Inside a church nestling among the hills of eastern Congo, a venerable warrior gives a rare audience. He is talking about politics, war and why he is invincible to gunfire.
"I am a Mayi Mayi general so I carry the gris-gris [magic charms]," declares General Jeannot Ruharara, a whiskery, weatherbeaten man. "They protect against snakes, lightning, disappearance – and, of course, bullets." He has a wooden staff in one hand and a mobile phone in the other, but the tools of his magic are pinned to his chest like medals of honour. It is a selection worthy of a Shakespearean cauldron – tail of buffalo, claw of eagle and horn of antelope but also cola nuts, dirty feathers and plastic beads.
He reaches into the hairy confusion, pulls out a dark phial, and smiles. "This is the maji", he says. The maji – Swahili for water – had been blessed at a ceremony in the mountains. It will be sprinkled on his troops moments before they enter battle, he says, and then they will be invincible to enemy bullets. "Even shells and rockets," he chuckles.
But something looks familiar. I pull closer to the magic bottle, and it has writing on the cap in English. It reads: "Boots Pharmaceuticals".
Of all the gun-toting groups roaming the Democratic Republic of Congo [formerly Zaire], few are as enigmatic as the Mayi Mayi. It has no guiding leader, no command structure and no reliable estimate of numbers. Instead, the movement is a vaguely connected patchwork of factions – some disciplined soldiers, others village bandits – scattered over a lawless region the size of the British Isles. Apart from their faith in the armour- plating powers of water, every Mayi Mayi has one thing in common – a growing role at the heart of Africa's worst war.
Officially the fighting, which was started by Rwandan forces in 1998, has ground to a halt. Last summer's peace deal between Rwanda, which backs rebel forces, and the Kinshasa government is holding. A transitional government could by in place by April. But here in the east – the cradle of the conflict – talk of peace means little. War rages on.
The Mayi Mayi, which has only a sideline place in political negotiations, are slugging it out with Rwanda's puppet army, the rebels of the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD). After more than four years of destruction and awesome savagery, ordinary Congolese are nakedly hostile to their pro-Rwandan RCD "liberators". And so the water warriors – mostly village lads armed with old AK-47 guns – have, in some areas, come to enjoy a popularity akin to that of the French resistance under Nazi Germany.
"The aggressors have come to destroy our country," said General Ruharara during our interview in Ndolera, a village of 6,000 people on the edge of his mountain demesne. "We are here to fight them."
General Ruharara, 55, is one of the original Mayi Mayi. He learnt his soldiering in the Sixties with another, more famous, revolutionary. "Ah yes, Ernesto Ché Guevara, that was him," he says, smiling at the recollection. "We used to call him Ernesto. A giant of a man. Big, thick hair. Smoked a lot."
In 1964, Ché Guevara led a force of 100 Cuban commandos to eastern Congo to boost the socialist revolution against Mobutu Sese Seko. It was a disaster. After seven months, he withdrew bitterly. "They lack revolutionary awareness," he wrote of his Congolese cadres. "Corrupted by inactivity ... saturated with fetishistic notions ... devoid of any coherent political education ... all these traits make the soldier of the Congolese revolution the poorest example of a fighter that I have ever come across."
General Ruharara, then 17, had a more positive memory. "Guevara taught us a lot. We hope he can come back to help us some day." I break the news that Ché Guevara was executed in Bolivia in 1967. The general arches an eyebrow, then shrugs nonchalantly. "I have been living and fighting in the bush since then," he said. "Who was going to tell me?"
In this war the Mayi Mayi has teamed up with the Kinshasa government, which has supplied guns and money. But like much in this huge, chaotic country, even covert patronage goes awry. Two years ago Kinshasa airdropped sacks of money but they contained 50 and 100 franc notes – denominations rejected in the rebel-held zone. "We had to throw the lot away," said Jean Marie, the general's "public affairs" officer.
Yet the signs are increasing that the Mayi Mayi wants to be taken seriously. Last October a surprise alliance of factions took control of Uvira, a strategic port on Lake Tanganyika, for one week. Townspeople said the bush soldiers behaved with exemplary discipline. And more recently, the commander of the biggest faction, Joseph Padiri, has begun helping the United Nations demobilise Rwandan Hutu fighters on his turf. It is clear that peace will only come to Congo if the Gordian knot of the east is untangled, and the Mayi Mayi wants to be part of that solution.
But back in Ndolera, one matter remained. I had been promised proof of General Ruharara's maji: a goat would be blessed, troops would open fire on it and lo, the animal would live. Alas, on the day, the great test was not possible – for technical reasons. "The gunfire could alert the enemy and bring him towards us," General Ruharara offered in half-apology. His whiskers curled into a knowing smile again. The goat was safe, and so was the Mayi Mayi myth.
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