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Out of Africa: The Congo MP who sought SA sanctuary

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Over a casual meal of steak and chips at a busy restaurant, Dr Luc Mulimbalimba recounts the time a machete-wielding militia squad tried to execute him.

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It was, indeed, the third such attempt on his life, he explains as the dining room’s broad glass façade allows a brief burst of winter sunshine to bathe our table.

It seems an ironically unremarkable setting to hear of how the medico-turned-Member of Parliament for the Democratic Republic of the Congo came to be seeing out his current term in Adelaide.

Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

He begins his tale earnestly, as if reading aloud his CV.

“My name is Luc Mulimbalimba,” he says.

“I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a district called Uvira.

“I’m a medical doctor by profession.”

In the war-ravaged Congo, Mulimbalimba’s family was considered well-to-do.

“My father had 60 cows,” he explains.

“One cow is around $US400-500, so if you have a cow you have money… that’s why we went to university, because we had cows.”

Driven by the area’s poverty and a lack of access to medical services, Mulimbalimba – then a Pastor of Spring of Life Mission Centre – founded a 150-bed hospital in his village of Luvungi, delivering pediatric, gynecological and obstetric services as well as emergency surgery.

A supplied photo of the hospital Mulimbalimba established in his village.

There was a particular focus on providing lower-cost services such as caesarean sections, with the hospital’s website explaining the horrifying reason for such a requirement.

“More than eight million people have died in the war to date and most of them because of hunger, bullets and diseases,” it says.

“There are many children who have been orphaned because of the war. Many women have been widowed. Many young girls and women have been raped and some of them became pregnant and are now single mothers.”

Mulimbalimba says the facility was able to reduce the cost of operations from $US150-200 to $15 “and it was a big success”.

“In a few months we changed the life of people,” he said.

With his newfound profile, Mulimbalimba also began advocating against a local village chief, Mbambaro Ombeni, who he says had been corruptly seizing land, with the backing of Kinshasa-based politicians.

He was persuaded to run for the national parliament in 2011, when he was elected to represent the Territory of Uvira – helping establish sustainable development in the region, including water treatment plants and solar power stations. Years later, he was appointed state minister for the South Kivu province.

But despite his successes, his life was under constant threat.

A solar farm established in Uvira. Photo: Supplied

He says the first attempt to kill him was prompted by his efforts to stop corrupt officials seizing private land in Uvira, his home city in the South Kivu Province of DRC.

“When you are not corrupt you become an enemy of people – they will try and get rid of you, or kill you… or change things for you so they can finish you politically,” he says.

“That’s why it’s very, very difficult to govern the Congo.”

The MP had led protests which saw the Kinshasa-based central government intervene to hand land back to its previous owners, after which “I became targeted”, with local village chiefs mobilising against him.

“They said, ‘this man is becoming more popular’ [so when] I was at a hotel in Uvira they sent militia to come to kill me,” he tells me.

He credits his penchant for casual attire for saving him, saying “it was difficult for them to recognise me” at the hotel, allowing him to leave undetected.

“They took a bayonet, and they cut the fingers of the receptionist until the receptionist showed them my room – but I was not there,” he says.

That was in 2014. The following year, “they came again to my residence with militia to try to kill me”.

After the second attempt on his life, the government assigned Mulimbalimba a bodyguard detail.

“Everywhere I had to go, I went with a bodyguard,” he says – recounting that even on one of his regular visits to Australia, to lobby for medical aid, he was surrounded by security.

When his political enemies saw “it would be difficult for them to kill me… they changed their system”, he says.

When he was re-elected in 2018, it also saw voters usher in Felix Tshisekedi as Congo’s president, in DRC’s first peaceful transfer of power since its independence from Belgium in 1960.

Tshisekedi replaced military-backed strongman Joseph Kabila, who had overseen nearly two decades of corrupt governance and entrenched poverty.

But Mulimbalimba says the period between the general election and the new president’s swearing-in was a fraught one.

“When they saw I was re-elected, and now we had a new president – a new government – they say, ‘ok if we leave this man and there is a new president, in a few months when we have a new government this man will finish us… we will not continue to do our business, so we must kill him before the new president has power’,” he details in his second language.

Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Mulimbalimba recounts how a local chief who was corruptly seizing land targeted the property of one of the villagers.

“When he refused, the militia went and beat him and he died,” he says.

“I told his family to put his body in the hospital mortuary, and to wait for government to take power so we could have a post-mortem.”

This advice prompted “a group of 12 militia with machetes” to pay him a visit.

“They couldn’t kill me with a bullet, so they send machetes,” he says.

Mulimbalimba had four staff, his security minders, with him when the militias arrived.

“One of the staff put his hand like this, so they could not kill me,” he says, demonstrating the makeshift human shield.

Instead, “the machete cut his arm”.

