In January 2009, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, following a dramatic shift in political alliances, launched joint military operations in eastern Congo against an abusive Rwandan Hutu militia, some of whose leaders had participated in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The operations were intended to neutralize the group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Les Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR), which over the previous 15 years had preyed on Congolese civilians in the mountainous provinces of North and South Kivu.
Government representatives said the operations would bring peace and security to the region. They have not. Two successive Congolese military operations—one conducted with Rwandan military forces, known as operation Umoja Wetu, and the second conducted with the direct support of United Nations peacekeeping troops, known as operation Kimia II—have been accompanied by horrendous abuses by both government and rebel forces against a civilian population in eastern Congo that has long suffered so much.
The attacks against civilians have been vicious and widespread. Local populations have been accused of being “collaborators” by one side or the other and deliberately targeted, their attackers saying they are being “punished.” Human Rights Watch has documented the deliberate killing of more than 1,400 civilians between January and September 2009, the majority women, children, and the elderly. The attacks have been accompanied by rape. In a region already known as the “worst place in the world to be a woman or child,” the situation has deteriorated even further. Over the first nine months of 2009, over 7,500 cases of sexual violence against women and girls were registered at health centers across North and South Kivu, nearly double that of 2008, and likely only representing a fraction of the total.
In addition to killings and rapes, thousands of civilians have been abducted and pressed into forced labor to carry weapons, ammunition, or other baggage across the treacherous terrain by government forces and FDLR militia as they deploy from place to place. Some civilians have been killed when they refused. Others have died because the loads they have been forced to carry were too heavy. Between January and September, the attacks forced more than 900,000 people to flee for their lives, seeking safety in the remote forests, with host families, or in displacement camps. During the attacks or as they fled, FDLR combatants or Congolese army soldiers pillaged their belongings and then burned their homes and villages. Over 9,000 houses, schools, churches and other structures have been burned to the ground in North and South Kivu. Many civilians, already poor, have been left with nothing.
Civilians have been targeted by all sides: the FDLR, the Congolese army and, in some instances, the Rwandan army. Civilians look to the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, for desperately needed protection. MONUC has a strong mandate from the UN Security Council to protect civilians and to use force to do so, but it has become a partner of the Congolese army in the military operations, and it failed to put in place adequate measures for civilian protection before operations were launched. Peacekeepers have made notable efforts to protect civilians which undoubtedly have helped to save lives, but in many instances they have arrived too late or not at all, leaving local people exposed to attacks with nowhere else to turn.
The first military operation, Umoja Wetu (“0ur unity” in Swahili), began on January 20, 2009, following a secret agreement between Congolese President Joseph Kabila and his Rwandan counterpart, President Paul Kagame. It resulted in the removal of Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, whose armed group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (Congrès national pour la défense du peuple, or CNDP), had received substantial support from Rwanda and had defeated the Congolese army in successive battles in 2007 and 2008. Rwandan authorities detained Nkunda and promoted Bosco Ntaganda, the CNDP’s military chief of staff, to take his place. Ntaganda promptly agreed to integrate his troops into the Congolese army and to give up the CNDP’s rebellion.
In exchange for Rwanda’s assistance in removing the CNDP threat, President Kabila permitted Rwandan troops to return to eastern Congo and to conduct joint operations against the FDLR. Ntaganda, who has a track record of human rights abuses and is wanted on an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, was made a general in the Congolese army. An estimated 4,000 Rwandan troops, and possibly many more, then crossed the border into eastern Congo, where they stayed for 35 days.
Following the departure of Rwandan troops on February 25 at the end of operation Umoja Wetu, Rwandan and Congolese officials emphasized that the military operations were not complete. They pressed MONUC to join forces with the Congolese army to finish the FDLR. MONUC had been authorized by the UN Security Council to support and participate in military operations against the FDLR in December 2008, as long as such operations were conducted in accordance with the laws of war. But MONUC had been deliberately excluded from operation Umoja Wetu and many UN officials were deeply troubled at the turn of events that had returned Rwandan forces to Congolese soil. According to MONUC insiders, the MONUC leadership was worried about the consequences of being excluded from future military operations, concerned about a return of Rwandan troops if they did not step in, and confident civilians would be better protected were the peacekeepers to be part of military operations—so MONUC agreed to support the Congolese army.
In the rushed preparations that followed, MONUC officials did not set out clear conditions for their support, did not insist on the removal of known human rights abusers from the ranks of the Congolese army, and did not adequately prepare for the protection of the civilian population. On March 2, the Congolese army, with the direct support of MONUC peacekeepers, launched operation Kimia II (“quiet” in Swahili), an operation that continued at this writing.
