Malawi Defence Force (MDF) has opened investigations into allegations that some of its officers protecting Dzalanyama Forest Reserve in Lilongwe have been involved in the abuse of villagers and people suspected to be cutting down trees.
Dzalanyama Forest Reserve is a catchment area for the two Kamuzu Dams which are a source of water for the capital city, Lilongwe, and surrounding areas, but has suffered massive deforestation in recent years.
Since the Army was deployed to the forest early last year, there have been reports of MDF soldiers beating up people resulting in the death of two civilians so far, the latest being Daniel Kalendo who died from injuries sustained during his beating about two weeks ago.
Others have been victims of undignified acts such as laying them on the ground and beating them with machetes on their buttocks while a councillor in a ward close to the forest was beaten and dumped in the mud, according to sources.
MDF has previously denied the allegations, but its spokesperson captain Paul Chiphwanya told The Nation yesterday that the Army was following up on the matter and will launch investigations.
He said: “The board of inquiries has been convened to look into the issue and it will give us findings once investigations are concluded. If indeed the soldiers were involved in this, we will take action against them.”
Police have not acted on the complaints of abuse from the soldiers guarding Dzalanyama Forest because the Army has its own disciplinary procedures when a soldier is engaged in an act of misconduct.
MDF regulations state that when faced with acts of possible misconduct, the military may use the Military Police to investigate or the commanding officer or commander (depending on the severity of the alleged misconduct) may institute a board of inquiry to look into the issue.
Chiphwanya said the board of inquiries has been convened because the issue has become big within the MDF requiring a deeper inquiry.
In the meantime, Chrissy Daniel, widow of the recently deceased villager, Kalendo of Chinkhudzi Village near Dzalanyama Forest, has told The Nation that her husband was running a tearoom and had never been known to cut down trees or burning charcoal.
The house of the Kalendos lies on the path to Dzalanyama Forest, according to Daniel.
“The soldiers arrived on January 11 around 4pm as my husband was arriving home from the trading centre where he went to borrow a plough. They disembarked from a vehicle, grabbed my husband and started beating him. When they thought he was dead, they left him and moved on,” Daniel recollects.
Kalendo, a father of three boys aged 10, seven and three, died at St Gabriel’s Hospital in Namitete three days later while receiving treatment for a broken left leg and left arm.
Peter Dimba, member of Parliament (MP) for Lilongwe South where part of Dzalanyama Forest lies, said the villagers are now living in fear and government intervention was imperative because MDF was terrorising people.
He said: “When the soldiers arrive in a village, they are breaking into homes and shops taking away goods. It has reached the extent that when they hear the sound of a vehicle approaching, the villagers are running away for fear of being abducted and beaten. That is not protecting or conserving the forest, soldiers are just being abusive.”