BENI, Congo – In a place where death is never far away, the colonel seemed larger than life, invincible. He stood at well over 6 feet (1.83 meters), a good head or two taller than the crowds that thronged around him, waving palms and chanting his name. His soldiers claimed he had survived being shot at a dozen times in the jungles of eastern Congo.
The dream blew up in an explosion last week, when his convoy came under attack. The man who was supposed to be beyond death died, and with him died some of the first faint stirrings of hope the people of the troubled east Congo have dared to feel in years.
The death of Col. Mamadou Ndala comes barely two months after he led the Congolese army to a historic victory against the country's most serious rebels, with the help of a United Nations brigade. It is another blow to a devastated country where an untold number have died in nearly two decades of conflict. It also hurts efforts to make Congo responsible for its own security; the turbulent nation is now host to the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission in the world.
"He made people proud," said a visibly saddened Crispin Mvano, a resident of Goma whose relatives suffered under the M23 rebellion the colonel helped snuff out. Mvano shook his head. "It's a big loss," he said.
Another Goma resident, Prince Pascal Mogolombi, borrowed a friend's motorbike to join in a parade of dozens of bikers who drove around town with their headlights on to show their anger over the colonel's death.
"I was very sad and angry to hear he had died," said Mogolombi, who had gone to a victory march after the colonel fought back the M23 rebels in November. "He was a hero for us in Goma."
Congo's government promoted Ndala posthumously to brigadier general on Monday, citing his bravery. However, questions surround his death: Authorities said they have detained two members of the national army for questioning, and U.N.-backed Radio Okapi reported that seven others were interrogated. Ndala's mission to clean up the military's ranks may also have been seen as a threat by other officers who illegally exploit mines in eastern Congo, which has large amounts of gold, tin, tungsten, copper, coltan and cobalt.
Congo, a former Belgian colony the size of Western Europe with nearly 66 million people, has been embroiled in conflict since 1996. In 1997, rebels led by Laurent Kabila overthrew the dictator of 32 years, Mobutu Sese Seko. Two years ago, Kabila's son, Joseph Kabila, won re-election to the presidency, in a vote international observers called flawed.
If democracy in Congo has had a mixed record, peace has been even more elusive. The mineral-rich east is held hostage by a plethora of rival armed rebel groups. The armed M23 group was particularly notorious for its brutality, leaving mass graves in its wake.
Ndala's victory against the group was historic for an army long plagued by accusations of incompetence and abuse, including the mass rapes of women and girls in the villages it was sent to protect.
"During the final operations against the M23, it seemed the army was better behaved, better organized and more effective," said Ida Sawyer, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Ndala, a young commander at only age 34, was known for his toothy grin and ease with journalists in not just French and English, but also Lingala and Swahili. He spent time with his men at the front, ensuring his force was disciplined and professional and inspiring the awe of his fighters. He carried himself with confidence — some said arrogance — and limped ever so slightly where he'd been shot near one of his hips.
Less than a week before he died, he sent his unit on patrol in the dense forest north of Beni. After more than eight hours clambering over massive tree-trunks, wading through rivers and falling over vines, he was asked if he thought fighting in such terrain might be a challenge.
"No," he responded, "we must all have the same determination."
On Jan. 2, Ndala was leading a convoy against the ADF-NALU, a rebel group with origins in neighboring Uganda that had been operating around the town of Beni, as witnessed by an AP journalist. The colonel rode in the lead truck bearing a mounted machine gun, a red flag flapping over the cab to indicate they were on a mission.
Suddenly, something hit the truck, with an explosion that sent sparks and smoke flying. Bullets rained down on the convoy from the trees and bushes on a slight elevation on the right.
Commandos dived into a roadside trench to return fire, while Ndala's truck drove on to escape the bullets. The assailants melted back into the forest.
It was only later that the troops learned the news: Ndala and two of his soldiers were dead. Soldiers wept openly on the road. One got out of the army truck and collapsed in despair.
His death also prompted spontaneous demonstrations in Beni and in Goma, including the burning of tires. Beni declared the next day one of mourning, and most shops stayed closed for four days. In Goma, riot police used tear gas to break up an angry mob in one neighborhood.
Ndala's leadership stood out in an army that includes leaders of former tribal-based militias and rebel groups, whose foot soldiers often will only take orders from their former commanders. In a recent sign of progress, the latest report from the U.N.'s panel of experts on Congo claimed the army carried out few human rights abuses during the final campaign against M23.
"The discipline and commitment the Colonel demonstrated was a sign of hope," said Frances Charles, from aid agency World Vision.
It remains to be seen whether these accomplishments will endure.
Associated Press writer Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo contributed to this report.