Abuses by the FDLR
The FDLR responded to the offensive of the Congolese government, which had previously supported the group, by committing attacks against Congolese civilians. FDLR forces deliberately attacked civilians in whose communities they had lived, accusing their neighbors of “betrayal” and telling them that they would be “punished” for their government’s policy. The evidence of their brutal strategy was clear in letters from FDLR commanders, public meetings, oral threats to individuals, and written messages left on footpaths, many of which Human Rights Watch has collected. These messages and subsequent interviews with FDLR combatants who fled the group, demonstrate a deliberate tactic of retaliatory killings coming from a central FDLR command.
Human Rights Watch has documented previous attacks on civilians by FDLR combatants, but this time the killings and other abuses were significantly more numerous and widespread, and showed clear signs of being systematic. Between late January and September 2009, the FDLR deliberately killed at least 701 civilians in North and South Kivu. Many people were chopped to death by machete or hoe. Some were shot. Others were burned to death in their homes. The FDLR targeted and killed village chiefs and other influential community leaders, a tactic that spread fear throughout entire communities. In the worst single incident, the FDLR massacred at least 96 civilians in the village of Busurungi, in the Waloaluanda area, on May 9-10, 2009. Some of the victims were first tied up before the FDLR “slit their throats like chickens.” Others were deliberately locked in their homes that were then burned to the ground. Some of the victims knew their attackers by name.
The killing of civilians was invariably accompanied by rape. Most of the victims were gang-raped, some so viciously that they later bled to death from their injuries. Others were abducted to be sexual slaves. In over 30 cases documented by Human Rights Watch, victims told us that their FDLR attackers said that they were being raped to “punish” them.
Human Rights Watch’s field investigations found the FDLR forces to be responsible for numerous serious human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war. On November 17, 2009, the FDLR’s president, Ignace Murwanashyaka, and his deputy, Straton Musoni, were arrested in Germany by German judicial authorities for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between January 2008 and July 2009 by FDLR combatants under their command. They were also charged with belonging to a terrorist group. Other members of the FDLR’s political and military leadership, including the group’s military commander in eastern Congo, Gen. Sylvester Mudacumura, and the group’s executive secretary, Callixte Mbarushimana, based in Paris, France, should also be investigated for ordering alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, or as a matter of command responsibility.
Abuses by the Congolese army and other forces
Congolese civilians received little or no protection from their government’s armed forces against the FDLR attacks. The Congolese army, initially in joint operations with the Rwandan army in operation Umoja Wetu, and later with the support of MONUC peacekeepers in operation Kimia II, also targeted civilians, especially those they claimed collaborated with the FDLR. Congolese forces violated their obligation under the laws of war to minimize harm to civilians. They failed to distinguish civilians from combatants and targeted the former, did not give effective advance warning of attack when circumstances permitted, and made no efforts to permit civilians caught up in the fighting to flee to safety. Most egregiously, they summarily executed hundreds of civilians under their effective control. Between January and September 2009, Human Rights Watch documented the deliberate killing of at least 732 civilians, including 143 Rwandan Hutu refugees, by Congolese army soldiers and their coalition partner (during Umoja Wetu, the Rwandan Defence Force (RDF)).
Human Rights Watch has documented the killing of 201 civilians during the Umoja Wetu phase of military operations, many in the area between Nyabiondo and Pinga, bordering Masisi and Walikale territories in North Kivu. In two of the worst attacks during this phase of operations, 90 civilians were massacred in late February in the remote village of Ndorumo and a further 40 civilians were killed in the village of Byarenga. The attacks were perpetrated by Rwandan and Congolese coalition forces, although witnesses found it difficult to distinguish between Rwandan army soldiers and former CNDP combatants newly integrated into the Congolese army, who wore similar uniforms and spoke the same language. In Ndorumo village, the coalition forces began killing civilians after they had been called to a gathering at the local school. One witness said the soldiers told the population they were “being punished for being complicit with the FDLR.”
The killings continued during operation Kimia II, often by newly integrated CNDP combatants. Human Rights Watch has documentedthe deliberate killing of a further 531 civilians between March and September 2009. The real figure is likely to be much higher—Human Rights Watch also received credible reports of an additional 476 civilians killed by Congolese army forces and their allies in the area between Nyabiondo and Pinga. However, due to the remoteness of the area, we have not been able to confirm whether they were caught in the crossfire or were deliberately killed, so these numbers have not been included in our calculations.
Congolese forces also targeted Rwandan Hutu refugees living in eastern Congo, whom they often accuse of being FDLR combatants or “wives.” From April 27 to 30, 2009, in the worst incident documented by Human Rights Watch, Congolese army soldiers deliberately killed at least 129 Rwandan Hutu refugees, mostly women and children, when they attacked the neighboring hills of Shalio, Marok, and Bunyarwanda in Walikale territory (North Kivu).While there were FDLR combatants deployed in these hills, all witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that the FDLR combatants had fled in advance of the attacks and were not present in any of the makeshift refugee camps targeted by the Congolese army.
