Don’t walk between the bark and the tree.
“Mama. Your daughter has been found dead.”
Name: Nicole Kashamuko
Killed: Aged 17
It is Sunday morning and Nicole is wearing her best golden yellow blouse, the one she wore to have her photograph taken recently at a photographer’s studio. She and Charles are going to the house of one of his relatives. Her boyfriend called her yesterday evening to say his aunt had died and that the family were going to gather to mourn. Charles wanted Nicole to go with him. Of course, said Nicole. It’s Sunday so there’s no school. Her parents had no objection either.
Nicole’s mother Claudine opens her wallet and looks at her beautiful daughter with pride. Claudine has nine children but Nicole is the oldest of her daughters. The girl is sensible and gifted, is doing well at school and understands that education is important. Her boyfriend Charles, who has been dating Nicole for two years, feels the same way. The couple will marry when Nicole graduates from school, but Charles has promised that his young wife will be able to go on to university. Nicole’s favourite subject at school is maths and her dream is to become a doctor.
The Kashamuko family is well-off. They own, among other things, a liquor store, a big jeep and a beautiful home. In the chaos which has become post-war eastern Congo, they have done well.
It is the last time she sees Nicole alive.
Charles is much older than Nicole, all of 32 years old, but that does not matter, say her parents. Her fiancé is a manager at an insurance company and has plenty of money. The Kashamukos have made their future son-in-law welcome; indeed, Claudine says they loved him. Charles has spent many a long day with the family, and no-one has ever heard him say anything inappropriate. Nicole herself is head over heels in love. Charles is her Prince Charming.
Claudine glances out at the car which has come for Nicole. Charles himself is not there, but one of his cousins is sitting in the car, which is being driven by a chauffeur. Everything appears normal.
The mother waves goodbye to her daughter and starts getting herself ready to go to an all-day church service outside the town. It is the last time she sees Nicole alive.
“We didn’t actually know anything about Charles or his family,” muses Nicole’s father, Jean Marie Kashamuko, as he stands in the cemetery. “Nicole Kashamuko, born 1993, died 13 June 2010,” it says on the cross. The tiled grave behind the metal grille has just been given a quick wash down by some of the young men who appear to live in the cemetery.
“I pay the boys something to look after Nicole’s grave,” he explains and hands one of the boys a note.
“Charles came to Bukavu from Kinshasa. Congo is a big country and the communications are not always very good. We only knew what he chose to tell us. At the same time, he made it his business to find out everything about us, and about Nicole. Now we know more about her so-called fiancé. His family comes from the Lukiki region and in Lukiki they practise black magic. On top of that, one of Charles’ brothers was a notorious fraudster who had, among other things, forged the president’s signature. The president had the villain murdered to put a stop to it.
I pay the boys something to look after Nicole’s grave.
We have also heard that Charles had another girlfriend, as well as Nicole, here in Bukavu, a woman his own age. He had paid a visit to the woman’s parents to discuss a dowry, so it appears to have been a more serious relationship. He had never talked to us about a dowry. We don’t believe he ever intended to be Nicole’s fiancé for real. His only intention was to kill her.
We also know that Charles’ family has a lot of influence. His brother-in-law is the vice president of the High Court in Kinshasa, and his uncle runs the insurance company where Charles worked after he had fled from accusations of murder in Kinshasa. Charles would never have had such a good job without his uncle. The family has contacts straight in to the government.
We have even heard that Charles’ father killed his mother. But we knew none of this on that Sunday when Nicole jumped into the car.”
It is almost six o’clock in the evening when Claudine Kashamuko returns home after her day at church. Her phone has been switched off all day and she has heard nothing from Nicole. Not that she would have expected to; her daughter is in good company.
The phone rings as soon as she puts it on. The caller is a colonel from a military post not far from Katana. In a subdued voice he says:
“Mama. Your daughter has been found dead.”
“There must be some mistake,” says Claudine Kashamuko. “She’s just away on a trip. She isn’t anywhere where she could be killed.”
I started crying and put the phone down. Then I don’t remember anything else.
But the colonel insists. Nicole has been identified. The girl’s jewellery and handbag are still at the scene. Her mobile phone is missing but apart from that nothing seems to have been stolen. And there is no doubt that she is dead.
“I was shocked,” Claudine tells us. “I started crying and put the phone down. Then I don’t remember anything else.”
It is Nicole’s father, Jean Marie, who makes the journey out to Katana. What has happened is that a group of students on motorbikes drove past some men beside a car. The men seemed to be behaving suspiciously. The students rode on and contacted the nearby military post When the soldiers arrived they found the body of the dead girl in the bushes a short distance from the road. A man was lying beside the car, apparently having fainted. Another man was arrested close by.
