Photography

The DRC’s Fierce Female Rebels

Even as the M23 rebels laid down their arms this week, the role of women fighters in East Africa’s various armed rebellions remains overlooked.

Francesca Tosarelli

In contemporary African wars, women continue to play a variety of crucial roles, and yet they remain invisible to the world. Only a handful of researchers and journalists have appreciated the importance of women in these conflicts, and the way in which gender stereotypes continue to mask their involvement. Starting in February 2013, I met, followed, photographed and interviewed a selection of women fighting in the alphabet-soup of rebellions currently operating in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo—including the recently defeated M23. Their stories reveal not only the significance of their roles within the rebel groups of which they are a part, but also show the striking contrast between the danger of their liberation struggle and the almost mundane reality of daily life in an armed group in eastern DRC.

For more information on the project, visit www.francescatosarelli.com (or follow the photographer on Twitter or Facebook).

Francesca Tosarelli

Major Mathilde Samba, 31, and her husband Colonel Jean-Marie Labila, 49. Mathilde and Jean-Marie defected from the army and national police and joined M23 in November 2012. They sent their four children to Kinshasa. In the M23 compound, Rutshuru, North Kivu, DRC.

Francesca Tosarelli

Colonel Fanette Umuraza, 32 years old. Fanette joined the M23 having previously fought in the CNDP, the M23’s predecessor. She says she chose these rebel groups because she shares their ideology. Here, the M23 hold a press conference following fighting over internal divisions. Kibumba, North Kivu, DRC.

Francesca Tosarelli

Lieutenant Marimakile Kiakimuakisubua is training with her comrades. She does not declare her age. She studied until the second year of secondary school. The main reason of her decision to join Mai Mai Shetani/FDP has been an attack from FDLR rebels (otherwise known as the Democratic Forces For The Liberation of Rwanda). She says they raped her mother and sister, but she managed to escape. A week later, she left school and joined the rebel group. Buramba military base, Nyamilima, North Kivu, DRC.

Francesca Tosarelli

Colonel Fanette Umuraza, 32 years old. Fanette joined the M23 having previously fought in the CNDP, M23’s predecessor. She says she chose these two rebel groups because she shares their ideology. At the military base of M23, Rumangabo, North Kivu, DRC.

Francesca Tosarelli

Major Masika Ngheleza Queen's bedroom. In the frame is her younger sister Denadine. Masika, 26, has a business and accounting degree. She has fought in the rebel group Mai Mai La Fontaine and then in the M23. In October 2012 she was severely beaten by Mai Mai rebels because of her decision to join the M23 and now she can’t sleep at night in her house because of the danger of a repeat attack. Kiwanja, North Kivu, DRC.

Francesca Tosarelli

Major Mathilde Samba, 31 years old, during a M23 police show. Mathilde has been in the Congolese army for 10 years. She defected in November 2012, joining the M23 with her husband and sending her daughters to Kinshasa. In the M23 compound, Rutshuru, North Kivu, DRC.

Francesca Tosarelli

Territory controlled by Mai Mai Shetani/FDP. Beyond the hills is Uganda. Nyamilima, North Kivu, DRC.

Francesca Tosarelli

Colonel Fanette Umuraza, 32 years old. Fanette joined the M23 having previously fought in the CNDP, the M23’s predecessor. She says she chose these two rebel groups because she shares their ideology. A the military base of the M23, Rumangabo, North Kivu, DRC.

Francesca Tosarelli

Major Masika Ngheleza Queen, 26 years old. After taking a business and accounting degree Masika joined the rebel group Mai Mai La Fontaine. In October 2012 other Mai Mai rebels severely beat her due to her decision to join the M23. Now her face is covered in scars. She sleeps in a M23 military base because her room at night is still not safe. Kiwanja, North Kivu, DRC.