Amid the frantic scenes that followed, “another militia came forward with a machete and a bodyguard opened fire on him, and he died”.

According to Mulimbalimba, the Kabila-backing soldiers and police took him into custody and he was charged with ordering the man’s murder.

He alleges that evidence against him was obtained corruptly.

Under house arrest for two weeks, he was tipped off that there would be yet another attempt on his life, with his food to be poisoned while he awaited a court hearing.

“Some of the officials of this [incoming] new government told me ‘we can’t control justice [because] still Kabila and his people have power’…

“One of the soldiers told me ‘Kabila and his people who have power, if you go [to court] they will kill you – just escape and wait’… they helped me and I escaped… the Australian government helped me with a visa and I come here,” he says.

Police and militia confront one another during the standoff (above) and which Mulimbalimba was questioned by UN soldiers who intervened (below).

Mulimbalimba says his family was also targeted while he was detained.

“They tortured my children, they took all my property… they tried to send some soldiers to rape my wife,” he says.

“I saw the danger for my family was very high, so my family joined me in Nairobi and we came here.”

Mulimbalimba says he had been visiting Australia since 2012, talking at conferences about his work and fundraising for his hospital.

“Every year I have been receiving many Australian doctors and nurses for my missions,” he recalls.

These connections helped aid his refuge in Adelaide.

“It was easy to come here, because we could come any time,” he says.

The 45-year-old and his wife Delice have five children – aged between 6 and 18.

He says they don’t want to return to DRC, “because of the trauma”.

“They’re still traumatised right now, and they love Australia,” he says.

“Seeing soldiers with big machine guns [around them] for two weeks – for children, that is not easy for them… every time when I say to them, ‘I want to go to Africa’, they don’t want to, they say ‘they will kill you there’.

“Even many of my friends here, when I talk to them they don’t want me to go back – they tell me ‘you have a good life here, why do you want to go – you will put your life in danger’… but I tell them, there is a new government now, and the new government is trying to change things – especially fighting corruption and all those other things.

“And if they tell me everything is fine, that is not a problem.”

Luc with Delice and their family: Photo: Mission in Health Care and Development Australian Support Association website

Contemporary reporting of the incidents leading to his exile details the murder charge against him. One such summary is documented in The Ruzizi Plain: A Crossroads of Conflict and Violence, an academic text by Judith Verweijen, Juvénal Twaibu, Oscar Dunia Abedi and Alexis Ndisanze Ntababarwa.

“In recent years, unrest in the groupement [of Luvungi] has been mostly the result of [chief Mbambaro Ombeni’s] use of a personal militia to intimidate and harm opponents, and his competition with the Luvungi-born Shi politician Luc Mulimbalimba,” the book details.

“Aside from being a member of national parliament since 2011, Mulimbalimba briefly served as provincial minister of the interior between 2017 and 2018, under the new governor of South Kivu, Claude Nyamugabo, who was appointed in late 2017.

“In 2015, Mulimbalimba’s involvement in a conflict over the fishing pond of Kindobwe, which Mbambaro had allegedly sold to the vice-governor of South Kivu, triggered violent manifestations, clashes and repression.

“In 2018, violence erupted during the installation ceremony of Mbambaro’s younger brother Maisha Ombeni as the interim administrator. Because Mbambaro had been elected a provincial member of parliament in 2018, he had to stop acting as chief.

“A soldier assigned to Mulimbalimba’s guard opened fire on a protestor, who subsequently died. Held responsible for this killing, Mulimbalimba was sentenced in absentia to ten years by a military court in July 2019. He is not serving that sentence, however, as he has fled abroad.

“With his main competitor out of sight, Mbambaro’s power over Luvungi remains unbroken, causing the land conflicts that have emerged under his rule to linger.”

Mulimbalimba knows that if you Google his name, articles will appear declaring him guilty of murder.

He blames a conspiracy, saying “national TVs, local TVs and some internet magazines supported [his enemies, such as Mbambaro] to write bad things against me, [to say] Luc is bad”.

“Their target was to change my [reputation] in an international way… because of all the problems I have been reporting, people have been aware of my work,” he says.

“That’s why you can read some of the things on the internet – they write bad things [about] me.”

Earlier this year, he received an official document from Congo detailing the results of a fresh investigation, ordered by the new government.

“The investigation found everything they did was illegal and corruption – they withdrew everything [against me],” he says.

“Before, it upset me – the things they [said about] me… it was very, very bad and the objective was to write bad things about me, so I can leave the community and they forget everything I’m doing.”

Now, though, he says he is resolved that “I must do more things”.

“I started to work up to midnight, to make sure my work is continuing… and that I’ve been helping my people.

“The things they’ve been writing against me have not affected my work.”

He shrugs, and offers an idiom in French, which he translates as “leave the time, to time”.

