After a well-known warlord escaped from prison in Katanga, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s most stable province has been terrorised for the last year by a group demanding independence for the mineral-rich region.
In Katanga, it is common to hear people complain that they are not benefiting from their region’s immense copper and cobalt resources, so it was no surprise that many young people initially responded to the separatists’ call.
It is also an issue on which the southern province has infamous form.
Less than a week after DRC’s independence in June 1960, it announced it was seceding, sparking a conflict fuelled by Cold War rivalries.
Secessionist leader and businessman Moise Tshombe was backed by Belgium, the ex-colonial power, UK and US, which all had mining interests in Katanga and baulked at the idea of a DRC led by a government allied to the Soviet Union.
Within four months Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba had been overthrown. He was later assassinated, while Tshombe eventually bowed to UN pressure and superior firepower. Katanga was re-integrated in 1963.
Cold War politics may no longer be an issue for the Swahili-speaking province almost the size of France, but the alienation from the rest of DRC its many residents feel still is.
However, the current separatists — the Mai Mai Kata Katanga movement — are not using tactics that will win the hearts and minds of the civilian population.
“They tied my mum to a tree and stuck an arrow through her rib cage,” 18-year-old Antoinette said, recalling the secessionists’ attack on her village of Montofita in which some houses were burnt and she and her mother were kidnapped.
“They cut off her breasts. I saw it all. Then each of the two men raped me. My neighbours were burned alive.”
Antoinette has found refuge in the small dusty town of Pweto on the border with Zambia where some 60 000 other Katanga villagers have gathered.
The UN refugee agency estimates that more than 1 700 displaced women were raped before fleeing.
In total nearly 400 000 people now live in camps for displaced persons — a huge number, often overshadowed by the even more numerous people forced from their homes by other conflicts in the DRC.
“Maybe the population could have supported the Kata Katanga’s cause, but they didn’t give us a chance: they don’t behave like a liberation movement. They burn villages and kill people,” said Priscille, a Pweto resident.
There are several groups of Mai Mai, the term for armed community groups, in Katanga.
The Kata Katanga, which in Swahili means “secede Katanga”, is the newest and was formed after Gedeon Kyungu Mutanga escaped from prison in September 2011.
Before he was imprisoned in 2006, he had been head of a militia which fought alongside the Congolese forces against pro-Rwandan rebel groups in the 1990s.
After the end of that conflict, he allegedly continued to receive discreet support from someone in the military.
Following his escape, such links are thought to have continued — with top decisions and financing coming from a Katangan living abroad.
The largest cobalt deposits in the world are in Katanga — and the province is the second biggest African provider of copper.
While thousands of people walk for days on dusty roads to escape armed groups, other brand new roads are used to transport millions of dollars’ worth of minerals out of the country.
Lorries full of cobalt and copper can be seen every day lining up for kilometres on end at the Zambian border.
According to Congolese law, the government has to transfer 40% of the taxes paid by companies based in Katanga back to the province, but local human rights organisations say the tax money has had no visible impact.
The skyline of Lubumbashi is dominated by its slag heap, but outside the provincial capital, schools, hospitals and asphalt roads — besides those heading to the border — are rare sights.
Lucien, a school teacher from Kabisa now in Pweto, said a dozen men joined up with the separatists from his village.
“I was targeted by the armed groups because I am educated, I tell people the truth, and so I deterred young men from joining armed groups,” he said. “I told them it would bring them only misery.”
According to local authorities in Pweto, hundreds of Mai Mai fighters have deserted the movement since the beginning of the year, exhausted and demoralised.
“We will never achieve independence. We are poorer than before, many of us died,” one former fighter said.
Yet in March, more than 200 Kata Katanga fighters, lightly armed, covered with magic charms and waving flags of the independent state of Katanga, entered Lubumbashi.
They raised their flag in the town’s central square before surrendering to UN peacekeepers after a battle in which 23 people died.
Since then, the Mai Mai has threatened to enter the city again.
“We are afraid, the last time they entered many people were killed by stray bullets. It’s almost like a rebellion,” one Lubumbashi resident said.
The villagers who fled to Pweto said soldiers from the UN or Congolese army were nowhere to be seen when they came under attack.
According to the UNHCR, government soldiers are responsible for a large portion of the cases of sexual violence registered among the displaced people.
One resident of Lubumbashi summed up the general feeling of many people in Katanga.
“Independence could be a good thing for Katanga, but it depends primarily on how it is achieved,” he said.
“If this is for the people, yes, but to serve the interests of a small group, no thank you.”