Love and War in Eastern Congo
A rebel advance means two sweethearts must delay their wedding. But when they finally tie the knot with friends and family, fear is banished for a day.
The ADF has been blamed for a string of gruesome attacks against civilians, mostly in rural areas, where victims have been shot at close range or hacked to death by machete. Though the group once sought to establish an Islamic state in Uganda, it has since spilled over into Congolese territory with the apparent aim of establishing bases here.
Insecurity is felt by everyone here, and it nearly derailed the wedding by chasing away friends and family who planned to help finance the ceremony. “It’s not easy to have a nice wedding, unless you’re a priest or a minister,” says Thiery, who works as a nurse for just $70 per month. “Imagine arranging a ceremony like this on my salary! I needed a lot of help from friends and family.”
When some of those helpers fled the area over the summer, the ceremony was postponed until they returned in November. “They left because of fear,” says Thiery. “There had been massacres in the farms surrounding the town.”
But the groom doesn’t want to dwell on these difficulties — not today. Wearing a purple tie and silky white gloves, he looks exhausted as the wedding photographer tells him and Rebecca where to stand, how to pose, when to smile.
Once the photo shoot is over, the guests pile back into their cars. The convoy moves at a crawl, the drivers cheering and beeping as they circle the town center. They cruise past a colorful statue that commemorates Enock Muvingi Nymawisi, a prominent opposition figure from the region.
The statue was erected at a time when Muvingi’s party was allied with President Joseph Kabila’s ruling coalition. But a few years after his party broke away again in 2011, the statue was defaced. Someone chopped off Muvingi’s head and both hands during a government-enforced curfew. It still it stands there, neither restored nor removed, like a macabre warning at the center of town.
Now that Kabila seems intent on extending his mandate beyond constitutional term limits, a move that ignited violent protests in 2015 and has rallied the opposition against him, some see the ADF as an especially timely distraction.
Dan Fahey, a former coordinator of the U.N. Group of Experts in North Kivu, the province in eastern DRC where Beni is located, describes the ADF as “a useful enemy.” While there is no doubt that the group is responsible for some attacks in the area, he says that everyday disputes over land, money and power have been falsely blamed on the ADF. “If you think it’s just ADF that’s doing everything, then you’re never going to get anywhere in terms of figuring out how to solve it,” Fahey says.
The wedding convoy moves on. Its final stop is a reception hall overlooking dense forests of palm. Here, Belinda’s feast is served and the guests become increasingly boisterous, though Rebecca stays cool and calm.
“Nah, she’s not always like this. Maybe she’s just shy in front of all these people,” Abighael Mundeke Vangi, Belinda’s 16-year-old daughter, says of the bride.
Abighael has her mother’s bright eyes and direct manner, and is wearing a dress in the same busy pattern of orange and blue. She says she isn’t sure she’ll ever get married herself.
“My dream is to do something, so people can say I did well,” she says.
She could go into nursing, maybe. Or journalism. Or tourism. And although she doesn’t know much about politics, she has a sneaking suspicion that no matter what the government promises — development, security, investments in education and healthcare — her options here in Beni will never be enough.
“I can’t afford to go to university,” she says. “I just want to get out of Congo. Congo is no good.”
The party is about to begin. As the guests gather in the reception hall, Rebecca and Thiery stand solemnly before a three-layer cake; behind them is a wall festooned with green and orange ribbons. A DJ wearing a plaid cap teases the young couple and orders them to dance. They do, looking embarrassed as they execute a stiff rumba. Then the DJ plays a song by the famous Congolese musician Koffi Olomide, yelling at the audience to clap. They do, keeping time with the beat.
The sun is beginning to set as the guests stand up to dance, hands raised, dipping their fingers into the shafts of golden light slanting in through the windows. Then it’s time for the giving of gifts, and the guests march up the aisle with brightly wrapped packages, leaving them to pile up at the newlyweds’ feet. They rumba back to their seats, stepping on each other’s toes as a traffic jam forms in the aisle.
There is an eruption of light shoving and loud laughter. Even the bride cracks a smile.
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.