When Nicole’s father arrives on the scene, only the car remains. It is Charles’ blue car, but Charles himself has disappeared. Both the arrested men are his relatives. The chauffeur is also missing. Jean Marie Kashamuko continues on to the hospital where Nicole’s body has been taken. If it is true that Nicole is dead, he wants to take her body home.
It is true. Nicole is dead, but her body must remain at the hospital. The cause of death must be properly investigated. The only thing Jean Marie can do is go home to his distraught family.
Up to this point, the police, the military and the family all tell much the same story. But the version which the chief of police, Colonel Honorine Munyole, contains an additional piece of information: she says Nicole was pregnant.
Nicole’s parents vehemently deny this and invite us to visit the hospital and talk to the doctor who performed the post-mortem. We decline. It is not important to us whether Nicole was pregnant or not; the fact remains that she was killed by her boyfriend.
It is, however, extremely important for the family. They are defending their dead daughter’s honour.
Indeed, when Charles is finally arrested, almost one year later, he will claim that Nicole died as a result of an abortion, or that she was at least intending to have an abortion and that something went wrong.
“Do you look like this if you have tried to have an abortion?” protests Claudine, showing us the police photographs of the body. “Has your tongue been cut out?”
Do you look like this if you have tried to have an abortion? Has your tongue been cut out?
Colonel Honorine Munyole, for her part, believes that Charles tried to persuade the girl to have an abortion – after all, he had two girlfriends – but that Nicole refused. It turns out that no-one we speak to knows for certain. The Colonel has not seen a post-mortem report since it was the army who conducted the investigation, and it is unclear which of the two authorities has the overall responsibility.
Congo is a country in chaos, in which ordinary police investigations can produce the most far-fetched results. To start with, the victim’s family must pay the police to conduct the investigation, or at least buy petrol, because no representative for any authority has ever used their own money to fill up their car. If they are very lucky, the police might then be able to actually reach the scene of the crime given the appalling state of the roads. And in far too many cases it is possible to bribe your way to the desired result.
If the family had not had money it is unlikely that the murder would even have been investigated by the police.
But Colonel Munyole has a reputation for being honest, and the Kashamuko family can afford to pay for all the costs. When Charles, the perpetrator, finally turns up at the UNHCR office in Nairobi, Kenya, claiming to be a political refugee from Congo, Nicole’s father somehow finds out and it is he who arranges for Charles to be extradited and who pays to have him brought back from Nairobi to Bukavu. If the family had not had money it is unlikely that the murder would even have been investigated by the police. Most murder victims are buried quietly, without police involvement, since the chances of obtaining justice are minimal.
Nicole’s 17-year-old body has been subjected to brutal external violence, indeed mutilation, anyone can see that. Her neck is broken, her tongue has been cut out and both her arms and legs are broken in several places.
“How she suffered,” sighs her father Jean Marie. “It would have been better if they had just shot her.”
Her neck is broken, her tongue has been cut out and both her arms and legs are broken in several places.
The police theory is that Charles and his accomplices broke Nicole’s legs in an effort to make her body easier to handle, intending to sink it in Lake Kivu. They were interrupted by the students on the motorbikes, Charles disappeared, and when the soldiers arrived, his relatives decided to say they had all been involved in a car accident. That was why one of the men was lying outside the car pretending to have fainted.
When the soldiers found the girl’s mutilated body their story lost any credibility and both men were arrested and detained in custody.
While Jean Marie Kashamuko is out making arrangements for the funeral, his mobile phone rings. A shiver runs down his spine when he sees who is calling: the display shows Nicole. It is Charles, calling from the dead girl’s phone. He says he has seen Nicole’s dead body, that he is following her father, that he knows exactly what is going on. Jean Marie attempts to locate the man among the crowds on the street but is unable to see him. He receives several more phone calls before he throws his phone away in desperation. He cannot bear to listen to his daughter’s killer.
Being in prison in Congo is not a pleasant experience – unless you can afford to pay. Charles can. He has access to both a mobile phone and a computer. He has no problem controlling people outside the walls. He even sends an email to Nicole’s father in which he indirectly admits his guilt.
At a meeting inside the prison with his two relatives and accomplices, who have already been convicted of being an accessory to murder, Charles suggests that they should again contact the two soldiers who helped them crush the girl’s legs. One of them was the chauffeur who collected Nicole on the Sunday morning. At the time, the men received 500 dollars each for their help. Now the price is raised: if the soldiers murder Jean Marie Kashamuko, they will receive 1500 dollars each.
The fact is that Charles is growing anxious. There is a chance that Nicole’s stubborn and wealthy father might even succeed in having Charles convicted, even though the killer’s brother-in-law is fighting to have the case moved to the High Court in Kinshasa. None of the witnesses will be able to afford to move with it, Colonel Munyole will not be able to cause any trouble, and the evidence can be smuggled out of the way. Charles can be sure of an acquittal there.
