DR Congo's Kasai conflict: Voodoo rebels take on Kabila

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Two young fighters in Kananga town - one wears a traditional mask used in witchcraft ceremonies.
Image caption,
The latest conflict began when the government refused to recognise a traditional chief

A new conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen hundreds killed, a million displaced and the reported recruitment of thousands of child soldiers. The BBC's Catherine Byaruhanga has gained rare access to central Kasai region to report on the crisis, sparked by the killing of a rebel leader last year.

Paul's lips tremble, his voice breaks and he visibly shakes as he recounts the trauma he has been through.

He tells me that government soldiers raided his village, then made him dig a mass grave in which 60 people, including members of his own family and neighbours, were buried.

"They killed people and raped women. Then, the next day we saw a general. He said 'Come out of your house; we're not going to kill any more.'

"He told us to bury the people - even members of my family, even people I knew."

Image caption,
Fighters and civilians have been buried in mass graves

The UN says it has now found 40 mass graves in the region connected with the conflict.

Paul's story (we've changed his name to protect his identity) fits into a broader picture of alleged rights violations by Congolese security forces in the area, who are accused of killing scores of civilians as part their campaign to put down an insurgency by a group known as the Kamuina Nsapu.

A UN report detailed one incident in March in which police allegedly shot three children in the head, after forcing them to lie on the floor during a raid on a community suspected of connections to the militia group.

Image caption,
'General' Gaylord Tshimbala says voodoo makes him invincible

The insurgency in the central Kasai region, a stronghold for opponents of President Joseph Kabila, threatens the country's already highly fragile political situation.

The roots of this conflict were local, but the violence has now spread to five central provinces.

It began when the government refused to recognise a traditional chief who went by the title Kamuina Nsapu.

He set up a militia and was killed in clashes with the government last August.

This spurred his supporters to fight the government, targeting police officers, soldiers and their perceived supporters.

The militias have also been accused of gross human rights violations.

In March, they ambushed and killed 40 police officers in Kasai, cutting off all of their heads.

In the same month, two UN workers, a Swedish and an American, were abducted and killed in the same region, having gone to investigate the abuses.

More and more people have joined the fighting.

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Some of the fighters in Kamanga have agreed to disarm

The Kamuina Nsapu militia now has many factions all fighting for different reasons, but with the authorities their common target.

In Kananga, the biggest town in the region, we heard echoes of Paul's testimony from different people.

One man, who did not want to be named, recalled an army raid:

"When the shooting began, my children ran and hid in a neighbour's house.

"But the government soldiers got into that house - three people were killed and one of my children was injured."

Another Kananga resident accused the armed forces of extortion:

"Soldiers are coming into neighbourhoods and harassing people for money. If you don't have money, they threaten to kill you."

"They are stealing mobile phones and money. People are scared and that's why they are running away."

Image caption,
Some believe wooden guns can be transformed into live weapons through magic

At least 400 people have been killed and a million people driven from their homes by the fighting, the UN says.

Many of those killed are either suspected members of Kamuina Nsapu or civilians.

General Joseph Ponde is the chief military prosecutor. He admits soldiers have committed crimes but says they are not the only ones at fault.

"These mass graves are not just the work of the police or armed forces.

"Members of the Kamuina Nsapu militia also go on barbaric killing sprees. They dig mass graves and dump the bodies there. And then people blame the authorities. Nevertheless these things are happening and can't be ignored."

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Archbishop Basanguka says young people's hopelessness underlies the conflict

It's tense negotiating our way into Kamuina Nsapu's makeshift headquarters, inside the city's main stadium.

The Stade de l'Espoir in Kananga sits opposite the main police station and is a no-go area for most.

A young man stands outside the gate holding a long thick stick.

Not many journalists have come this far - and none from the international press. But we manage to negotiate our way in.

Inside, there are between 40 to 50 young men, along with others who looked more like children.

An altar has been set up in front of one of the stands and a wood fire lit.

Image caption,
Militia members hold a witchcraft ceremony inside their stadium headquarters

A man wearing a red cap rings a bell around the fire as he holds a wooden doll-like figure.

I'm watching some kind of voodoo ceremony.

A self-styled "general" of the militia approaches me.

He introduces himself as General Gaylord Tshimbala.

He is excited to speak some English with a visitor and he looks intoxicated.

He tells me that the "witchcraft" practised by the group here makes him invincible:

"It is God who allows the fetishes to function. Look at me for example, bullets have no effect on me, even if I was hit by a rocket, nothing would happen. The bullets slip off me like water."

I push him on the crimes allegedly committed by his group and other similar militias.

Image caption,
Colonial power Belgium envisaged Kananga as the Congolese capital due to its central position

They have been accused of beheading security officers, killing civilians and destroying church property.

He denies the allegations,

"Kamuina Nsapu does not kill people. Kamuina Nsapu only has one objective - for the lives of all Congolese to be better."

The men here in the stadium have in principle agreed to give up their arms as part of a government programme.

But they still share grievances over a lack of opportunities in their region.

For the region's Archbishop Marcel Madila Basanguka, this marginalisation is at the heart of the conflict.

Dialogue rather than guns are the solution, he tells me:

"Young people today can't even get married because they don't have money, they don't have a job. Can you imagine? It is serious when young people don't have a future."

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But Kananga has not developed much since independence

But the government dismisses this argument and says there is no justification for violence.

Lambert Mende, Congo's Minister for Information, believes there is a foreign collusion to unsettle his country by stopping the elections in Kasai, though the government has not put forward any evidence to back up the claim.

"They are trying create chaos and strife in our country and this is not the interest of the government. We need elections to be held," Mr Mende says.

The country is due to hold elections before the end of the year as part of a fragile deal brokered with the opposition.

They want to see the back of President Joseph Kabila, who has already served his constitutional limit of two terms in office.

Given the current levels of insecurity in the vast Kasai region, it is difficult to see how successful elections could be held here by the end of 2017.

But alternatively, if this is the one region that doesn't get to vote, that could seriously undermine the legitimacy of whoever does win.