Congo army seeks insight into Islamist militants from women held captive

By Yassin Kombi and Gradel Muiysa

BENI, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) – At a military intelligence centre in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, 22-year-old Mariam recounted how she lived alongside Islamist insurgents for two years after she was taken by the militants and force-marched to their camp in the rainforest.

Mariam said a Ugandan insurgent had claimed her as his wife, one of several non-Congolese militants she met during her time with the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) – an armed group that is expanding its deadly reach with funding from Islamic State, according to U.N. experts.

The group originated as an uprising in Uganda and some members fled across the border into the vast jungles of eastern Congo in the 1990s. Since then they have pledged allegiance to Islamic State and maintained their insurgency, attacking civilian and military targets in both Congo and Uganda.

Both countries launched a joint military operation in December 2021, and Uganda deployed over 1,500 troops into Congo to help capture or kill the militants.

Reuters got rare access to the detention centre in Beni to interview women with recent experience of living in the ADF rebel camps.

Congo army spokesperson Antony Mwalushay told Reuters that after sometimes lengthy spells in the camps, the women can have valuable insight on the group’s operations that helps counter-insurgency efforts.

“They sometimes tell secrets that the army didn’t know,” he said in an interview on Sept. 13 at the base in the town of Beni, which lies in an area where the ADF is most active.

“When this information refers to a place where an ADF leader is located, operations are carried out there, and we find the attackers’ camp precisely,” he said.

So far this year the army has questioned around 425 women, who had been freed or escaped from rebels since January, including Mariam, Mwalushay said.

Speaking to Reuters in the yard of the centre, Mariam described how she was coerced into moving to the rebel camp.

Other testimonies shed light on how the rebels live. Another 22-year old woman who ended up in an ADF camp when her husband signed up, said she was surprised by the strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law.

“All the Muslim law there is very different from what we experience here … For example, there the women cover their entire face, you cannot see or even recognise them,” she told Reuters at the base.

“At the ADF if you speak to a husband who is not yours, they whip you.”

(Writing by Sonia Rolley and Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)