Three-Year Mystery Behind DR Congo’s Beni Massacres Unravels
New research has cast light onto one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s most gruesome mysteries – the slaughter of more than 800 people in Beni territory that began three years ago this week.
The more than 120 massacres in eastern Congo, in which assailants methodically hacked people to death with axes and machetes or fatally shot them, continued through August this year and have baffled analysts. But a new investigative report by the New York University-based Congo Research Group offers a breakthrough in understanding the dynamics and gives hope that perpetrators will one day face justice.
Based on two years of painstaking research, the report identifies distinct killing phases and an array of diverse armed actors responsible for the massacres: the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist Ugandan rebel group based in eastern Congo; former officers from the Congolese Patriotic Army (APC); the armed branch of the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML), the Ugandan-backed rebellion during Congo’s second war from 1998 to 2003; and various other local militia groups; as well as elements of the Congolese army. Instead of the killings being committed by a cohesive group with a singular political agenda, these actors constantly shifted alliances fighting alongside and against each other.
During the Rwandan-backed M23 rebellion in eastern Congo in 2012 and 2013, remnants of the APC in Beni territory mobilized and established an informal alliance with the M23 fighters, according to the report. After the M23 was defeated in November 2013, the Congolese army turned its focus to Beni, officially to defeat the ADF rebels, who had been present on Congolese territory for many years. According to the report, former APC officers in Beni perceived these operations as an attempt to dismantle the lucrative political and economic networks they had established in Beni, including through collaboration with the ADF and other local militia groups. In response, they orchestrated the first of a series of small-scale killings in Beni in 2013. These initial attacks were reportedly meant to show the Congolese government’s failure to protect the population, and thereby delegitimize its authority and pave the way for a new rebellion.
Once the killings began, some Congolese army officers under the command of Gen. Akili Mundos decided to co-opt the network of former APC officers, ADF combatants, and other local militia fighters, the report found. Instead of ending the violence, the army began working together with members of the same network responsible for the initial killings, allowing the killings to continue on a much larger scale starting in October 2014.
With Pandora’s Box opened, the web of foes and friends changed constantly with various local militia groups taking a more prominent role as the massacres continued. All the while, the Congolese government blamed all the violence on so-called “radical ADF terrorists,” in an apparent attempt to mislead the Congolese population, foreign diplomats, journalists, and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, which continued to provide uncritical support to the army.
While there are still many unanswered questions, the new Congo Research Group report sheds important light on those responsible for the Beni massacres. It should serve as a basis for credible judicial investigations as well as targeted sanctions by the UN Security Council and others.
International attention on Congo has shifted from the Beni crisis to Congo’s southern Kasai region, where new massacres have killed more than 5,000 people and displaced some 1.4 million from their homes since August 2016, according to the UN. To finally break these devastating cycles of violence and impunity, the Beni massacres cannot be forgotten. Strong action is needed to show that there are consequences for those responsible – no matter their rank or position.