Floribert Kambale Safari didn’t spend long in the hands of his kidnappers, but he still feels he’s a captive to the debt owed to those who paid his ransom.
Kidnapping for cash is a growing threat in the part of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo where Safari, a 54-year-old subsistence farmer, lives.
People from all walks of life, including civil servants, priests and imams, have fallen victim to the crime wave in a southeastern region of North Kivu province.
The state has a limited presence in this part of the country, where dozens of armed groups have been active for years and humanitarian conditions are among the worst in the world.
Insecurity runs so high that aid agencies regularly suspend their operations.
With little to fear from the police, the kidnapping gangs are able to operate with impunity.
Sitting outside his small tin-roofed home in the under-developed area of Kayna, in North Kivu’s Lubero territory, Safari recounted how one night early in May, three hooded men snatched him from a shed in his field.
The kidnappers at first asked for the equivalent of $1,500 (1,400 euros) as a ransom, but ended up accepting the $500 that Safari’s family managed to scrape together.
‘A new plague’
In the provincial capital Goma, North Kivu Governor Julien Paluku seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the situation.
“We’re witnessing a new plague... this is a new business,” he told AFP. “We’re currently studying how to put an end to this.”
In Kayna, as in most of the vast central African country, there is no running water, no electricity and practically no tarred roads. The few masonry buildings are in bad shape and appear to date from Belgian colonial times, before 1960.
Since he was freed on May 13, Safari has not dared return to his banana plantation for fear of being abducted again by the same kidnappers.
Earning just 5,000 francs (about $5) a month from selling a banana-based alcohol and with no savings, Safari is despondent.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do to pay people back,” Safari says. “Here we are suffering. If I had the means, I’d go to live elsewhere.”
A somewhat luckier kidnap victim is businessman Isaac Kavusa Vukole, 39.
In September, armed men wearing balaclavas abducted him from his Kayna home and led him off into a forest.
For two days, they pressured Kavusa’s family by threatening to kill him. They whipped him as he pleaded with his loved ones to raise $15,000.
When the family eventually managed to collect $4,500, his kidnappers agreed to let him go.
‘I go undercover’
Much wealthier than Safari, Kavusa said that within a month, he was able to return the $3,000 he borrowed to help pay his ransom. But he had to quickly sell off three-quarters of his merchandise.
“I go undercover” when travelling, said Kasuva, who is regularly on the road to make sure all is well in the shops he owns.
“In the evening, I do all I can not to be visible.”
Bandits have long targeted a stretch of North Kivu’s main north-south highway between Kanyabayonga and Kiwanja.
In recent months, at the behest of governor Paluku, vehicles have been travelling in convoys escorted by soldiers. Departures take place twice a day in both directions.
Though they welcomed the military protection, several travellers described it as a stopgap measure.
For Jeannot Kisiba, an accountant in his 30s, the authorities would do better to “put an end to the problem of insecurity” that has ravaged the province for more than 20 years.