“They jumped out of everywhere. I had no time to comprehend the situation I was facing. They stabbed me in the back and grabbed my watch, walking away triumphantly.” Victim of Kuluna violence speaking for the Magazine Jeune Afrique.
This incident is one of many that the police department receives in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. In the neighborhoods of the city, fingers are everlastingly pointed towards the Kuluna gang. This group of children and young adults (12-25 years old) assemble in a military like fashion and proceed into raping, stealing, looting, and sometimes brutally killing civilians. They are often armed with machetes, stones, and knives and are supposedly easily recognizable by their tattoos and eccentric hairstyles. The population of Kinshasa has outwardly expressed their distaste for these children. “They should be executed in public for what they have done,” says Glody, a Congolese merchant. Undoubtedly, horrific acts have been committed by the Kuluna children but to fully understand their actions we must look upon the whole facet of their backgrounds and incentives.
As mentioned previously, the Kulunas are organized in a very orderly, military-like hierarchy. The chief is at the head of the concerned Kuluna group. The general follows, often with a tattoo (cobra,lion etc.) symbolizing his rank. This set up originates from the fact that many of these children involved in the various Kuluna gangs are ex child-soldiers. According to UN statistics, 30,000 children in the DRC are involved in army or rebel combat. These child soldiers are forced to partake into horrendous crimes that often leave them psychologically damaged. One child describes their experience, “I stole and killed people for nothing…killing was my way of saving my life.” Upon return after a conflict, most survivors have been raised in such an aggressive and damaging environment that using violence is the only way they see as fit for their survival. With some of these children originating from this background it is not difficult to see why they now engage in gang activity and commit crimes with such brutality.
When confronted about how they manage to escape from being caught by the authorities, the Kuluna confirm what the police department had speculated all along; they are protected by their own families and communities. A young member of a Kuluna gang says “We live with them. They are our brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers. If we don’t bother them, why would they turn us in?” Indeed the rule amongst each gang is to never attack the members of their own area, securing them a home amongst their small communities and keeping them off the streets.
Another cause of violence perpetuated by the Kulunas is the conflict between various gangs. For control of a section of the city’s goods, members of various gangs will often fight for hours with stones and knives. These fierce combats may block major streets stopping people from arriving safely to their homes or conducting their day-to-day business in the city center. The gangs also carry different names. The Lions are seemingly the most influential in the city, but they are tailed by other groups such as the Suajamas (their biggest rivals,) the Jamaica, the Banzoyi (meaning bees in Lingala), the Arabs and many more. Again this reflects on some of these children’s pasts in the military and their increasing need to control as much as possible by any means necessary.
Many in Kinshasa hold the Congolese state and police system responsible for the frequent Kuluna attacks. “We are tired of these delinquents that disturb our tranquility. It is as if the state has no regard for our well-being.” (Congolese man speaking to Radio Okapi) The police justified their inability to act by a lack of funding and resources. They complained that reports had to be written by hand because there were no computers or typewriters to use. When they tried to arrest the Kuluna, they were forced to do so by foot, crumbling under the intensity of the heat, having not been given any police cars. The department tried to explain that it was indeed very difficult to work effectively under these conditions.
However, some believe that there is more behind the fact that police is unable to take action, and that is, the Kuluna’s interactions with some political leaders. These children are often highly trained and are adept at fighting. In the past, if they had engaged in warfare, they were often used as body guards for the guerilla force leaders, and thus are familiar with ensuring the protection of higher officials. These ex-soldiers, now part of Kuluna gangs are often hired by Congolese politicians to serve as cheaper body guards. In exchange for inexpensive security labor, a certain politician may not only offer a particular Kuluna gang a bit of money, but also protect them from being arrested.
In the midst of a possible political implication, the government still chose to make a radical choice to finally eradicate the Kuluna phenomenon, and calm the Congolese population. On the 4th July of 2012 the Congolese national police set up a specialized “Anti-Kuluna” unity. This operation was named Likofi, or fist punch in Lingala. The sole purpose of the Likofi operation is to end the Kuluna terror for the good of Kinshasa’s inhabitants. More than 100 fully equipped police experts were trained specifically for handling Kulunas. However, the “handling” of the Kuluna has raised a new set of problems. When arrests were supposed to be the only thing planned when Kulunas were captured, many officers spiraled out of control and chose to instead gravely injure or even execute these children in public places. UNICEF and Monusco (UN mission in Congo) announced that more than twenty people were unjustifiably killed by the police, with twelve being under eighteen. Entire families that hid members of the Kuluna gangs were also executed or emprisoned. UNICEF and Monusco tried to propose an alternative to the police department. Instead of arresting and killing the Kuluna, they choose to acknowledge that they were psychologically damaged and wanted to come to their aid. They set up centers to help these children form professional careers in the future. Although it has worked for many of the Kulunas (that the police hadn’t found first) the Kinshasa population finds this method ineffective and deems that these children are unworthy of a second chance.
With the decrease of Kuluna violence, many citizens of Kinshasa are glad that the police has begun to execute these young men and are outraged that the United Nations declares these killings a violation of human rights. One man spoke to Jeune Afrique, “We must execute the Kulunas in public. I am sorry for their families but this phenomenon has to end.” When asked about human rights he responded, “How about when the Kulunas killed us? Where were the defenders of human rights then?”
The question remains; is the government justified for killing the Kuluna to ensure the safety of the general population and what role should the United Nations play in this situation?