(New York) - The United Nations Security Council, visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo today, should vigorously condemn war crimes by Congolese army soldiers in the eastern part of the country, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch urged the Security Council to condition UN support for Congolese military operations on the removal of known human rights abusers from command positions.
"The Congolese army is responsible for widespread and vicious abuses against its own people that amount to war crimes," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher in the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "The government should take urgent action to end these abuses. A military operation that targets the very people the government claims to be protecting can only lead to disaster."
Since late January 2009, soldiers from the Congolese armed forces, the FARDC, on military operations in eastern Congo, have attacked villages and killed at least 19 civilians in North Kivu province, including two women and two elderly men. Army soldiers have also raped more than 143 women and girls in the same period, more than half of the 250 cases of rape documented by Human Rights Watch. Some women were taken as sex slaves by soldiers and held within military positions.
In at least 12 villages in North Kivu province, including Miriki, Bushalingwa, and Kishonja in Lubero and Walikale territories, soldiers burned to the ground hundreds of homes and numerous schools and health centers. They pillaged and looted homes, and arbitrarily arrested at least 85 persons whom they accused of supporting rebel forces. Many of these people have been held without charge, subjected to beatings, and often released only after significant sums were paid. Civilians told Human Rights Watch researchers that they feared army soldiers as much as the Rwandan militias the army is supposed to be neutralizing.
In mid-January, the Congolese army began a joint military operation with the Rwandan armed forces against Rwandan militia groups, the Rally for Unity and Democracy (RUD) and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), some of whose leadership participated in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The operation "Umojo Wetu" ("Our Unity") followed a rapprochement between the two countries and the demise of a Rwandan-backed Congolese rebel group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), which gave up its struggle against the Congolese government and joined the operation.
During a rapid integration process, at least 12,000 combatants from the CNDP and other rebel groups who agreed to join the military operations entered the Congolese army ranks. The integration has swollen the army's numbers in eastern Congo to an estimated 60,000 soldiers, exacerbating problems of discipline, pay, and command control that have plagued it for many years.
Operation Umojo Wetu ended in late February, when Rwandan soldiers left eastern Congo following an agreement that the Congolese army would continue military operations against the Rwandan militias with support from the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUC). This second phase, known as Kimia II, began in North Kivu in mid-April and is expanding to South Kivu province.
Since the start of military operations against them, the FDLR and RUD militias have committed war crimes in brutal "reprisal" attacks in North and South Kivu, deliberately attacking and killing at least 200 civilians. In an attack on May 9 and 10, an estimated 60 civilians were reportedly killed and many others wounded in Busurungi, in Walikale territory. Reports from local officials and witnesses indicate the FDLR were the attackers and that Congolese army soldiers based in Busurungi retreated, or were killed, leaving the civilian population unprotected.
During both phases of military operations, Congolese army soldiers have killed, raped, and looted. After Rwandan militias attacked the Congolese army at Miriki (Lubero territory) on March 7-8, killing at least 12 soldiers, including an officer, the Congolese army sent in reinforcements. According to local authorities and Miriki residents, Congolese army soldiers then summarily executed the local police commander, who had reportedly been arrested along with 39 other civilians accused of collaborating with the FDLR militia. Congolese army soldiers then proceeded to pillage and burn 155 houses. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch they saw two truckloads of well-armed soldiers returning to Kirumba later that day with the pillaged goods from Miriki.
In Bwavinyo, also in southern Lubero territory, Congolese army soldiers arrested the village chief on March 8, accusing him of having been aware of an FDLR attack on Bwavinyo earlier that day and not informing the Congolese army. He was released days later, after payment of over US$1,000 to Congolese army authorities. Soldiers then pillaged the village, saying that all the goods had belonged to the FDLR. On March 12, following a warning that the FDLR were close by, army soldiers began shooting randomly, killing four civilians who were on their way back to Bwavinyo from their fields nearby.
Congolese army soldiers repeatedly committed rape during operations, often accusing women of being supporters or wives of the FDLR. Many women and girls have been gang raped. In Kihonga (South Kivu), a woman was raped in her home by two soldiers, who then abducted her husband and forced him to transport their looted goods. He still has not returned. Days later, a 15-year-old girl was raped in the same village by two soldiers, while four other soldiers looted the house and then abducted her mother, who is still missing. Other women were abducted by soldiers to be sex slaves in their camps; they were told that if they ever tried to resist when soldiers wanted to have sex with them, they would be killed.
UN peacekeepers who support the Congolese army in these military operations have tried to minimize some of the abuses by army soldiers, but have been unable to do so in many circumstances. In at least one incident recently, UN peacekeepers fired warning shots over the heads of Congolese army soldiers to try to minimize their abusive behavior.
The 3,000 additional peacekeepers authorized by the UN Security Council in November 2008 have still not arrived in eastern Congo, despite promises from council members that they would urge a rapid deployment. Helicopters and intelligence support, desperately needed by the mission, have also not materialized. On April 9 in New York, Alan Doss, the head of the UN peacekeeping force, warned the Security Council that without such assets, MONUC's "capacity to respond quickly to emerging threats and protect civilians would be curtailed."