He has tried to buy his freedom before. When the military patrol found Nicole’s body, the colonel on duty received a telephone call – from Nicole’s phone. “This is Nicole’s fiancé,” said Charles. If the colonel allowed Nicole’s body to disappear he would be richly rewarded. 7,000 dollars is a fortune in Congo, but the colonel turned it down.
And now Nicole’s father, who is also not without influence, is in the process of making things difficult for Charles. He has to be removed.
One of his convicted relatives decides that things have gone too far. He no longer wants to be involved and he tells the police the whole story.
But now something happens that Charles has not foreseen. One of his convicted relatives decides that things have gone too far. He no longer wants to be involved and he tells the police the whole story. The two soldiers are arrested and convicted. The legal proceedings move fast too, but the trial against the main perpetrator, Charles, is postponed - again.
Meanwhile, Jean Marie and Claudine Kashamuko have been given something else to think about. Their second oldest daughter, Nicole’s best friend, is depressed, and her grief is causing her to become confused. One day she runs out in to the road in front of a bus and is run over. One hand is seriously injured.
One evening the family understands that the threat from Charles’ henchmen is serious. Armed men in uniform turn up at their house and attempt to get in. The night guards manage to stop the attempted break-in but the family has been extremely frightened.
Jean Marie and Claudine Kashamuko rent a house in Nairobi and send most of their children into exile. They themselves move, to a house in a safer location.
“Charles knows everything about all of us. He can easily get to us here so we have sent our children to safety. It’s better that he just manages to murder me,” says Jean Marie Kashamuko.
As we stand at Nicole’s grave, in the middle of a group of curious young men who seem to live in the cemetery, the situation is this:
The police are convinced that Charles is guilty, and they have more than enough evidence and witnesses to prove it, but if the trial is moved to Kinshasa, nothing will go with it. Both the chief-of-police and Nicole’s parents believe there is a chance Charles will be acquitted in the High Court in Kinshasa.
“He’s been acquitted before,” says Jean Marie Kashamuko. Nicole’s father claims that his former ideal son-in-law was charged in Kinshasa for an almost identical murder – of a young woman whose tongue was cut out – some years previously. On that occasion Charles was held in custody for several weeks and then released.
The police are convinced that Charles is guilty, and they have more than enough evidence and witnesses to prove it, but if the trial is moved to Kinshasa, nothing will go with it.
We ask Colonel Honorine Munyole, who confirms she has also heard this about Charles but she is unable to verify it. Congo is, as we have said previously, a state in chaos.
But why would this well-paid insurance administrator murder young women and cut out their tongues?
“Black magic,” says Jean Marie Kashamuko without hesitation. “Kabanga”.
What is kabanga?
It is a rope, it can also be some kind of cord or string that the murderer uses to strangle his victim. The victim must be a woman, preferably a virgin who has not given birth to a child. Such women are possessed with remarkable powers. When the victim dies her power passes over via the rope – the kabanga – to the killer, who becomes strong and rich.
But no rope was ever found, and the Colonel has pointed out that the girl’s neck was broken. It is, however, possible she was also strangled.
When the victim dies her power passes over via the rope – the kabanga – to the killer, who becomes strong and rich.
We are now surrounded by young men in the cemetery. They have been listening open-mouthed to the story of Nicole’s death. When they hear the kabanga theory they nod in agreement. Of course they know about kabanga. Just the other year a woman was killed over there, the boy points to a built-up hilltop, using a kabanga. He has more to tell us. There are special laboratories where “masters” inspect the rope which has been used as a murder weapon, to assess how much strength has been transferred. If the murder victim was insane it does not work.
“Do you really believe this,” I ask the boy in the cemetery, “- that you can become strong and rich by murdering a young woman?”
“Of course,” he says, without hesitation. “If it didn’t work, no-one would do it, would they?”
Is this nothing more than a terrible, incredible myth, or is it the truth about Nicole Kashamuko’s death?
I do not know. No-one seems to know. My sources are Nicole’s family and the Colonel, who is generally highly regarded. Even if not every single detail is correct, and it seems to be impossible to verify everything, the story contains many elements which are frighteningly real in today’s Congo – a justice system which has collapsed, never-ending corruption, violence in uniform, supernatural explanations, strong notions about women and men, evil and sudden death.
And a handful of stubborn relatives with ample resources who just might be able to ensure justice is done.
Maternal deaths: Just over 900 deaths per l00,000 births ****
Number of children/woman: 5.2 (2011)
Abortion legislation: Abortion is forbidden, even when the mother’s life is at risk.
Law against rape within marriage: No
Violence against women in close relationships: 1.8 million women will be raped during their lifetime. Congo is the second most dangerous country in the world for a woman to live in.