Torture and Truth along the Lomami

Torture has two main purposes:

(1) Create fear and pain to bring out the truth (=encouragement)
(2) Create fear and pain to punish a crime committed (=dissuasion)

Which was the purpose in February 2018 along the Lomami? Kesonga was arrested, beaten, and repeatedly submerged in the Lomami with a sack over his head.

Kesonga climbing from cell in Opala
Kesonga climbs out of his prison cell in Opala

Around the Lomami National Park, there are many stories of torture used for Punishment. Ask any park guard, military or worker for our TL2 project.

When Thoms gang raped 135 women and enslaved their husbands, brothers and sons (Mbole villagers) for two weeks in Lieke Lesole (July – August 2007), it was punishment. It was punishment for resisting domination by Thoms and to assure that the villagers provided the food he needed while elephant poaching.

When William Kapere (TL2 staff) was tied to a tree and beaten to death by Thoms and his acolytes on the 14th June 2013, it was punishment. It was punishment and a warning to the village of Obenge and the TL2 project. Warning: no more collaboration with military and no refusing Thoms’s domination of the northern park.

When women were raped and the village chief’s father whipped in Kakongo (Balanga villagers) by Thoms’s brother and 10 others of his gang on 27 January 2017, it was punishment. And dissuasion. No more helping ICCN and the TL2 project, not even to allow them to camp in the village while their dugout passes on the Lomami.

Assessing damage at destroyed Lohumunuku camp
Our base camp at Lohumunuku was burned down the same night that Shindano and Fiston were tortured. Here a first trip to assess the damage.

When Shindano and Fiston (TL2 staff) were beaten and poked with red hot machetes the night of 18 February 2014 at Lohumunuku, by members of Thoms’s gang , it was punishment. It was a lesson to the TL2 project and ICCN for trying to put an end to elephant poaching.

When Maurice and four other members of his outreach team were taken from their bicycles, stripped, tied with lianes and whipped with thorny vines (September 24th, 2016) that was punishment for bringing outreach to the Mituku territory controlled by Thoms and his maimai. Message: get lost and don’t come back.

Maurice after attack
Maurice just back to Kisangani, 6 days after attack, shows where his arms were bound.

Thoms captured and beat 6 villagers (29 September 2017) one of whom suffered factured arms and crushed fingers. This was punishment for having agreed to allow the TL2 project to build a base near Bimbi. Message: accept Thom’s domination and no other.

And then of course there were shootouts when the FARDC marched numerous times to push Thoms from the forests he was terrorizing. Many were the young boys pressed into service for Thoms that were killed. At least seven military have died in these operations.

after first shootout with Thoms
Picture Fardc after first shootout with Thoms gang. Local villagers killed.

Given the above it is not hard to imagine that locally there is a strong desire to capture, expel from these forests or eliminate Thoms. Nowhere is it felt more strongly than among rank and file military, park guards and TL2 staff – most of the latter two are from local villages.

The mood was particularly tense in February at the guard post, Bangaliwa. At the beginning of the month a normal surveillance patrol had been attacked, the assailants had 4 AK47s. Two eco-guards and two military were with the patrol. They fought back, the assailants retreated and there were no injuries. But this was evidence: Thoms had rearmed and he was back in the elephant zone. There would be more attacks…no doubt.

So Kesonga was entering a nervous territory alert for maimai, bandits, terrorists. The following is not surprising.

11 February, arrest :

The eco-guard, Washi, was on a routine check in village of Chekecheke near Bangaliwa (see map). A stranger was in the village. He had no identification; no one knew him. The village chief questioned him, but he and Washi decided he was suspect; he should return with Washi to Bangaliwa

12 february at 1 in the morning, Washi brought Kesonga to Bangaliwa, Lomami National Park base-camp, in a dugout.

12 February Morning in Bangaliwa : The military question Kesonga
12 February Afternoon in Bangaliwa: the eco-guards and TL2 question Kesonga.

Map_Kesonga enslaved by maimai then liberated
Map showing Kesonga’s movements during those unfortunate months of January and February 2018.

This is the first story Kesonga told:
I am a Musongola (ethnic affiliation) from Pembeliba (map). For cash I sell medicines. I was carrying antibiotics, malaria cures, and other pills to sell in Balanga West. Eight armed men blocked the trail; they kidnapped me and the two women with me. We walked for two days, we crossed the river Okopo, we arrived in Thoms camp where they took everything we had: medicines, machete, food. I became a porter of Thoms for three weeks, before I could escape. I was with one of three hunting groups – the one led by Samy. I accompanied hunting trips to carry back the take to Thoms’s camp. It was when we were hunting near the Obiyo River. They left me alone with the little dugout. I took off downstream, dragging the dugout around where the river was filled with fallen trees. When I reached the Lomami, I did not have the energy to go upriver. Downriver I came to an abandoned village (Obenge). In old gardens, I dug up manioc, but had no fire to cook it. I continued downstream, it was night. I saw many flashlights and fire (Bangaliwa). I was afraid it must be one of Thoms’s camps. I stayed close to the other shore. In the morning I came into Chekecheke.

