Copyright and all photographs taken by Francesca Tosarelli.
Ms Kalashnikovs: Meet Congo’s fearless women fighters
Brutalised. Repeatedly raped. The first to gather the children and flee attack. Weak, poor and uneducated.
Women in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are so often cast as voiceless, nameless victims of a conflict that has raged for decades in the region's lush jungles and hilltops that it is almost impossible to imagine them as fearless warriors.
But that's exactly what Italian photographer Francesca Tosarelli found when she travelled to Congo's North Kivu province early last year – driven by a curiosity to explore how gender identity shifts in times of conflict.
Over four months, she met and photographed a number of Congolese women, many of them mothers, who had taken up arms to fight alongside their male comrades in a messy conflict that has spawned dozens of armed groups vying for power and control of the region's rich mineral deposits.
The result is "Ms Kalashnikov", a stunning photo series that captures the unseen face of conflict in eastern Congo, dismantling Western stereotypes of the African militia fighter.
Wars may generate cliched images of combatants, but they also provide an opportunity for men and women to redefine themselves. In eastern Congo, many of the “Ms Kalashnikov” women were mothers and killers.
“The distinction between the genders is undefined and there is a whole world to investigate in the crossroads,” said Tosarelli, who invites writers, anthropologists and others to bring their expertise to this little known aspect of modern conflict.
"One thing the women had in common was the big desire to show me their feminine side because it was something that they had to hide in their daily life," Tosarelli told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in London. For example, Major Masika Ngheleza Queen, 26, shared her collection of high-heeled shoes.
Some women became fighters because of their belief in the cause, others because there were no more options left to them, Tosarelli said. "Some of them told me of their worries of being unable to marry or reintegrate into society or return to their villages because they are fighters."
One of the most powerful women Tosarelli photographed was Colonel Fanette Umuraza, a senior member of both the military and political wing of Congolese Tutsi rebel group, M23.
Before its defeat in November by U.N.-backed Congolese military forces, Umuraza was the right hand of M23 military chief Sultani Makenga.
"She always had three or four male guards around her. I saw her during military parades and saw a little bit her relationship with local communities. They regarded her with something in between respect and fear," Tosarelli said.
Umuraza, who counts Angela Merkel and Joan of Arc as her heroes, grew up in a Rwandan refugee camp and obtained a degree in political science before joining M23.
Most of her comrades were younger than she was and treated her like an older sister. Unmarried at the age of 32, Umuraza told Tosarelli that she hoped to marry and have children once the fight had been won.
"People have this idea that women can't be in an armed movement. But with time maybe they will understand that we're capable of doing what men do," Umuraza told Tosarelli. “Women should be the first ones to fight for peace because they're always the first victims when conflict breaks. We are the ones suffering the immediate consequences (of war) and so we have to act (to prevent it)."
Major Mathilde Samba was a member of the Congolese national army for 10 years before defecting with her husband to the M23 in 2012 after it captured the eastern town of Goma.
They sent their four children to the capital Kinshasa and moved into the bush.
"She believed change was possible but it was clear from the way she kept showing me pictures of her daughter, that making this sacrifice was not something you do easily" Tosarelli said.
For other young women, the decision to take up arms was motivated less by ideological belief than a desire for revenge and survival. Most of the girls Tosarelli met in a secret base of Mai Mai fighters were minors. Many of them did not know their age. Others did not want to give their age.
"All of the teenagers were mothers already. Francine was only 19 but it was like speaking to a 40-year-old. She was already a mother, a fighter. She showed me video footage on a small mobile phone of fighting between them and the FDLR. She was on the frontline, she's a fearless fighter."
"Imagine you're in the middle of nowhere - in the jungle or in the savannah and there are small villages and small territories controlled by different rebel groups. Imagine you've been repeatedly attacked by different rebel groups. You've lost a parent, your sister has been raped and your goat has been stolen. You don't know how to survive and there's no money to go to school. It's easy to take a Kalahnikov in your hands when this is your background," Tosarelli said.
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