You don’t have to look far to find evidence of globalization in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. True, once you leave the main cities, rural populations are isolated by poor infrastructure and patchy communications. It becomes extremely difficult to travel. There are few vehicles, with most goods being transported by foot. As a result, the world seems so much bigger, time and space seem to shift, and everything begins to feel very local. Yet this land produces enormous quantities of precious minerals such as tin, tantalum, and tungsten, which are vital for industry across the world. I was interested in exploring this paradox, to understand why such a globally important landscape could be so difficult to travel through.
To try to understand this contradiction, I wanted to meet with and photograph a warlord named Sheka. Evading arrest by hiding out in the mountains of Walikale, Sheka controls a patchwork of mineral rich territory in this region, preying on the local populace, disrupting efforts at development, and periodically committing brutal atrocities.
In 2011, I had visited one of the leaders of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Lieutenant Colonel Sadiki was a top commander of the FDLR, a notorious armed group comprised of ethnic Hutus alleged to have participated in the Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990s, who then fled and have lived nomadically in the jungle of eastern Congo ever since. Shortly after we met, Sadiki was assassinated by an ally, a warlord named Sheka. It was widely believed that Sheka, regarded as a cynical opportunist, had accepted a six-figure bounty from the Rwandans.
Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka is the leader of the Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC), an armed group that occupies an area of the remote, mineral-rich territory of Walikale, North Kivu. Sheka is often described as an unhinged, bloodthirsty murderer. He and his men were alleged to have carried out the rape of hundreds of people in the village of Luvungi over the course of at least three days in July 2010. This raping spree became an international media sensation, branding Sheka with an almost mythically criminal reputation as well as reinforcing a regrettable stereotype of Congo as the rape capital of the world.
In May 2015, I travelled back through the forests of North Kivu by Land Cruiser to meet and photograph Sheka. A couple of hours outside of Pinga, the road completely fell away and we had to continue on motorbike. We continued through Pinga, a tense market town beautifully situated on the River Mweso, until we reached the front line between the last outpost of the Congolese Army (FARDC) and the frontiers of Sheka’s territory. We had to walk from there. Sheka had kept the plan deliberately vague. All we knew is that we had to continue walking down that path until we met a group of shirtless men, and they would escort us to Sheka.
Some hours later, on a thickly forested part of the track, three bare-chested men walked rapidly up behind us holding kitchen knives and machetes. They were quiet and intense. They pushed us off the trail into the forest, telling us that we would walk twenty minutes through the undergrowth to where Sheka awaited. Twenty minutes turned into hours. There was no path. We struggled through dense jungle. Sheka’s men tried to hack a path through the undergrowth, but it was tough going. We climbed steeply upward, ascending for hours. When we next stopped, I looked out and could see clouds gathering below us. We were at high altitude and it was beginning to get dark. I wanted to return. I asked our escorts to bring us back to the path. They told us it was not possible and continued. We had no choice but to carry on.
Hours passed and we fought through undergrowth in darkness. Finally we arrived at a camp where we were searched, then brought to a wooden table and assured that Sheka would join us. A dozen armed men milled about, talking quietly. My fixer translated as best he could. Just two days ago, they were saying, they had hacked the limbs off one of Gedeon’s assistants in this place.
Gedeon was once Sheka’s right-hand man. His best colonel. But Gedeon was reported to have recently splintered from the NDC, taking a number of his loyal soldiers with him, and had begun to attack Sheka’s base—the one I was sitting in. There had been numerous clashes between the two rival groups in this area. Gedeon is trying to kill Sheka, and it is said he is motivated by a secret bounty on Sheka’s head, staked by a general in the FARDC who has ambitions on Sheka’s mining interests. This place is full of rumors and whispers.
Sheka arrived around 11 p.m. His appearance was presaged by an angry, argumentative, disembodied monologue—Sheka’s distant voice getting gradually louder. His officers looked visibly excited. Finally he was upon us. He was reeking of whiskey.
