In early July 2012, government soldiers based in the town of Bunagana, Democratic Republic of Congo, were demoralized. Their wages hadn’t been paid. They were low on food and fuel. That and a shortage of ammunition was making it impossible to stop the advance of M23, a rebel militia that since April had waged a bloody insurrection against the government.
When M23 finally attacked on July 6, some 600 soldiers and elite commandos took what they could and hurriedly fled Bunagana. A few reportedly looted the town as they escaped, and others forced civilians to carry their possessions across the border into Uganda.
Photographer Michele Sibiloni, who was there when the rebels entered the town, was not interested in what the soldiers had taken, but rather in what they left behind. "The rebels led us on a tour of the weapons that the government troops had left inside a base," he explains. "However, what caught my attention were some photographs I found scattered on the ground. I found more and more of them as the rebels were showing other former government troops' positions on top of a hill. I started to pick them up and collect them. [The rebels] told me that they were not interested in keeping them."
Many of the pictures found by Sibiloni resemble those of family albums around the world: two men and a woman eating a meal together, a mom posing next to her child, a boy talking on the phone. Alongside these are photos in which the DRC government soldiers pose in their uniforms in as they train, drive a truck, show off their weapons or ride a bicycle backwards. It's a mix of souvenirs from home and from boot camp.
"Each photograph shows proud men and women and each contains a huge amount of dignity and humanity. This, despite the overwhelming contrast of finding the images in a town abandoned hours earlier by those same soldiers," explains Sibiloni. "These pictures also show a startling contrast in the pride that these men show at being part of this army despite the terrible way they have been treated in its ranks."
Although the army of the DRC was known as "ineffective, dysfunctional, even hostile to the Congolese population," according to Sibiloni, life in Bunagana under the M23 rule was no improvement. Some Bunagana residents reported to Sibiloni that the M23 rebels took food and money, and even forced men and boys to join their ranks. Thousand of residents fled to become refugees in Uganda.
When government troops, backed by a brigade from the United Nations, retook control of the town in October 2013, Bunagana's civilians welcomed them with singing and dancing. One month later, M23 ended its armed struggle. By then, the 18-month conflict had forced 800,000 people out of their homes. According to international watchdog organization Human Rights Watch, both the government troops and the M23 militia committed human right abuses, including rape and the summary execution of civilians.
Today, several armed groups still operate in the region. “Despite having soldiers around their communities, people’s security hasn’t improved,” notes Sibiloni. “People are very tired of living in this kind of situation.”