But the military and the guards were not satisfied – did this really make sense? Was this Kesonga a spy? Thoms must be planning an attack.

Kesonga during questioning at Bangaliwa.

Kesonga was bound and whipped.
This is Kesonga’s second story:

I went to find my daughter at Ngombe (Thoms home area) because by daughter was kidnapped by the Maimai. I was afraid of the Maimai and I ran away (abandoning daughter). The chief of Mukwara showed me the path. I came out on the Lomami at the Lofuma river where I found the small dugout and came downstream. And, yes, I have a military rifle, an AK47.

This story was even more mixed up. He was whipped some more, he was held under water.
This is Kesonga’s third story:

Everything I said is false. This is the truth: I am an elephant poacher. I have been poaching elephants for a long time. I come down the Lomami to Isangi where I meet my ivory buyers who come from Kisangani.

The military whipped him more.

Kesonga continues: I have 18 tusks cut up into pieces. Because I saw a big dugout on the Lomami, I turned around and hid them at Katondo. Please, I will go with a small team, in just a little dugout to recuperate the ivory at Katondo.

In retrospect I imagine Kesonga was just trying to get some reprieve, any reprieve from the torture.

A very large expedition took off with Kesonga the next day up to Katondo. He showed where the ivory was in the river and insisted on being the one to dive to get it. Nothing was found. Three park guards also dove for the ivory. Nothing was found.

At the end of the day they returned and certainly Kesonga was no better off. No other story was offered.

fractured finger_Kesonga
Kesonga’s finger wound after torture.

Finally, Henri Silegowa, TL2 leader at Bangaliwa wrote the following evaluation:
–There is no coherence between Kesonga’s different stories;
–Yet he seems mentally stable;
–He has a good understanding of the forest and villages near Thoms main camp;
–It is possible that he is a spy sent by Thoms, because Thoms wants to advance towards the north.
–All that we could discover in his possession though were a few manioc tubers.

22 February, when our large dugout came down to Opala to stock up on food they brought Kesonga for more questioning.

Face wound healing well
Kesonga’s friction burn on face from torture.

Leon, from the TL2 project, and Firmin, from ICCN, took over. They used a different method. Reassuring Kesonga, they posed as lawyers, paid by the UN to defend him.

They got back the first story…no mention of being an elephant poacher or in possession of either a rifle or ivory.

They got more information. Kesonga is the father of 7 children, his wife Bitsho is waiting for him in Pembeliba, she must be desperate for information as to what happened to him.

Kesonga by cell after first care
Kesonga treated and at ease in Opala beside his cell.

In Thom’s camp, he was one of over 30 porter-slaves. There were more than 70 militia men with 40+ AK47s as well as shotguns. In camp Kesonga and the other porters were closely guarded, to the point of being accompanied even when they bathed or relieved themselves. Thoms’s mud house is raised on a platform so that he can watch over the camp. Thoms has six wives in the camp and is always surrounded by 14 bodyguards.

Unlike Bangaliwa, in Opala there is a phone network. Leon made phone calls, checked Kesonga’s contacts and double-checked through his own contacts. The first story was the true story.

If the torture had been to get the truth, it failed. The more torture the more desperate the lies.

Leon and Firmin took Kesonga to Kisangani where he spoke with military information services, they gave him new clothes and paid his way back to Pembeliba on a dugout.

Kesonga says whenever Leon and Firmin come to Pembeliba, there are gifts of hogs and chickens waiting.

N.B We post this as the US Senate considers Gina Haspel as Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA. The Senate will grill her regarding then-legal interrogation methods at the CIA “black site” she oversaw. Prisoners were water boarded and slammed against walls. We are all glad these are no longer legal, quite possibly Ms Hagel is as well. She is recommended by many in the intelligence community as non-political, respected by the rank and file, smart, capable…. important qualities.

One Comment

  1. Daniel Alempijevic
    Posted 2018-04-24 at 3:43 am | Permalink

    So Thoms has gained support, again. I cannot believe how much suffering he has caused in these communities. I hope some good can come from Kesonga’s testimony.

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