 60. She shared the same fate. A barrage of shots, an explosion, murder without a reason. George’s sister cries alone, leaning against the morgue walls. Meanwhile, Moise Bitchuma, the community spokesman, thunders fiery words triggered by an all-consuming rage and endemic fear. “This is hell! Hell! We have been left to ourselves, abandoned, and sooner or later we will all die! Tell me: how can we live here, in these lands, in this village, where over the last six days 22 people have been killed? What must we do to survive? The rebels take over the streets, assault convoys, rape women, attack villages. And look, look what they do: they kill our children, our mothers and we are left alone, alone!” The man shouts and continues: “Now we are terrified because there is also Ebola and all of us are doomed!”
Moise Bitchuma’s exasperated cries epitomize the situation in North Kivu which, since August 2018 has been marked by history’s first outbreak of Ebola in a context of war, and the most deadly in terms of children infected. The virus, in one year, has already infected more than 3000 people causing over 2000 deaths: 30% are minors, and the infant mortality rate is approximately 67%, one of the highest ever registered. All this is happening in one of the poorest countries in the world based on the Human Development Index, in a Nation which counts over four million refugees, more than two million children victims of malnutrition, and 13 million people who need aid in order to survive. The city of Beni is the epicentre of this crisis: a city of 250,000 inhabitants, with the virus spreading rapidly inside it while outside it is surrounded by dozens of militias patrolling the main arteries of communication.
A white sheet soaked in blood, a child running as he waved a handkerchief to warn everyone of the presence of a dead person: along the road to Beni, only a few kilometres from the houses, a man has just been killed. He was struck by a machete and collapsed to the ground. The residents of the area covered the corpse and witnesses say that the attack was carried out by members of the Mai Mai militia. They decided to kill Malenganya Chabani because he was an operator of the Red Cross and therefore guilty of working with an institution which is trying to stop the virus from spreading. In the areas hit by the Ebola outbreak, theories of conspiracies and plots are also circulating. Popular beliefs, superstition, political exploitation and social exasperation have led more and more people to believe that the virus does not exist and that it is only a strategy used by occult powers to exterminate the local population. Several doctors have been killed, health centres have been attacked, clinics have been looted and local communities have started to show hostility towards activities contrasting Ebola, refusing to adopt precautions and thereby preventing infection from coming to a stop.
“The outbreak has sparked a conflict between the community and health workers. Increasing numbers of people, driven by rumours and false beliefs, have started to express their aversion towards the activities carried out by those entrusted with fighting the disease. So today we are caught in the crossfire: on the one hand we have a critical situation and the spread of the epidemic, on the other, the population’s hostility which only worsens the situation.”
The man speaking is Jean Paul Kapitula, head of Beni’s Civil Protection. He is sitting in the emergency units’ coordination office, where men and women unrelentingly answer the phone. Kapitula explains: ”As soon as a death occurs they call us. We alert the operators to get ready and go and retrieve the body and take care of the burial. As the corpses are highly infective we cannot leave them with the family, we have to urgently transport them to the morgue, adopt extremely rigorous security measures and proceed with the funeral in the briefest time possible. Often the operators are attacked when they go to a home where there is a victim of Ebola and this is why they must always be escorted by the police force or the army. It is extremely painful, but we cannot do it otherwise.”
The phones keep ringing. Meanwhile an operator, with the cynical precision of an archivist, notes the names of those who have died from the illness on a blackboard: name, surname neighbourhood and age. He continues to write as if he were composing the elegy of an entire community: Irene Kavira, only a year old, Confiance Masika, four years, Kymbesa Ndonia, 13 years old. Another call and Kapitula cautions: ”We just received news of another death in the Paida neighborhood”. Police agents and soldiers get ready: Kalashnikovs and ammunition, masks and gloves, then they take their places on the pickup trucks. The emergency unit loads all the necessary equipment for the operation onto a jeep while the hearse pulls up between the two, carrying a plywood coffin lined with a tarp. It’s a journey on the frontline, where you can feel the claws of tragedy, ever-present and imminent, the threat is invisible and the enemy hides round every corner: an attack by the irregulars, an ambush by a group of citizens, or even the slightest imprecision, which in this case, however, can turn into a fatal accident and risk exposure to the infection.
Men, women and children, their eyes saturated with fear and despair, point to a small house on top of a hill. Those standing nearby cry out that the young man, 21 years old, had been sick only a few days. Women cry out in distress, others say they brought him food, nobody knew it was Ebola. It is all so ominous, inhumane; anybody could have been infected, and be contagious. Nobody can feel safe and nobody can be of reassurance to others. The soldiers will not go near the house where the Ebola victim is, while the civil protection operators donning their suits go inside, spray the entire hut with chlorine and then leave carrying the man’s body wrapped in a white bag. A twenty-year old man inside a plastic bag, and nobody can say goodbye to him, touch him or at least honour his memory through one last gaze.
The body bag is wrapped in a blanket, then put inside the coffin which is immediately nailed and taken to the morgue. The onlookers’ eyes are distraught, empty, they have no answers, no consolation. Eyes trying to catch each other’s gaze, trying to find in others what nobody can any longer find in themselves: an explanation, a justification, the origins of being condemned to live in a land where death swoops down on life with no warning, where absurd atrocities reign and are rife in every province, and where anyone who comes here to stoop over the edge of the abyss is left with just one haunting obsession: to ask forgiveness, to all those people who have to live in that abyss.