At Shalio Hill, Congolese army soldiers killed at least 50 refugees as they tried to flee. After the attack, one group of soldiers took 50 refugees from Shalio to Biriko, where the soldiers beat them to death with wooden clubs and shot three refugees who tried to escape. Only one person survived. A second group of soldiers took 40 refugees, all women and girls, from Shalio to a nearby Congolese army position where they were kept as sexual slaves, gang-raped and mutilated by the soldiers. Ten of the women managed to escape, but the fate of the others is unknown. One who was later interviewed by Human Rights Watch bore the marks of her mutilation: her attackers had cut off chunks from her breast and stomach.
As with the FDLR, the killing by Congolese army soldiers was often accompanied by the rape of women and girls. In North Kivu, 268 out of 410 sexual violence cases documented by Human Rights Watch were perpetrated by government soldiers. In at least 15 cases, the women and girls were summarily executed after being raped, some by being shot in the vagina. Husbands, children and parents who desperately tried to stop the rape of their loved ones were also attacked. In cases documented by Human Rights Watch, at least 20 family members were killed when they cried out or otherwise protested against the rape.
The protection of civilians in Congo is primarily the responsibility of the Congolese government and its security forces. Yet Congolese government officials have failed to take adequate or effective steps to protect civilians in eastern Congo. Human Rights Watch found that Congolese army forces repeatedly violated international human rights and humanitarian law. Responsible commanders should be investigated for ordering alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, or as a matter of command responsibility.
Congolese military planners, given the past practice of both the FDLR and the government’s own forces, should have foreseen the grave risks to the civilian population. Previous military operations in North Kivu in 2007 and 2008 had resulted in frequent FDLR retaliatory attacks against civilians and Congolese army abuses. But Congolese decision-makers gave little or no attention in planning the military operations to providing for the protection of the civilian population. The authorities integrated highly abusive militias into government forces, and failed to seriously address the deeply entrenched problem of impunity.
On July 5, 2009, following exposure of some abuses by its soldiers, the Congolese government announced a policy of “zero tolerance” for human rights violations and put commanders on notice that they would be held to account for the behavior of their troops. Four officers were later arrested for their involvement in sexual violence, but Gen. Bosco Ntaganda and other commanders implicated in serious human rights violations remain in operational command.
Results of the operations
The Congolese government’s goal in both operation Umoja Wetu and Kimia II was to neutralize the FDLR. The military operations have had some impact on disrupting the FDLR. During nine months of military operations, 1,087 FDLR combatants were repatriated to Rwanda by the UN’s Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration, and Resettlement (DDRRR) program, representing a significant increase compared to 2008. The FDLR have also been cut off, at least temporarily, from access to some markets and other traditional economic supply routes. But the FDLR is also reportedly recruiting new combatants and continues to raise funds and obtain weapons and ammunition through its international networks. A UN Group of Experts in November 2009 reported that military operations against the FDLR had failed to dismantle the group’s political and military structures on the ground in eastern Congo. The FDLR’s ability to conduct attacks on civilians remains intact.
A comparison of the impact of military operations on the FDLR and the harm to civilians starkly conveys the suffering endured by the population. For every FDLR combatant that was repatriated to Rwanda during the first nine months of operations, at least one civilian was deliberately killed, seven women and girls raped, eight homes destroyed, and over 900 people forced to flee for their lives. These are incomplete figures covering the period January to September—and the military operations still continue.
Operation Kimia II has also not given sufficient attention to the protection of the Rwandan Hutu refugees, who have been isolated and preyed upon for years by all sides, nor to facilitating their return to Rwanda. The establishment of safe humanitarian corridors, protected by MONUC peacekeepers, could help to facilitate the repatriation of the refugees and reduce abuses against them, including by the FDLR, who rely on this community for filling its ranks and providing support.
The military operations are also likely to have a significant future impact on local political and economic dynamics in eastern Congo that might undermine sustainable peace and efforts to bring the rule of law to this troublesome region. Former CNDP commanders newly integrated into the Congolese army appear to be using the operations as cover to gain control over mineral-rich areas and to clear the land for the return of Congolese Tutsi refugees and for cattle being brought in from Rwanda. The perceived dominance and preferential treatment given to former CNDP commanders has already led a number of local militia groups, often called Mai Mai, to abandon army integration. Some have joined forces with the FDLR.
