Heroes are rare in this world, and particularly in eastern Congo. Here, myriad armed groups terrorise villagers while the Congolese national army has historically proved ineffective in protecting civilians. Many locals consider the army just another dangerous armed group.
One commander, however, shone through. Colonel Mamadou Ndala headed the 42nd Battalion Commandos. His troops were on the frontline, fighting M23 rebels – who were pushed back in July 2013 for the first time since their rebellion began the previous year. By October, they had been ousted from Goma, a major city in the region, and were pushed up to the Ugandan border.
Mamadou, as he was known to everyone, stood with his men at the front. As shells whistled overhead, he would be issuing orders into a walkie-talkie or mobile phone, seemingly oblivious to the cracks of gunfire or the impact of mortars all around. And he instilled discipline in his soldiers; any infraction would be met with swift punishment. His unit were not feared by civilians, but respected.
When mobs took to the streets of Goma to protest what they perceived as the uselessness of United Nations peacekeepers, the colonel stepped out of his car and confronted the crowds. He was met with chants of “Ma-ma-dou”, and, having calmed the mob, left amid cheers and applause.
On January 2, 2014, while travelling in a convoy in the province’s “Great North”, a rocket-propelled grenade hit his vehicle. It killed the colonel and several of his unit. Attributed to the ADF-NALU rebel group in the region, the attack has also fomented rumours of assassination by the regime itself.
Crowds of civilians took to the streets to demonstrate against his death, but this time, he would not be there to pacify them.