Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Searching for Baraka

Rory Anderson searching the jungles of the eastern Congo for young Baraka.We stayed in Butembo on Friday night. On Saturday we drove for miles and miles, through hills and forests, trying to find Baraka.

Baraka was rumored to be between only 7 and 12 years old, the "general" of a contingent of Mai-Mai soldiers, who use traditional witchcraft to give them power. The Mai-Mai date back to the 1960s, around the time Che Guevara was in the Congo, and they have ebbed and flowed through the DRC's history. Most recently, they have been comprised of local forces who have fought against both Rwandan, Ugandan and even Congolese troops in the defense of their area.

"I think we can find him, and I'm sure he'll talk if we find him," said Horeb. "But, we may have to walk in the jungle a bit. My Mai-Mai contacts say he is not far from Virundu, but he will be in the jungle, so we will have to leave the vehicle and walk. Will you walk?"

"In the jungle, with snakes, Horeb? I need to think about that. Besides, I only have sandals, not boots like what you have. Are you sure he won't come out to the town to talk with us? I don't want to walk five miles in the jungle. I'm not cut out for that."

"We'll see, Rory."

We drove and made many stops among many villages, talking with many chiefs, but we saw no sign of any Mai-Mai soldiers. In fact, we saw only FARDC soldiers. Apparently, the Mai-Mai had been pushed back into the jungle; many had been killed or scattered abroad.

Toward the end of the day, we made our way back to chat with one of the area sub-chiefs and a FARDC major. This time, we point blank came out and asked about Baraka and if they knew of his whereabouts. This struck up a lively and spirited conversation.

Baraka still lives, the major told us, but his forces had been pushed back -- "They are bandits!" The sub-chief began to recount how Baraka's parents were once Mai-Mai warriors, and how his father, in particular, had performed many miracles in battle.

However, his father and some of the Mai-Mai troops eventually began looting local villages. As a result, he began to lose power and was eventually killed. But before he died, he was reported to have transferred some of his "ju-ju" to Baraka, his son, who was just an infant at the time.

"Is his mother still fighting?" I asked.

"No," the chief replied. "She is staying in Beni. She left the Mai-Mai, but the boy is still in the bush."

With that intelligence, we headed to Beni, which was about an hour's drive from Butembo. For the moment, we gave up searching for Baraka, realizing that since his forces had been beaten back they would likely be desperate and more dangerous. Horeb and Faustin were disappointed, as they both really wanted to meet Baraka, the young general.

"This is still worthwhile, guys," I chimed. "We now have a new target -- Baraka's mother. That's our story now. Can you imagine a mother's agony as she knows that her child is soldiering somewhere in the bush? Let's see if we can track her down." And so, off to Beni we went. What a nice drive it was, through lovely tea plantations and forest, until we got to another small town.

Baraka's mother.Horeb has many friends, and his wife has relatives who live here in Beni. Through these contacts, and through several visits with different people, and many drives around the town, we eventually found Baraka's mother -- not a warrior at all, but a pretty young woman laying in a hospital bed. She was reluctant to talk with us, but she finally came around. She did not share much of her own story, but she shared her pain as a mother -- how badly she wanted her son back.

"They [the Mai-Mai] are using him. They have brainwashed him and he won't come out." She told us that Baraka was abducted from her when he was only 2, and that he is now 7 years old. He was demobilized and passed through a child reintegration center, after which she put him in school, but the Mai-Mai soldiers re-abducted him from the school and took him back to the bush.

They believe somehow that this little 7-year-old holds the key to victory. But his mother pleads, "I want him to go school. I just want him to go to school." Horeb and I sat silent, so near the end of our journey, saddened and broken by her story and her plea.

"We need to help her," I told Horeb. "Do you think the Mai-Mai would work with us to hand Baraka over?" Horeb asked her about this, and she was convinced that the Mai-Mai might just listen to someone from World Vision and perhaps turn 7-year-old Baraka over to us.

"But we would have to move him out of the area, Rory, otherwise they will take him again," explained Horeb. "I think I could go into the bush and talk with the Mai-Mai," said Horeb, "but I'll need permission from World Vision in order to do so. Will you talk with the director for me? I want to help and see if we can save Baraka." We must, I thought. We must help!

We reluctantly left Beni the next day. Horeb and I flew back to Goma; Faustin drove the vehicle to Goma (thankfully he arrived safely, without any problems). Horeb and I planned how we might continue our search for Baraka.

Horeb said he would be free to go back to the area in about two weeks, to go into the jungle, to talk and negotiate with the Mai-Mai to see if they might hand Baraka over to World Vision. The Mai-Mai know of World Vision, as we have done service delivery in that area, so they may just trust us with Baraka; it might possibly work. If anyone could negotiate with these people, Horeb is the one, and he is willing to try.

Horeb is amazing. Truly amazing. We must help Baraka. We must help this mother get her 7-year-old son back.

So, I did not actually find Baraka this time, but I was close. I will make certain to ask the director of World Vision in the DRC about this. We made a promise to Baraka's mother to help her and her son. I hope we can follow through.
Posted by Larry Short on behalf of Rory Anderson in the Congo.

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