16-year-old girl’s journey into the heart of darkness

STORIES of grotesque acts of brutality or an innocence turned evil can sometimes leave you temporarily stumped as a journalist in the quest for answers.

Such was the gruesome account given by Mbo, about her time with a militia group.

Her narrative of living in the jungle in western Congo was reminiscent of passages from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the novel and symbolic story about an Englishman’s adventure through the sprawling country.

But that was written by a grown man. Mbo is a 16-year-old girl.

And yet as she brought a room of listeners through her dark past, the calm teenage girl sat graciously on a wooden school chair, her thin frame set against a bright long red wall: a trained killer in a child’s body.

“My parents passed away and I grew up with my aunty. She used to buy food and clothes for her own children, but not for me. She abused me.”

Faced with a childhood of poverty in the western Congo province of Bandundu, the then 12-year-old decided to join a local militia called the Mai Mai. Armed

Congo groups often promise new recruits pay.

“It was worse [than living with my aunty]. We had no clothes, we were naked and only had plastic shoes,” added Mbo.

“We wore leaves like clothes,” added Mbo through a translator.

“We fought and handled weapons and if we met them [the enemy], we killed them. Sometimes with witchcraft.”

Considered the Congo’s magic warriors, Mai Mai soldiers are renowned for their belief in the use of paranormal powers in battle.

Mbo shows her ankle where Mai Mai soldiers cut her skin as part of an initiation process.

Translated as “powerful water” in Swahili, Mai Mai are soldiers with deep-rooted believes in witchcraft.

Young recruits embrace irrational beliefs — planted by witch doctors — that weaponry will not harm them because bullets or other projectiles simply turn into water.

But the Mai Mai beliefs are even more disturbing. Mbo continued, throwing her head back with its tight pleated hair: “We were drinking the blood of people to protect ourselves. We used magic trees, like bullets. It beat them and they would fall down and die.

“We drank the blood like you drink water and you needed it to keep strong.”

The devilish description from the schoolgirl sends shivers down the spine. But reports of jungle militia eating human body parts are not unheard of in the Congo.

In January 2003, UN officials verified reports of Congo rebel groups eating body parts of murdered Pygmies to “gain strength”.

“I killed many. I was proud when I killed many, happier,” added Mbo.

She spent three years living with Mai Mai from the ages of 12 to 15.

In February this year, she decided to escape. One morning while the soldiers slept, she fled.

“I thought I had killed enough people,” said the girl candidly, holding her head high.

After she escaped and managed to track down an uncle living in the west, relatives eventually helped bring her across the country by plane and boat to Goma to live with her grandmother.

“I’m learning to sew now and like it here. I’d like to have my own place though and my own materials [for sewing]. I’m happier now. I feel bad about the war and want it to stop.”

* Mbo Asona, 16, now lives in Goma, attending and learning at a reform centre called Assistance Guides du Congo which is sponsored by the charity Save the Children.

This project was funded by the Simon Cumbers' Media Challenge Fund, supported by Irish Aid.

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