From Simbas to Ninjas: Congo's Magic Warriors (2003)
In 2002, a lightly-armed band of Congolese rebels attacked a capital city airport in a desperate bid to seize a vital military target. They wore magic charms across their bare chests to ward off government bullets. A firefight erupted with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) soldiers who shredded any belief of magical protection for the Congolese rebels. The "Ninjas," as they called themselves, were killed, one by one, going down in a hail of lead. Sixty believers in paranormal powers soon lay dead, or dying, across the blood-stained runways. Once more, witchcraft, protective charms, and magic spells, proved fruitless against modern military arms.
Despite History's long record of defeats for those who embrace magic as martial strategy, young African men still line up as recruits in answer to the witch doctor's siren call for magic wars. This small scale, urban, Ninja rebellion recently wound down with the Ninja rebels either making peace with the current regime, or choosing to die in street battles. However, the dangers from those believing they can effect violent political change, via paranormal powers, still confront the Peoples of the Congo. Even more urgent for the embattled Kinshasha regime, the Congo's eastern provinces are being moved toward a state of complete anarchy by the war waged by a magic militia called the Mai-Mai (translated as "powerful water" in Swahili). These teenage, antigovernment rebels hail from a primitive society of tribal hunters. The Mai-Mai rebels are a manifestation of an ailing society rooted in animism and witchcraft beliefs.
Since August of 1998, a rebellion against the Kinshasha government has raged across the vast expanse that is the Congo. Several African nations were immediately drawn into the vortex of a bloody civil war within the DRC. Directly, and indirectly, nearly 2.5 million lives were lost before the fighting subsided. In 2002, an official withdrawal of foreign soldiers refueled a massive struggle for territory and resources between local rebel armies and militias. This war torn area is fertile in animistic beliefs, giving birth to the now infamous "Mai-Mai" militia movement. The child soldiers of the Mai-Mai believe they are immune to combat death because of their magical ability to repel bullets--after fighters are anointed with protective water nostrums by their witch doctors! Members of this magic militia also believe other weaponry fired at them, such as rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells, will fail to cause them harm. Why? Because the Mai-Mai rebels believe, assured by magic men of the village that such airborne projectiles will turn into water. These tribesmen believe so fervently in the sacred water's supernatural protection that they sport water-related objects, such as shower hoses or drain plugs, while marching into battle! Crowns made from green vines are worn into battle as an added magical aid to achieve invisibility.
Despite the promises of village witch doctors, the gods of war have not been kind to these young fighters. Many young rebels have been mown down by automatic weapons fire when bullets, fired their way, failed to transform into harmless drops of H2O. The usual excuses for battlefield fatalities given by the Mai-Mai cadres to any wavering recruits is that the deceased parties failed to observe all the necessary special rituals. Mai-Mai cadres also excuse battlefield deaths as accidental by claiming Mai-Mai bullets gone astray can't be stopped by the same magic! Many of the young Mai-Mai rebels have little education in an area of the globe pregnant with belief in spells and spirits; they are the perfect malleable recruits for men like Mai-Mai commander Joseph Padiri--who currently controls an area three times the size of Rwanda! Minds that embrace irrational beliefs are subject to manipulation by charismatic opportunists who recruit children into their conflicts. Mere boys toting rifles and wearing magic charms, at times stoked on hemp and cocaine, the Mai-Mai recruits dream of the ultimate victory promised to them by village elders and witch doctors alike, but often find death instead.
Mai-Mai fighters, who hold a fierce reputation as ritual cannibals, usually engage their enemies by entering a battle with singing and dancing, secure in their magical beliefs of protection from danger. Confidence, irrational or not, has been a factor in this particular conflict, sometimes playing on the fears of the opposition soldiers. According to an Associated Press (AP) report, one military commander even thought it necessary to trot a captive Mai-Mai boy out for public execution in order to vanquish his soldiers' fear of Mai-Mai supernatural invincibility. But any Mai-Mai gains in warfare can be credited to the Western science that produced their small arms, and perhaps also to the reckless bravery of these witchcraft warriors-not tribal magic!
Unbelievably, the Mai-Mai originally fought with bows and arrows at the start of their nearly ten year old rebellion. When magic water, and oils, failed to completely protect the fighters, as promised by the tribal magic men, astute militia commanders probably decided some modern arms might help the cause. However, the Mai-Mai fighters aren't the only magic warriors to bring the horrors of warfare and accompanying atrocities into the lives of the Eastern Congo's civilians.
