An infamous Congolese warlord, wanted for crimes against humanity, turned himself in to the United Nations Peacekeeping mission on Wednesday.
Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka is the founder of an armed group based in eastern DRC known as Nduma Defense of Congo, a militia notorious for rape, mutilation, and overall destruction. There has been a warrant out for his arrest since early 2011 for crimes against humanity, specifically mass rape. According to the UN, in the span of just four days during the summer of 2010 Sheka and his forces raped 387 civilians—including young girls and boys—in an effort to punish them for allegedly working with Congolese government forces. In addition to such an atrocity the Mai-Mai group is accused of child abduction, torture, and senseless killings. Since the warrant for Sheka’s arrest the UN reports the group is responsible for the death of 70 civilians, many of whom were “hacked to death by machete…in some cases, Sheka’s fighters mutilated the bodies of those killed and later paraded the body parts around town, while chanting ethnic slurs”. In addition, Sheka’s forces have kidnapped dozens of girls and women in 2012 and 2013, many of whom, according to Human Rights Watch, “are still being held hostage as sex slaves”. Despite the continued accusations of horrific crimes, Sheka remained at large for over half a decade.
Attempts to arrest the warlord have been either unsuccessful or not attempted at all. For starters, he and his forces reside in the dense and remote forests of Walikale, a territory of over 10,000 square miles with few roads. Since 2011, government and UN officials have met with Sheka three different times, and while they encouraged him to surrender they did not try to arrest him. Sheka even ran as a candidate for the National Assembly in late 2011, without any threat of conviction. In other cases local authorities, Rwandan officials, and infamous rebel group M23 have tipped Sheka off, giving him and his forces both “financial and logistical support”.
Six years after the initial call for his arrest, it is unclear why the warlord has decided to surrender himself, apparently in “full awareness of the fact that he is wanted by the government. . . to stand trial for alleged crimes,” according to the UN mission. As Al Jazeera speculates, it could have something to do with the fact that “his forces have been locked in a losing fight in recent years with a rival armed group”. Now authorities worry that his former partners will try to silence him, as they did his imprisoned chief of staff in 2011, before he will be able to stand trial.
Though Ida Sawyer of Human Rights Watch says, “his surrender brings hope for justice and a possible reprieve from the violence,” the eastern Congo has been plagued by violence and warring factions since the Rwandan Genocide, and unfortunately the actions of Sheka and his forces are nothing new. The region has been called the “rape capital of the world” by the U.N.; almost 40% of women and 23.6% of men have been victims of sexual violence. Much of the violence stems from the constant exploitation of the estimated $24 trillion in natural resources the country has in the form of precious stones and minerals, many of which are essential to the modern world. Despite relying heavily on the products of its earth, the world has done relatively little to aid the Congo and its civilians who face rape, torture, abduction, starvation, and death on a daily basis. Sheka’s self-surrender, while a promising if not puzzling development, is by no means a pass for the rest of the world to sit back. If anything, his surrender must remind the world of the unpredictable, volatile, and violent land that is the DRC.
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