Eastern Congo: Kidnapped Boy Returns From Slavery

Dieudonné Nzatala and his son Dagumba.

Copyrright: WFP/Jim Farrell

Five months ago the son of a WFP food aid monitor was kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Without any warning, on March 16, the boy hobbled onto the airstrip in Dungu where his father was working.

DUNGU -- Dieudonné Nzatala hugged the son he’d given up for dead and wept. Children taken by the LRA are rarely seen again. If children do return, they are often mentally and spiritually damaged. Many are forced to bear arms, rape, loot and kill. The young girls usually come back pregnant. Dieudonné, his wife and their four remaining children held an impromptu funeral for 17-year-old Dagumba.

On Monday, Dieudonné was in the WFP warehouse beside the Dungu airstrip doing some book-keeping. As he prepared to update his numbers, a Ugandan military helicopter landed and a group of soldiers climbed out. They were accompanied by four young people they had freed from the LRA. The three young males were kidnapped months ago to be used as slave labour. The young girl was used as a sex slave.

Collecting food at Monday distribution. Copyright: WFP/Jim Farrell

Swollen feet

One of the young males hobbled toward Dieudonné on feet painfully swollen from carrying heavy LRA loads through the jungle, barefoot. Within a minute Dieudonné and Dagumba were locked in an embrace, tears streaming down their cheeks. The pain of his son’s living death had been so great Dieudonné never told his WFP co-workers about his loss.

Dagumba, Dieudonné's eldest child, was living with his grandfather in Duru, 80 km to the north of the family home in Dungu, the regional centre of Haut Uele district in the northeast corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Search for fresh recruits

On the morning of September 17 a group of LRA fighters flooded into Duru in search of food, supplies and fresh recruits. “One hundred and eight children were taken from Duru,” Dieudonné said. “Sixty from that one school alone.” 

The students were forced to walk north for two days, into the bush of Garamba National Park near the Sudanese border where the LRA had their camps.

“They told us they wanted to train us as soldiers,” Dagumba said during an interview at the Ugandan army camp where he is receiving medical treatment for his swollen feet. Instead, Dagumba says, he was made to work as a slave – hoeing fields, carrying loads and building shelters in the LRA camp.

Bombs and machine guns

On December 14 bombs began to fall and machine gun bullets ripped through the camp as the Ugandan army began an air assault. It was part of a joint Ugandan-Congolese-Sudanese campaign to wipe out the militia group.

Dagumba picked up a heavy load of supplies, as ordered, and fled into the thick bush with the LRA soldiers. Those soldiers would spend the next two months taking revenge on surrounding villages in a campaign of arson, looting, murder, mutilation and more kidnapping.

The LRA splintered into ever-smaller groups as Ugandan and Congolese soldiers pursued them. Finally, last weekend, a contingent of Ugandan soldiers caught up with the group which had enslaved Dagumba. Suddenly he was suddenly free.