What happened to the three priests kidnapped two years ago this month in the Congo (North Kivu province)? Frs Jean-Pierre Ndulani, Edmond Kisughu and Anselme Wasukundi, three Assumptionist priests, were kidnapped on 19 October, 2012, from their rectory in Mbau, in the region of Beni, one of the major towns in the province of North Kivu Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
At that time, no one was able to establish for certain the circumstances of their abduction, nor what happened to them. Given that there have been no reliable ransom demands and given the tangled web of various armed groups, the absence of the State in this remote area, the corruption, the rumors and lies, the manipulation of information, fate of these three religious is still a complete mystery.
Why were they kidnapped?
Nicaise Kibel’Bel Oka, editor of the bimonthly Les Coulisses said: "The three Assumptionist priests are Congolese, of the Nande tribe. However, they were assigned to a parish that is principally Bambuba, a tribe that is traditionally at odds with the Nande."
He explained that the population of Mbau "wanted priests who were members of their own tribe. A group of them were undoubtedly extremely upset by the diocese's choice at the time of the renewal of the parish team in October 2012. The three priests were kidnapped a week after their installation by an armed local group, before being given over to the ADF-Nalu" (Allied Democratic Forces-National Army for the Liberation of Uganda, otherwise known as the Muslim Alliance of Democratic Forces).
Kivu is a region wracked by strong sectarian tensions, exacerbated by disputes over land and other resources and/or the exploitation of minerals. The Catholic Church itself – one of the rare institutions that is still standing in the Congo – hasn't always been able to avoid this reality. Nelonging to a particular group often plays a not insignificant role in the recruitment and appointment of priests and their acceptance in various parish communities in Kivu.
The ethnic group that dominates North Kivu (diocese of Butembo-Beni) is by far that of the Nande (about 90% of the population). "Often seen as overbearing and arrogant, they do not always enjoy a lot of popularity in the region," explained one Congolese inhabitant of Goma. "They occupy the positions of responsibility in the diocese of Butembo", added Taylor Toeka Kakalal, a Congolese Catholic journalist who covers Kivu.
Who might have kidnapped them?
Nicaise Kibel’Bel Oka attributes the responsibility of the kidnapping possibly to a local group of Maï-Maï (1) and of 'brigadier general' Paluku Kombi Hilaire, who defected from the Congolese national army and is a veritable "godfather" in this area. His supporters dominate Beni and its surroundings. Given this situation, it's hard to believe that he wasn't directly or
indirectly involved in this affair.
"Either he ordered the kidnapping or he got hold of the hostages from the group that had abducted them," another person in the know commented. "For him, holding these hostages might have been a way to assert his authority over the local population and over the groups of Maï-Maï, at a time when his friends of M23 held control of another region of North Kivu and were about to lay siege to Goma." In any event, given what little is known,
this hypothesis seems to be the most credible today.
What happened later?
Nicaise Kibel’Bel Oka suggests that Paluku Kombi Hilaire would have later handed the three priests over in exchange for arms to another armed group, Allied Democratic Forces-National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-Nalu), a Muslim rebel group.
This theory is shared by many people who cover the region including the British journalist Caroline Hellyer who was living in Beni at that time. Reached in London where she lives today, she stated that "at the end of the summer of 2013 the ADF had begun negotiations to liberate them". However, a military campaign by the national Congolese army "closed all possible
At this stage the reason why this group would have decided to get a hold of these priests is not really clear. The ADF-Nalu has always been known to exercise discretion and privacy. "Their hostages are not people who are well-known. They usually take those who are immediately useful to them: local farmers to work the fields, carpenters, handymen, women as sex-slaves, child-soldiers … I don't see how these priests would have been of use to them", underlined the head of an emergency group from an international NGO working in the area and responsible for investigating the ADL.
What do we know of the fate of the priests today?
Since January the Congolese national army has been conducting an offensive against ADF-Nalu, "Operation Sukola". Some 200 hostages, among them some 20 men, have been able to find their way to freedom. Those who have questioned them have not been able to gather any reliable information about the presence of the priests among the hostages.
According to the bimonthly Les Coulisses and Radio Kivu 1, the three priests would have been killed this summer by ADF-Nalu because they refused to convert to Islam. But there is no proof for this.
"The ADF is known to practice forced conversions and to torture those who resist. The United Nations mission in the Congo (Monusco) found evidence of this at the Medina camp, which fell into the hands of the Congolese army this past spring. Beyond that, no one can seriously say anything," added an agent from another international NGO task force, by way of summing up where we are at this point. The probability of finding the priests alive seems, unfortunately, is very slight.
The missing priests
Jean-Pierre Mumbere Ndulani. Born in 1962, he was ordained a priest in 1994. He had been pastor at Oicha, in the Congo, but also spent time as a missionary in Ecuador and in Scotland. Most of his pastoral ministry as a priest was in parishes.
Anselme Kakule Wasukundi, in the middle of the photo, was born in 1971 and ordained in 2004. He served as master of postulants and did parish work. He had just completed a degree in history in Butembo (Congo).
Edmond Bamtupe Kisughu, was born in 1959 and ordained in1986. He worked for many years in parishes and was the only one to have spent more than three years in Mbau.
Article translated by Rev John L Franck, Assistant General
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