"Civilians are trapped, targeted by all sides in this conflict," said Van Woudenberg. "During their visit to Congo, Security Council members should tell President Joseph Kabila that UN peacekeepers cannot support military operations in which war crimes are being committed and that ongoing support will be conditional on concrete action by the Congolese government to bring such crimes to an end."
Human Rights Watch again raised concerns about the role played by known human rights abusers in the military operations supported by UN peacekeepers, including Bosco Ntaganda, who has been given a leadership role in the Congolese army despite an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC), and Jean-Pierre Biyoyo, appointed a colonel in the Congolese army despite being found guilty by a Congolese military court of recruiting children into a militia group in March 2006.
Human Rights Watch also urged the council to ensure that Ntaganda is immediately removed from military duties, and to condition future MONUC operational support on his arrest.
"MONUC and the Security Council cannot turn a blind eye when known human rights abusers are in senior positions in military operations they support," said Van Woudenberg. "Congolese civilians urgently need protection from militia groups and abusers in their own army. If the council fails to act, it too will be complicit in putting civilians at risk."
Selected Witness Accounts
27-year-old woman from Bitonga (Masisi territory, North Kivu) who was abducted in late March 2009 by Congolese army soldiers and held as a sex slave in their camp for one month:
"I was in my farm with nine other women when the soldiers came and took us by force. I was with them in their camp near Bitonga for one month, and throughout this time, whoever wanted to would come and force me to have sex with them. They told me that if I ever tried to resist, they would kill me. There were about 18 soldiers in the camp, a mix of Tutsi and Hutu. I finally managed to escape when the soldiers sent me on my own to look for firewood. I was four-months pregnant when they abducted me, and I'm now in constant pain and am unable to walk. I don't think the baby is going to make it. The people in my village had all fled while I was gone because of abuses committed by the same FARDC soldiers who had abducted me."
40-year-old woman raped by four Congolese army soldiers in her house in Chebumba (Kalehe territory, South Kivu) on April 15:
"They came at night when I was asleep. We heard a banging on the door, and then they forced the door open, took my husband out of bed and tied him up. Four soldiers then started to rape me, one after the other, while three other soldiers looted all the goods in our house. I was four-months pregnant, but lots of blood started to flow while they were raping me and I've now lost the baby. The soldiers spoke Lingala, and I didn't understand what they were saying. Three other houses were visited the same night in my village. The soldiers who raped me have since been deployed further south, past Numbi."
15-year-old girl from Kihonga (Kalehe territory, South Kivu) who was raped last year by FARDC soldiers who made her pregnant. After giving birth in late March, she was raped again on May 5 by two FARDC soldiers:
"There were six soldiers who came into my house. They first raped my three-year-old sister, and then two of them raped me while the others looted our house. They threw my newborn baby onto the ground, and because of the shock he is in a lot of pain whenever anyone touches his legs. The soldiers were wearing military uniforms and they spoke Kinyarwanda. There were Hutus and Tutsis and other tribes as well. After they raped me, they took my mother away with them. She hasn't come back yet, and I think she must be dead. Five other houses in Kihonga were visited the same night by the soldiers."
25-year-old woman from Kihonga (Kalehe territory, South Kivu) who was raped in her house by two FARDC soldiers on April 25:
"It happened at night when I was in the house with my husband. We heard people knocking on the door, and they demanded that we open it. We refused, and then two soldiers forced the door open, came in the house, and tied up my husband. They then took me by force and started to rape me. They were both armed, in military uniform, and they spoke Kinyarwanda. One was Hutu and the other was Tutsi. Afterward, they took my husband with them to transport all the goods they looted from our house. I thought my husband would come back, but he never did. His family has since rejected me once they found out what happened, and I now have nowhere to go."
Man from Oninga (Walikale territory, North Kivu) who fled to Kirumba (Lubero territory, North Kivu) after the FDLR began attacking civilians:
"As we fled toward the government-controlled area, we were stopped by FARDC soldiers who looted all our money and goods, and they beat us badly, saying, ‘You came from where the enemies are, and you must be their collaborator.' Now that we've made it to Kirumba, we're constantly subject to ‘Opération Fenêtre' with our host families here: The soldiers come to the houses at night, stick the rifle of their guns through the window, and force us to hand over all the money, food, and objects in the house."
Displaced man from Katoyi (Masisi territory) in Lushebere:
"When I went home to look for food, I was stopped by FARDC soldiers, who forced me to transport their baggage all the way to Kalonge, where they were going for operations against the FDLR. When we got there, they made me give them my clothes and shoes. I was then left almost naked, as they whipped me, calling me an Interhamwe."
Local chief from Masisi territory:
"The FDLR say we are the ones who told the FARDC to come and chase them out of eastern Congo, while our soldiers blame us for having lived with the FDLR and say we're their brothers. We've become the enemies of all sides and don't understand anymore what to think."