“If you think Luc is bad person, give it time,” he says.

“One day you will discover who is Luc.”

Still, he fears people supporting him in Australia reading allegations he is a murderer, “because they maybe read or hear something like that and think it’s true”.

“It is not easy – it’s difficult, when people write these things,” he says.

“People have been telling me to call them [the publishers], to remove those articles – and I tell them that if I do that I will be the same, it is corruption.”

He shrugs, and says: “Leave it to God.”

“Luc has been suffering all his life to fight for people, to help people, to advocate for people, to fight for people’s human rights – but because of money, because of corruption, they tried to destabilise me….

“My character, my work will talk for me.

“I thank God [because] you can talk lies about somebody, but when the time comes, the truth will be true – and that’s what gives me courage, to know I’ve been doing the right thing.

“The things that are going on there [are] terrible… I will not accept that they continue to [make] people suffer; I will not accept that they continue to take people’s lives.

“When I did not die, the target was to put me out of the system, out of the parliament, out of the country – I thank God they have not succeeded, because I am still an MP.”

He says he is still able to carry out his work as an elected representative despite his exile, through online meetings and emailed correspondence at all hours of the night.

A letter of support from then-state Attorney-General Vickie Chapman.

Mulimbalimba believes the very fact he is alive today proves his innocence – that he has been granted divine protection.

When he and Delice moved to Adelaide, they were in a devastating crash on the South-Eastern Freeway and had to be cut from their car by emergency services.

Yet they both survived.

“It was a very, very bad accident… they came with machine to cut the car,” he explains.

“If I could be a bad person, I could die.”

He seems satisfied that the fate of three of his main persecutors, who have died with COVID-19 since he began his exile, further demonstrates this theory.

“That general, that local chief, died at 28 with COVID… another politician has already died with COVID,” he says.

“So I can say all my enemies are not there anymore”.

And thus, he expects to return to Congo, one day.

“I will not stay like this,” he says.

“Of course, when I am there I will need more bodyguards, because I know I have many enemies [but] I will not accept for people to kill me because I know that I am doing right – and the people I’m serving, they cannot accept to see Luc die, because they know Luc is doing good things for them.”

But, he concedes, in the meantime “I’m very safe here”.

Even here in SA, he says he was warned by friends not to settle in suburban areas with other emigrants from his region in the local community.

“Some of the politicians have friends, have relatives, have connections here [so] they advised me to go further,” he says.

“My children love it here… they have been traumatised, but now there are good, they are ok.”

And he insists he doesn’t live in fear.

“I don’t have a problem with anybody,” he says.

“If you know you did a bad thing, you can fear – you fear the government, maybe they come looking for you… but I have no fear.

“They know that I’m here… the legal case is now finished, so that is not a problem.”

He insists his only concern is the remaining loyalists to those who sought to have him killed.

“Even though those politicians are not there, they must have had people they’ve been working with [so] I must be very careful – I don’t want to put my life at risk, and I don’t want to put the life of other people at risk… so I want to have a proper agreement with government for my security and other people’s security,” he says.

“Behind me is many people – my presence can bring good things to many people and security to many people, and also for me I can be secure… but I want all other people who are working with me to be secure.”

A letter of congratulations after Luc was appointed as state minister for his province, before his exile.

Mulimbalimba retains contacts with Australian government ranks; he notes too that his country of exile has been “in the frontline to help bring peace in Congo”.

“That’s one thing many people don’t know,” he adds.

In 2014, he details, when rebels were attacking villages in his area, the UN sent in peacekeepers but “those UN peacekeepers, they could not kill people, they would not kill rebels… their mandate was to protect people”.

He tells of one village where “the rebels came… and killed with machetes more than 40 people – they cut their stomachs and removed everything, like goats”.

“Julie Bishop was Minister for Foreign Affairs [at the time]… I tell [the Government], please help us… you have been protecting Rwanda from genocide, why can you not protect Congo,” he says.

“They changed that article to give UN peacekeepers the right to fight off rebels [and] we had peace, because UN peacekeepers can fight with rebels.

“That was a very, very big fix Australia did for Congolese people.”

But the fighting has not assuaged for long.

Even in the weeks since our conversation, violence in DRC has escalated, a new chapter in one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.

The army has been in bloody battle with the M23 rebel group, whose renewed offensive is the biggest since it seized vast territory in the 2012-13 insurrection.

Mulimbalimba knows his African home’s reputation in western countries.

“People, they see negative face of Congo – but it’s not only negative… there is a positive face,” he says.

“We have a lot of minerals in Congo, Congo is very good land for agriculture… there is a lot of opportunities there.

“A few Australians who have been there, they discover that and they don’t want to come back… those few Australians who are there, they know that Congo has more positive things than negative things.”

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