In January of 2003, credible reports surfaced of a rebel group committing atrocities against the Pygmy Peoples of the eastern DRC. A UN commission further verified these atrocities to include eating the body parts of murdered Pygmies to "gain strength" (that is obtaining the life "energy" of an enemy for enhancement of supernatural battlefield strength by the ingestion of key human organs such as the human heart; a practice tied to witchcraft beliefs prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa). Witnesses have exposed the rebel groups involved in these witchcraft-inspired crimes as the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), headed by Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD-N), led by Roger Lumbala.
Some readers may ask, "How can these events still be occurring in the Twenty-First Century?" The reasons for the magic wars in central Africa may lie in a complex mixture of cultural, societal, and religious forces. Though it may be hard to ascertain all the causes of supernaturally-based wars, I know, by being a student of world events, this is not a first time such wars have exploded in the Congo. Nor will it be the last.
In July, 1964, a rebellion began in the former French Congo (Eastern Congo) ignited by the abuses of the newly established Congolese central government. The cadres of the rebel movement were leftist in ideology, but most of the rank and file was composed of spear-toting tribesmen from the Kivu and Orientale provinces. Many of the tribesmen were illiterate and they came from a tradition steeped in primitive animist beliefs. Rebels were promised immunity to bullets by witch doctors. The tribesmen were told by the magic men they would be transformed into "Simbas" (the Swahili word for lions) when entering battle. Astonishingly, the Simbas managed to intimidate two heavily-armed battalions of government commandos into a retreat without battle. The victorious Simbas began to capture local capitals and soon, within weeks, half the Congo was in their hands. The major city of Stanleyville fell when the 1500 man government garrison fled, abandoning their armaments--which included mortars and armored vehicles. The national troops had been scared into headlong retreat by witch doctors charging with only forty Simba fighters! No bullets were fired by the Simba rebels, but the witch doctors frantically waved palm branches as a part of their supernatural arsenal. Unfortunately, Simba rule turned out to be not as comical, but quite cruel in administration. During the rebel rein, hundreds of Westerners, and Westernized elites, were massacred. (A figure of 10,000 civilians killed by Simbas seems to be a generally accepted number.) The magic warriors' victories were stunning, especially given the fact that Simba rebels had no air force. Furthermore, the Simbas were hampered by a reluctance to fight at night or during a rain storms--the times that rebels believed their magic powers would vanish. Despite their initial successes, successes which were undoubtedly inspired by the bullet-repelling recipes of the witch doctors, a counteroffensive backed by America and Belgium began to roll back the rebel forces.
A new Prime Minister, Moise Tshombe, was installed to head the Congo's government and a force of Western mercenaries was quickly raised to fight the Simbas. In the fall of 1964, Stanleyville was recaptured by a joint Belgian-American paratroop drop. Unlike the Congolese government soldiers, when paratroopers were charged by a band of Simba fighters at the battle for the Stanleyville airport, (a charge led once again by a witch doctor), there was no panic found among the Belgian paratroopers who annihilated the rebels with automatic weapons fire. Within the city of Stanleyville, over a thousand European hostages were freed with the defeat of defending Simba forces. For the Simbas, this major battle was decisive and the war started to take a nasty turn for the worse.
Within days, CIA donated and piloted aircraft, (B-26Ks and T-28s), strafed Simba units found in the open. Fifty-caliber cannons and 70mm wing-mounted rockets inflicted devastating casualties on the rebel columns, which failed to disperse even when under relentless air attack. The Simbas lacked antiaircraft guns, and the rebel fighters didn't use camouflage for concealment of positions, to the further great advantage of counterinsurgency pilots. However, one unfortunate CIA pilot was captured, killed, and eaten after his plane crashed. (This is not unlike today's MLC and RDC-N tribal fighters who believed that eating the vital organs of one's enemy confers supernatural strength in battle.) Tshombe's mercenary forces soon captured town after town from the less-disciplined Simba militias. One factor in the Western-aided military success was a lack of belief on the part of the counterinsurgency forces in the supernatural abilities of the Simba warriors. By the end of 1965, the Simba rebellion was well on its way to total defeat.
The final figure for Simba dead is unknown but thought to be in the thousands. Superior military arms and military discipline prevailed against an undisciplined, magically-thinking foe. The Simba rebellion was crushed in two years by brute military force, but certain magic wars have nevertheless had an unusual longevity on the African continent. Or is it the magical thinking of many Sub-Saharan Africans which has shown the greater endurance? Will history simply repeat itself for the Mai-Mai rebels and the other magic militia of the Congo? Will these mystical warriors in the Cradle of Civilization soon suffer tragic battlefield fates? I suppose we will have to wait and see what the future holds for those who stake their lives on the existence of a spirit world which they believe can be manipulated by magico-religious ritual means.
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