Rape, pillage and strategic murder mark out a ring of terror and make a border of security for the lawless.
The map below shows the ring of terror “Colonel President Thoms” has been building around himself for the last ten months. “Colonel President” is the title Thoms Mesandu, also Basele Lutulu, gave himself in the scrawled note his disciple Amisi Reddi waved in Kakongo on 27th January 2014. Amisi and 10 other heavily armed men walked out of the forest and into the village. Thoms had sent them to kill the chief of Kakongo, Acteur. His note accused Acteur of working with the TL2 project – a death warrant. The chief was absent – he had gone to Kindu. Three gang-raped Bibi Yohari; others bound and whipped the father of the chief, François Bohu. They pillaged everything in the chief’s house and small shop, spent two days eating village chickens and goats, then made off with the main village dugout and at least 8 more goats. They returned north, down the Lomami.
In the last year, brutality erupted from the forest at all the northern points on this map, and now the forest is seething around all the southern points.
Explanation of map:
Lokobekobe : In May 2013 a woman merchant was gang raped and beaten at a barrier Thoms put up to cut off supplies to the military in Obenge.
Mukwara and Yese : Colonel Thoms’s bases – two of Thoms’s soldiers (including the young Pitchen from Obenge) and one of Thoms’s commanders are killed in battle with military on 18 May 2013; four young recruits of Thoms killed in a clash with military and park guards on 7 Feb 2014.
Mayunga: Thoms ambushes and kills two military and a local chief.
Obenge: Thoms and his gang beat Kapere (project TL2 worker and local resident) to death on 14 june 2013; the village completely emptied of inhabitants by the end of October 2013.
Chekecheke, Ongwaina, Mukwara : all were burned to the ground by Colonel Thoms men on 17 December 2013, inhabitants fled north.
Lohumonoko : Project Tl2 base looted and burned on 18 Feb 2014, three of our workers were beaten by Thoms’s marauders (still in hospital).
For the South: Kakonga, Katopa, Oluo, BeneKamba – see below.
The note that Amisi displayed in Kakongo made no sense. Why murder the chief because John and I slept in the village for two nights when we met along the Lomami River in early December. He was really accusing the chief of accepting the park. A protected area in “his” forest runs against Thom’s efforts to build an army, feed his men, buy military rifles and acquire ammunition. There are no gold camps in the Lomami forest. He does it all with bushmeat or ivory. What choice does he have? He is a “wanted” man:
a. Escaped from prison where he was condemned for raping 135 women;
And in the last year
b. Murder of at least four people;
c. Continued rape at multiple sites;
d. Torture of our project personnel and of villagers;
e. Burning, pillaging….
Mopau, above, was part of Thoms’s gang that attacked Lohumonoko at night on February 18th.
Shindano, above, is one of our Tl2 staff seriously beaten at Lohumonoko. He is here carrying his kitchen supplies across the forest several years ago.
Thoms’s tactics are very like those of the outlaw Morgan in the Okapi Reserve, and those of Joseph Kony in Garamba National Park and Bili Uere Reserve. Both use rape, kidnapping and murder freely;
Large wilderness gives all of them their best chance for survival.
But with Col Thoms there is another cunning in his strategy, he is clearly building an independent forest dominion, whereas Morgan is amassing riches from Okapi’s gold mines for some imagined retirement and Kony, wanted internationally, is seeking invisibility. Col Thoms is calling on as many clans as possible from the Langa ethnic group and the Mituku ethnic group to side with him against the park and against the Mbole ethnic group to reclaim the forest as their own, with Thoms as their grand leader.
Already in 2011, less than a year since his escape from jail, Thoms was shrewdly building a following, based on deception and his own inflated self view. He wrote the following to his Obenge supporters:
Short translation of Thoms’s letter, above: “Ngombe, 10 september 2011. The Mituku and the Langa are a single people. Our limit is the Tutu River. Who dares sell our forest? We will not be losers. To those who hear, listen. Children of Obenge, from your brother who will stir up real trouble, Kabasele (your Thoms)”
Now there is pressure in the north – military and park guards have moved into the abandoned village of Obenge. Military have set up near Lohumonoko.
Thoms has intensified his claims in the south:
On February 22nd John and I were walking the second day across the park to our most southern camp, Katopa. Still eight km out, we were met by Silas, Jamais-Tombé and the park guard, Michel. “Katopa village is abandoned; a band of 12 men armed with military rifles and led by Thoms’s brother Pharaon, plan to attack. They came into the village of Ohandja. They were looking for recruits to cross the forest and destroy Katopa and all the people who work with TL2.”
“When was this?”
“Two days ago.”
“Well, they have still not arrived. Why?”
“The Ohandja Chief turned them away. He said he did not want his people involved.”
We decided to go onto camp and call back the scattered teams.
That first evening a single man in a dugout came up the Lomami from Polepole. He had this news: The 12 armed militia led by Pharaon entered Polepole on Feb 21st– the town scattered – the militia called the men back and said they had nothing against their brothers at Polepole; they wanted recruits to go attack Katopa. The chief refused. He told them they should go back north where they came from. He took his dugout and, along with some of his fishermen in another dugout, they paddled all 12 men downstream to BeneKamba, out of the Province of Kasai Oreintal and back into the Province of Maniema.
Thoms is not finding the south so easy.
We got a thuraya message from Kinois Kitoko who leads our Oluo team. Two men fleeing BeneKamba across the forest met our team on patrol. “Pharaon is organizing in Bene Kamba to come attack TL2 in Oluo.”
That was nearly a week ago and still there has been nothing. Thoms might not find even his home province of Maniema as easy as he thought.
BUT, there are two elements that allow Thoms’s pretensions to be far more serious than a slightly crazed man’s fantasy:
a. Lack of education throughout the remote forest communities: Thoms’s army keeps growing from the uneducated, isolated rural youth. They are susceptible to his phantasms and the promise of purpose and adventure.
b. Connivance of mid-level state authorities: People in responsible positions, as military or elected officials, refuse to see the crime and continue to profit from a haul of ivory or a motorcycle piled high with a gift of bushmeat. They thwart efforts to stop Thoms.
I believe that the Province of Maniema, having identified its own pockets of corruption, may truly be about to put a stop to Thoms. I hope that story will be a follow-up post.
But there is something else and very fundamental that can be done to disable these rings of terror over the long-term. There needs to be a reorientation of foreign aid policy:
Education aid – schools and teachers – should be focused not only on urban areas or densely populated rural areas, but also on the isolated communities of the outback. This is where the victims are and the source of recruits to criminality. Rural terror breeds urban corruption, and progress is short circuited.