On the front line in DR Congo
Drugs and alcohol blur reality for those fighting on the conflict's front line.
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2008 13:02 GMT

Corporal Boniface Ajbebjou inspects his fellow soldiers as he strides along the frontline of his Congo army troops' position in Kayanja

For the men of the Congolese Army's 18th Integrated Commando Brigade, life on the frontline in eastern Congo's North Kivu Province is anything but stable.

The Congo army troops - the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or FARDC - are notorious for their brutal behaviour and have been accused of rapes and looting by the United Nations.

In the African state's latest eruption of war, only one thing is for certain - there can be no rest.

Infighting, insubordination, drunken fights while armed and on duty and smoking marijuana cigarettes are all means of passing time in-between facing death in fierce, pitched battles with fighters from the National Congress for the Defence of the People, or CNDP.

"We want to end this war so we can back home to Kinshasa," said corporal Boniface Ajbebjou, 32,  "I hate them."

As he spoke, two of his fellow soldiers were drinking whiskey and smoking pot. "Idiots," he said in disgust.

Watching the enemy

The warring sides are within a few hundred metres of each other.

Less than half-a-kilometre up the road at a checkpoint held by the rebel forces, two of Ajbebjou's comrades lie splayed out in the middle of the road with gun shot wounds in their skulls  – the result of combat the previous night.

Captain Alex Kaninda Kazadi, 38, the commander of the brigade's First Company, 182nd Battalion, knows this full well and has to remind his men – by means of a kick in the behind and stern finger in the face – that the enemy is watching.

"Watch them back," he barks.

"I can't reveal how many men I have lost so far," he told Al Jazeera. "All I know is I don't want to lose any more."

This is a tit-for-tat war with no-holds-barred sentiments towards those on
the other side.

Gruesome 'calling card'

Just a few nights before, rebel forces had stormed their positions in Kayanja,
just north of the refugee village of Kibati in Congo's east, but ended up
losing ground under a hail of bullets, mortar shells, heavy artillery and rockets.

FARDC soldiers argue during a downpour at a front line checkpoint
Captain Kazadi's soldiers caught one of the rebels, who they claim was a Rwandan soldier.

They hacked off his genitals, nose and a hand and left him in the bush by the
side of the road to be eaten by dogs.

It was their revenge in return for the members of their unit who the rebels had shot in the head and left in the road in the no-man's land as a "calling card" - a form of psychological intimidation.

There is little solace to soothe the the horror of the psychological warfare these men wage against each other.

Criminality rife

With junior soldiers saying they earn less than $250 a month and their officers receiving under $600, they beg journalists for cigarettes and handouts.

They eat rice out of their metal helmets when they are not lucky enough to get their hands on biscuits and tins of beans and sardines and some dirty water to wash it all down.

Criminality is rife among the ranks of junior soldiers, many of whom were former rebels who fought the Congo army they now serve in during the Second Congo War that began 10 years ago.

With this round of war in eastern Congo entering the peak of the rain season, soldiers sleep in mud in the wet jungle, their clothes and bodies drenched most of the time. Their supplies of water are unreliable.

Getting high or drunk seems to be the one way they get through their ordeal.

They send motorcycle taxis with wads of pooled cash to the rear of the front line about twice a day to pick up their vices.

"I don't panic – I don't care," a belligerent young soldier slurs repeatedly in English.

Constant infighting

Captain Kazadi shakes his head as the other troops laugh. "I can't control every one of them all of the time," he said.

"It's the lieutenant's jobs to keep them in line, but I end up having to
manage everything."

Fights commonly break out between Kazadi's men – including the officers - and the captain often steps in to pull them apart.

"So what?" says 24-year-old corporal Kaseleka Ndagise as he grimaces in pain from
a twisted knee he got while wrestling with a fellow soldier.

"We fight with each other, but this is the way we are."

He points up the road towards the rebel positions: "It doesn't mean we aren't ready for them."

The FARDC is largely a new concept in Congo, having been created in 2004 as a part of the country's restructuring following the previous conflict that sucked in eight other countries and left millions of people dead.

One of Kazadi's troops, wearing a woman's wig (many fighters in Africa wear women's items or clothes as a good-luck charm) and wielding an AK-47 assault rifle along with a loaded, rocket-propelled grenade launcher, said he was ready to get "the pigs," a reference to the fighters of rebel leader general Laurent Nkunda's CNDP rebel government.

But with the soldiers' morale so poor, it is difficult to see how it can hope to win its campaign against the rebel forces.

Al Jazeera
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