‘Why Not Us Women?’

20.02.2015 13:42

By the time Sgt. Madot
Dagbinza showed the
photographer Michael
Christopher Brown a handful
of snapshots, she’d been
fighting with the 42nd
Commando Battalion of the
Armed Forces of the
Democratic Republic of
Congo for four years. A
member of an elite unit, the
baby-faced soldier in her
mid-20s rarely left the front
lines where the Congolese
military (known as
F.A.R.D.C.) was battling the
Rwanda-backed rebel group
Dagbinza was stationed along
with more than 1,000 other
soldiers at Hotel Invest, an
abandoned resort overrun
with bougainvillea at the
edge of Virunga National
Park, Africa’s oldest and most
diverse preserve. Among the
postcolonial ruins, a
swimming pool half-filled
with rainwater glowed a
virulent green with algae
near the makeshift officers’
quarters. Brown and his
friend Daniel McCabe, an
independent filmmaker,
were staying there on a
embed with the Congolese
military, which typically
doesn’t welcome journalists
or anyone with a camera.
Dagbinza knew McCabe well.
She met the filmmaker three
months earlier when her unit
arrested him because he was
driving his Toyota Land
Cruiser at night on a nearby
road. That arrest turned out
to be his lucky break, giving
him rare access to this rapid
response unit.
On the December day in 2012
when Dagbinza met Brown,
he’d tagged along on one of
McCabe’s embeds. Intrigued
by the photos she showed
him, Brown asked to see
more and discovered that
Dagbinza kept a personal
photo album. For $100 and
copies of each image, she sold
Brown the pink album that
appears in these pages. In it,
she strikes various poses,
from classic military mugging
with a rocket-propelled
grenade launcher slung over
her shoulders to vamping,
Congo-style, in a denim
minidress and a pair of
skintight silver jeggings.
Only one in 50 of F.A.R.D.C.’s
150,000 soldiers is a woman,
and these photos provide an
unusual glimpse into that
world. Even among her
fellow female commandos,
however, Sergeant Dagbinza
cut a striking figure. “I know
that I am beautiful, and many
men love me, I can see it
wherever we move,” she told
Brown. “But for my first
marriage, I choose my
The Congolese military is a
chameleon-like entity, with
recruits frequently
integrated from other armed
groups. Some of its soldiers
are known to have committed
crimes like looting and rape.
Yet Dagbinza belonged to a
relatively new unit — a
product of reform
engineered by the nascent
democratic Congolese
government — of which she
was fiercely proud. “Men
fight,” she told Brown. “Why
not us women? I love our
country. You have to love
your country to sleep outside,
live under the sun and rains,
cross rivers and forests when
you know that many people
don’t care — they’re enjoying
their lives while you’re on the
front lines.”
Dagbinza was 16 when
military recruiters arrived in
her hometown, Gbadolite, in
Congo’s northwestern
province of Équateur and
offered anyone 18 and older
the chance to board a plane
and become a soldier.
Claiming to be 18, Dagbinza
immediately volunteered and
hopped a free flight. She
hoped it would take her to
Kinshasa, where she could
look for her father, a soldier
who abandoned the family
when she was a child.
Instead, the military
transport landed in the
middle of a war zone in
eastern Congo. And Dagbinza
ended up as a fighter.
From a distance, the
Democratic Republic of
Congo doesn’t appear to be a
state, and yet, largely
because of the ingenuity of its
people, it functions as one. In
1965, after its infamous
leader, Mobutu Sese Seko,
seized power (he renamed
the country Zaire in 1971), he
told his citizens, “Fend for
yourselves.” The idea,
commonly referred to as
“Article 15” of the Congolese
Constitution, though no such
article exists, boils down to
this: When the state doesn’t
pay its soldiers, or any of its
employees, they are to take
from fellow citizens. Much of
the state, from the post office
to the barracks, still runs on
this kind of informal graft.
In the eastern part of the
country, the most recent war
began more than 18 years
ago, when the Rwandan
genocide destabilized the
region and drove victims and
their persecutors over the
Rwandan border into eastern
Congo. It is now riven by as
many as 60 armed groups
represented by a stew of
acronyms. At its height, the
conflict drew in nine
countries and claimed
millions of lives, most
because of illness and
disease, in a scramble for
political power, land,
resources and minerals,
including coltan for
cellphones and hearing aids
and tungsten for golf-club
Over the past five years,
however, there have been
encouraging signs that there
may soon be an end to this
seemingly intractable
struggle. For the first time in
decades, following a peace
process that led to elections
in 2006, Congo has a
functioning, if deeply flawed,
democratic government. The
International Criminal Court
is preparing to try one of the
region’s worst actors, the
rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda.
Sergeant Dagbinza came of
age as a soldier at this
hopeful moment in Congo’s
fraught history. The outlines
of her story were patchy. She ­
talked little of her life before
the military and barely spoke
of the young son she left with
relatives in her village.
Instead, she told a tale of the
luck and tenacity by which
she rose quickly through
military ranks. According to
Dagbinza, the South African
and Chinese military trainers
who taught her unit of the
42nd battalion noticed her
skill and dedication. Her
commanders also took notice.
Several years ago, when she
was about 20, she caught the
eye of Col. Mamadou
Mustapha Ndala, who,
despite a past marked by
suspected poaching and
involvement with other rebel
groups, became a widely
admired figure in the fight
against M23, then wreaking
havoc in the east.
Dagbinza became his
personal bodyguard, and in
turn, Mamadou became a
father of sorts for the young
woman. Mamadou, one of
Congo’s few Muslims, was
known for his personal
discipline, and he
discouraged his soldiers from
drinking and smoking.
Dagbinza, who favored high
heels and hair extensions
during her time off, followed
his rules.
For decades, the people of
eastern Congo watched in
frustration and rage as blue-
helmeted international
peacekeepers stood by and
did nothing while rebel
groups laid waste to towns
and villages. Then, in 2013,
the United Nations agreed to
have Mamadou work with its
new Force Intervention
Brigade, which gave
peacekeepers the authority
to carry out offensive
operations — in other words,
to fight back.
With Dagbinza alongside him,
Colonel Mamadou became
the face of this new effort: a
defender of Congo and a
much longed-for symbol of
national pride. After battles,
when Mamadou appeared on
the rust-red laterite roads of
eastern Congo, people turned
out in droves to sing his
praises: “Ma-ma-madou,”
they chanted.
On Jan. 2, 2014, Sergeant
Dagbinza was riding in a
military jeep with Colonel
Mamadou when his convoy
was ambushed. It’s still
unclear who was behind the
attack. Mamadou was killed,
and Dagbinza died alongside
him. As she told Brown,
“Wherever Colonel Mamadou
Mustapha Ndala is — that’s
where you’ll find me.” Eliza