Charred homes, burnt-out vehicles and ghost villages litter the Beni-to-Komanda road, a testament to the reign of terror inflicted by the Allied Democratic Forces rebel group in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
A column of a hundred or so troop carriers, led by jeeps fitted with machine guns, left Beni in Nord-Kivu province for the town of Komanda in Ituri, kicking up yellow dust on the notorious and widely feared 105-kilometer-long (65-mile-long) road.
Along the route — a commercial artery linking the two provinces — rebels of the ADF, which is presented by the Islamic State group as its central African affiliate, have meted out extreme violence against civilians — often with machetes and other bladed weapons.
The stretch of the “National 4” highway between Eringeti and Komanda is dotted with burnt-out vehicle chassis and charred motorbikes, indicative of the violence engulfing the area.
– Abandoned homes –
Abandoned homes have been reclaimed by nature, their former occupants having fled months ago.
Family pets can be seen roaming between huts in the villages where cocoa and coffee were planted.
Halfway along the route lies Mayi-Moya where the convoy encounters traces of fresh blood mixed with cornflour and then motorcycle taxis transporting the bodies of four victims of the seemingly unending violence.
ADF fighters had ambushed the travellers as they made their way unescorted to Eringeti.
In response, the army is deploying its new canine unit deep into the forests in which the insurgents retreat after their attacks.
But the ADF often attack in the dead of night, seeking out isolated military positions and avoiding hand-to-hand combat with regular forces.
– ‘It reassures us!’ –
Major General Camille Bombele, coordinator of joint military operations with the Ugandan army in the area, said that whenever the ADF is on the back-foot, it attacks civilians in acts of “asymmetric warfare” in an effort to turn the population against the military.
“They are jihadists” seeking to convert the population to radical Islam, said Bombele.
“They don’t need people to be Catholics, Protestants, peaceful citizens.”
To further secure the road, new army units have been deployed at several points along the route.
The heads of operations in the two areas held a command meeting to plan the protection of civilians, who are suffering from ADF reprisals amid ongoing operations with the Ugandan army.
Outside Komanda, in the village of Ngombenyama, the convoy passes residents returning from the fields and children playing in front of their homes.
“We are delighted to see the presence of the military in our chiefdom of Walese Vokutu. It reassures us! We hope that peace will be restored. This is the wish of the population,” said Paul Atibo Yope, a local chief who was visibly relieved.