Sheka struck me as charismatic. He was a dapper fellow, constantly rearranging a long tartan scarf he wore around his neck, and he would utter long-winded statements that would begin in a slow whisper, building force, until he was nearly shouting in a loud staccato. He reminded me of Klaus Kinski. His physical gestures seemed carefully choreographed for dramatic emphasis—the way he placed one hand palm down on the table and the other on the bench, leaning forward with his eyes wide for rhetorical emphasis, then fixed his scarf. His officers were positively enraptured by his presence. He had a canny air about him, switching easily between English, French, Swahili, and Kinyanga, sometimes mid-sentence.
We talked all night. I asked him what he fought for. He told me he was the guardian of the Nyanga people, and wanted to protect them from the FDLR. I told him I had once met with Sadiki, the FDLR commander he had killed, and he seemed proud. “This camp is Sadiki’s former HQ,” he told me. He boasted of having rid the area of roving Hutu rebels, which is partly true. But he had also been a close ally to the FDLR for many years, until it no longer suited him.
I tried to get him onto the subject of economics, hinting at an international mining interest that was attempting to set up a large industrial mining operation in “his” territory. I had heard that Sheka’s men had attacked this mining company’s operations at least twice in recent months. The mining company is a threat because NDC’s main activity is carrying out protection rackets on highly profitable artisanal mining operations. The NDC extort illegal taxes on every aspect of the mineral trade in this region: on the roads and forest tracks leading to the mines; on the small businesses, such as bars and brothels, that service the miners; and of course on the mining itself.
Sheka intimated that he was “open to negotiations” with any mining company, and I got the point. He was prepared to sell the Nyanga ideology that he spoke of to the highest bidder. The great irony is that Sheka was never trained as a soldier. Indeed, before taking up arms by setting up the NDC, Sheka worked for Mining and Processing Congo (MPC).
Despite efforts by multinational companies to access the vast resources of gold, tin, tungsten, and other minerals in the area, the majority of mining in eastern Congo is still done by hand, with militias like NDC extracting their pound of flesh at every step. As a result, the Dodd-Frank Act contains a provision requiring U.S. companies to declare if the metals in their products might come from minerals related to conflict in Congo. The intention was to cut off resources going to these violent groups, but this measure has also, unfortunately, hurt some hard-working artisanal miners, the poorest people who most need the trade to continue—and precisely the people who it was designed to protect. Perhaps well-regulated, large-scale industrial mining operations can bring secure jobs to this area, while improving infrastructure and communications, and potentially even putting an end to the armed groups who prey upon their own people.
Later, the conversation turned to accusations of the Luvungi mass rape. To my total surprise, Sheka produced the Human Rights Watch report on sexual violence. I wondered whether he carries this book around with him like a trophy. He flipped to the page detailing the Luvungi mass rape, pointing proudly to his portrait. “Do you have a wife, Richard?” He asked. “No,” I responded. Sheka announced that he had several wives and girlfriends. “So why would I need to rape?” He laughed at the allegations.
Sheka’s men looked exhausted. The jungle is a hostile environment, and his men remained vigilant for an attack by Gedeon’s men. Throughout our meeting, we were ringed by gunmen hidden beneath foliage. Yet Sheka’s vanity was unimpeded. At dawn the following morning, escorting me part of the way back down the mountain, Sheka asked to listen to the recording I had made of the interview on my iPhone, and was delighted to hear his own voice being played back. Two hours after I made it out of NDC territory, Gedeon attacked Sheka’s location again and it was rumored that Sheka was shot in the leg.
Sheka’s days are numbered. He knew it too, speaking wistfully, almost fatalistically about his situation. He wished to procure a fake passport to escape to Sudan, to start over, but knew it was a fantasy. He knew his heyday was in the past, and spoke of being replaced. Sooner or later Sheka will likely be killed just as he killed Sadiki, and another pariah will probably take his place in this hilltop HQ, perhaps less colorful than Sheka, but equally deadly.