MONUC and civilian protection
MONUC has provided substantial support to operation Kimia II including logistical and operations support, and an estimated US$1 million worth of service support such as daily rations during each month of operations. MONUC disregarded crucial elements of formal legal advice given by the UN Office of Legal Affairs on January 13 and did not establish conditions for respecting international humanitarian law, as required by its mandate, before it began to support the operations. On November 1, after eight months of support to operation Kimia II, Alain Le Roy, the head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations announced during a visit to Congo that MONUC would suspend its support to the Congolese army’s 213th Brigade. MONUC’s own investigations had revealed army soldiers had killed at least 62 civilians in the Lukweti area, just north of Nyabiondo. At the time of writing, MONUC support was not suspended to any other army units despite credible information that gross human rights violations were occurring elsewhere and none of the commanders implicated in past serious human rights violations had been removed from involvement in Kimia II operations.
The MONUC leadership ignored the important role played by Bosco Ntaganda in operation Kimia II, where he was the de facto deputy commander. MONUC could not legally support an operation in which Ntaganda, wanted on an ICC arrest warrant for war crimes, played a part, as the UN’s legal office pointed out to the MONUC leadership in a legal note on April 1, 2009. But the MONUC leadership disregarded the mounting evidence of Ntaganda’s role, including copies of orders he had signed, minutes of Congolese army internal meetings, his presence at the Kimia II command center, and his frequent visits to the troops in the field. Instead MONUC hid behind false assurances from the Congolese government that Ntaganda was not a part of operation Kimia II. Other commanders who had a track record of serious human rights violations and were commanders in operation Kimia II were also not removed, despite concerns raised by MONUC staff about the presence of these commanders and the risk they posed for civilians.
On June 2, 2009, the UN Policy Committee, which includes the heads of all UN agencies, decided that MONUC should not participate in any form of joint operations with Congolese army units if there were a real risk of human rights violations. MONUC staff in Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, struggled, belatedly, to put in place a policy of conditionality for the mission’s support to operation Kimia II.
MONUC’s support of the Congolese armed forces, particularly after receiving credible reports of gross violations of human rights, raises serious concern that MONUC itself is implicated in these grave abuses. In conflict with its mandate, MONUC ’s continued backing of operation Kimia II has undermined its primary objective to protect civilians. Until there are clear, measurable, and actionable conditions in place to ensure operations with Congolese forces do not violate international humanitarian law, MONUC should immediately cease all support for operation Kimia II.
Proper investigations are needed into the serious abuses documented in this report, many of which amount to war crimes and could be crimes against humanity. In line with the UN Security Council’s commitment, as expressed in Resolution 1894 to advance and ensure protection of civilians, the council should urgently deploy a Civilian Protection Expert Group to eastern Congo to investigate the situation, including the measures taken by MONUC to implement its mandate to protect civilians, and to recommend concrete measures to improve civilian protection and end impunity for the serious crimes.
This report is the result of extensive field research carried out from January through November 2009 in eastern Congo. It is based on information collected during 23 fact-finding missions to 30 different locations in North and South Kivu provinces where military operations have taken place, or where displaced people have fled to escape the violence. Four Human Rights Watch researchers were involved. Human Rights Watch conducted 689 interviews with witnesses, victims, their family members, and those who buried the dead, as well as an additional 300 interviews with local and provincial authorities, church officials, civil society representatives, health workers, former and current FDLR and Mai Mai combatants, their commanders, Congolese army officers and soldiers, MONUC military and civilian officials, representatives of other United Nations agencies, diplomats, and international nongovernmental (NGO) representatives in North and South Kivu. We have also conducted interviews with UN officials and foreign diplomats in Kinshasa, New York, Washington, DC, London, Paris, Brussels and Pretoria.
Human Rights Watch also met with and discussed many of the issues raised in this report with Congolese government authorities including President Joseph Kabila; the Vice Minister of Defense, Oscar Masamba Matebo; the Minister of Justice, Luzolo Bambi Lessa; and with Maj. Gen. Dieudonné Amuli Bahigwa, the military commander responsible for operation Kimia II and a number of his subordinates. In August 2009, Human Rights Watch also met with the FDLR head, Dr. Ignace Murwanashyaka, in Mannheim, Germany.
The research for this report greatly benefited from reporting by United Nations sources including internal UN documents and legal memos, reporting from the UN Group of Experts, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, the UN’s DDRRR program and reporting by diplomats, other national and international human rights and humanitarian organizations, legal papers from judicial officials and other government documents.
This report documents killings and other abuses where witnesses were able to clearly identify the group or armed forces to which the assailants belonged. Cases where the perpetrator was not clear have not been included in this report. Our statistics on the numbers killed are based on eyewitness accounts, information from family members, and testimony from those who helped to bury the dead. We have made every effort to corroborate our findings and dismiss accounts that we did not find credible.
Many of those we interviewed were deeply traumatized by their experiences yet were desperate to tell their stories about what had happened to them. This report is, in part, a testimony to their immense courage and will for the truth to be known.
 An additional 198 combatants were repatriated to Rwanda in October 2009. The total figure includes 1,274 combatants repatriated to Rwanda, four to Uganda, and seven to Burundi.