Lawlessness in the DRC: When graveyard land is sold for housing

The writer was saddened by the destruction of tombstones in the  cemetery where his mother is buried.
The writer was saddened by the destruction of tombstones in the cemetery where his mother is buried.

After travelling from Zambia to the DRC to honour his mother on the 10th anniversary of her death, Augustine Mukoka was shocked by what he found.

It’s business as usual in Lubumbashi. The city is alive as the sun sets. The main road, which is small by other countries’ standards and links the city to Kasumbalesa on the southern border with Zambia, is buzzing and congested.

It’s very difficult to determine which lane the driver is supposed to be in. But life goes on anyway as drivers navigate the traffic jams.

Welcome to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s second-largest city. What appears to be a two-lane road suddenly splits and heads in the opposite direction.

Just as suddenly, there are four vehicles attempting to navigate the traffic. The scene is chaotic and the ensuing traffic jam causes major frustration among the motorists.

And we are stuck. There’s very little the driver can do but be patient and slowly make his way through the jam to the other side. Everyone is anxious to get to their destinations.

The public transport vehicle I boarded in Kasumbalesa, about 100km from Lubumbashi, had 10 passengers, and goats strapped down on top of the Toyota Noah. The space between the driver’s seat and the pedals is reserved for a live chicken wrapped in a plastic bag.

A little hole has been punched into the bag to help the bird catch some fresh air so that it reaches the city without suffocating.

The shock on my face could be mistaken for malice. But I haven’t been back here for 10 years and things have worsened since then.

No one dares to ask the driver anything. It’s basically all systems go. The condition of the vehicle makes one wonder when it was last checked by a mechanic.

It’s clear that the vehicle’s shock absorbers are non-existent as it bounces along the tattered stretch of road to Lubumbashi.

Everyone on board appears to be content, and the adage “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” makes me shut up and “enjoy” the ride.

As we approach the city, we come to Kisanga, a crowded township that is a hive of activity as you enter Lubumbashi.

Traffic is bumper to bumper. The driver exclaims: “Papa, hide your phone before these guys break my window and aim for it.”

Many tombstones in the cemetery have been destroyed.

Thugs, masquerading as street hawkers referred to as “ba Shegue” by locals, have a penchant for snatching cellphones from unsuspecting travellers or visitors.

The driver’s warning was a wake-up call for me. I needed to be careful with my belongings in the place I had not visited in nearly a decade.

My heart started pounding fast, even though I had an idea of the place.

Ten years ago, I had laid my mother, Elizabeth Kayinda Tshimwish, to rest after she suffered a heart attack while visiting her relatives.

Although she was born in the former Zaire, my mother had lived most of her adult life in Zambia, where she was married and had her five children.

She would occasionally visit her relatives in North Western Province in Zambia, as well as in Lubumbashi, Likasi, Kolwezi and Kapanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Just before what turned out to be her final trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009, she promised to return re-energised.

However, as she prepared to go back to her home in Zambia, she succumbed to cardiac arrest on April 28 2009.

It remains the saddest day of my life. As her children, all we could do was offer my mother a decent resting place to preserve the memories we shared when she was alive.

A resting place for the departed is considered a sacred and protected site. It’s most certainly why, when a loved one dies, commiserations are accompanied by the phrase “rest in eternal peace”.

Yet when we started preparations to remember our mother on the 10th anniversary of her death in April last year, we were greeted with disturbing images of her burial site.

The tombstone was decimated. The the 2m-deep grave was laid bare. It was a nightmare to imagine that people would descend on a grave and just rip it open. The destruction of a site we treasured as a resting place for our matriarch was unacceptable and, in any decent society, this would land such perpetrators behind bars.

Apparently local leaders referred to as “chef” had begun parcelling off pieces of the graveyard’s land.

Augustine Mukoka and his relatives fix his mother’s grave.

They sold these pieces of land for between $200 (R2 800) and $1 000, according to the self-appointed young men who guard the cemetery.

When the piece of land is sold in the cemetery, the buyers and their families start building their houses and move in. It’s strange, but that’s the reality of life in this part of Lubumbashi.

About 1m from where my mother rests are remnants of what used to be her tombstone.

There’s also some rubble belonging to what used to be someone’s house. It was razed to the ground after a mini riot in August 2018 was triggered by the destruction to the graves.

Following the desecration of the graves, families with the means are forced to rebury their loved ones.

The relocation of the burial sites comes at a significant cost – the process costs between $5 000 and $10 000.

The ripple effect of the carefree attitude of the leadership can be unbearable for citizens.

It’s difficult to understand how and why people would choose to build houses on top of graves, destroying tombstones in the process.

This does not only raise many questions about such conduct, but it also causes relatives emotional anguish.

In fact, it is the epitome of the lawlessness that is evident across this mineral-rich country.

Where are the city planners? Who approves land title deeds in Lubumbashi? Are people a law unto themselves in this part of the world? Are the majority of the country’s people so morally bankrupt that they can dance on people’s graves?

The problem is larger than the graveside where my mother is buried. If the dead can’t be spared a broken system, how will the country cope?

President Felix Tshilombo Tshisekedi’s ascendence to power a year ago does not seem to have changed anything and there are growing frustrations among the Congolese.

Soldiers and police officers are paid peanuts – about $40 and $30, respectively – which fuels corruption. At the 10 roadblocks we went through between Kasumbalesa and Lubumbashi city, officers demanded bribes.

The rule of law needs to return to the country so that my mother and others can rest in peace. The living also need to be treated with respect.


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