Congo entered its third year of a devastating war in August, with no end in sight. The conflict pitted the government of President Laurent Kabila and allied troops from Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia against the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), fronting for forces sent by the governments of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. In the northern Equateur province, the better organized Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) also received significant military support from Uganda. Rwanda and Uganda invoked national security concerns for intervening in the Congo, citing the presence of exiled insurgent groups bent on destabilizing their respective countries. As the conflict settled into a protracted stalemate, it became increasingly clear that the two nations' economies were directly boosted by the exploitation of natural resources in areas of the DRC under their respective control. Myriad external actors, the ready availability of small arms, and ethnic mobilization by local warlords favored the resurgence of rural militias in eastern Congo. Locally known by the generic name of Mai-Mai, these autonomous militia groups fought primarily to repel what they perceived as foreign occupation of their homelands.
None of the actors fully respected their commitments under the Lusaka Cease-fire Agreement signed in July and August 1999. Rebel factions and their foreign backers and government troops showed little inclination to respect basic norms of international human rights and humanitarian law in their treatment of civilian populations. The fighting destroyed what was left of Congo's public services and infrastructure after decades of misgovernment under former President Joseph Mobutu, and brought the already moribund economy to a standstill.
Indiscriminate attacks, extrajudicial executions of civilians, rape, and large-scale destruction of civilian property characterized the conduct of the belligerents. Collective punishment for suspected loyalty to rival antagonists generated many of the civilian killings, as did localized interethnic strife fueled by the broader war. Perpetrators from all parties enjoyed total impunity.
By midyear, upward of 1.3 million Congolese were displaced, and another five million completely or partially separated from their traditional supply routes, mainly because of the generalized insecurity. Those uprooted by the war were deprived of access to humanitarian services by the same factors that caused their flight and isolation. From January to September, the number of Congolese refugees in neighboring countries, including Uganda, grew from some 130,000 to an approximate 220,000.
Using the war as a pretext, President Kabila's government continued to freeze its democratization agenda, and actively sought to derail the internal political dialogue with the rebels, opposition parties, and civil society groups provided for in the 1999 Lusaka Accord. Taking aim at these targets, on August 21 the government inaugurated a Constituent and Legislative Assembly/Transitional Parliament whose members it handpicked without consulting the opposition or civil society organizations.
Seeking to capitalize on the serious fallout between Rwanda and Uganda and the increasing unpopularity of the rebel RCD in eastern Congo, the government also gave contradictory signals about its readiness to cooperate with U.N. observers. During three days of government-orchestrated protests in early June, hundreds of demonstrators threw stones at the headquarters of the U.N. Mission to the Congo (MONUC).
The human rights situation throughout the country continued to deteriorate. On February 19, the government decreed a general amnesty for all Congolese prosecuted or condemned for crimes against the internal or external security of the state. More than two hundred people in detention were accordingly released in a matter of weeks. However, as Human Rights Watch pointed out in a letter to President Kabila in March, the government failed to free hundreds of eligible political and security detainees. Furthermore, the government continued to respond to challenges to its ongoing ban on political activities and free expression of opinion with arbitrary detention and stiff prison sentences, helping to fill detention centers and prisons that optimists had hoped the general amnesty would empty. Security agencies particularly targeted vocal opposition parties and groupings for repression. They arrested leaders and militants of the radical Innovative Forces for Unity and Solidarity,dispersed gatherings of the newly formed Collective for the Survival of Democracy, and detained for varying periods dozens of members of the main opposition parties, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, and the Unified Lumumbist Party.
In January and February, the government violated its own pledge to the United Nations not to carry out the death penalty by executing nineteen people condemned to death by the special Court of Military Order. Established in 1997 by presidential decree, ostensibly to restore discipline in the army, the court increasingly became an effective tool for political repression, notably to punish outspoken civilian critics of the government. On September 12, the Court found four journalists guilty of "high treason" and "publication of articles hostile to the government." It sentenced two of them to two years in prison, and condemned the others to one year's imprisonment, with six months suspended.
Several competing security agencies zealously enforced the government's restrictions on political activities and free expression, constantly alternating roles in arresting, interrogating, and detaining suspects. This practice kept the door wide open for rampant abuses: compelling testimonies indicated the continual use of torture, in particular in police stations and in places of detention controlled by the military. Former detainees complained to Human Rights Watch about beatings, sexual abuse, humiliating treatment, and deprivation of food, sleep, or family visits. Victims of torture and ill treatment who protested to the government said that there was no follow-up to their complaints, indicating the prevalence of a culture of total impunity.
An investigation in March by Human Rights Watch in areas controlled by the mainstream RCD-Goma rebel faction, which is backed by Rwanda, documented a pattern of involvement of the rebels and their Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) backers in civilian killings and other extrajudicial executions. These were often conducted in retaliation for earlier raids by the Mai-Mai and Rwandan Hutu fighters, commonly called Interahamwe, operating in eastern Congo against the Tutsi-dominated RPA and its local allies. Human Rights Watch documented the killing of thirty people in a February 5 attack by the RCD and its RPA allies on the village of Kilambo in North Kivu. RCD rebels and Rwandan soldiers tied up men, raped their wives in front of them, and then killed them. In May, the RCD similarly killed at least thirty villagers in Katogota, south Kivu. Human Rights Watch also collected evidence that corroborated reports by a local rights group, Heritiers de la Justice, that RCD soldiers in late 1999 sexually tortured and buried several women alive in Mwenga, reports which the RCD vehemently denied. RCD soldiers also attacked civilians in towns, and routinely arrested and tortured RCD opponents and civil society leaders, often detaining them in secret places, including in Rwanda.
The Mai-Mai and Hutu fighters also committed atrocities against the civilian population, particularly communities identified with the Tutsis. The Mai-Mai reportedly killed dozens of fleeing civilians in late August in Shabunda territory. Hutu militiamen reportedly attacked civilians in Kahuzi-Biega national park in early September. Burundian Hutu and Mai-Mai fighters jointly attacked Congolese Tutsi communities in the Ruzuzu plain and the Haut Plateau areas of south Kivu.
Uganda hastily trained and equipped thousands of young Congolese, many of them children, to build armed wings for its local allies, the Liberation Movement for the Congo (MLC), which controlled Equateur province by mid-1999, and the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML), which unconvincingly claimed to control northeastern areas in Congo along the Ugandan border. While the MLC enjoyed a measure of popularity among the estimated ten million inhabitants of Equateur, the RCD-ML and its newly trained armed wing had splintered into at least three factions by midyear, largely along ethnic lines. Frequent leadership dispute in the RCD-ML exacerbated ethnic tensions and re-ignited a deadly interethnic war in the region of Bunia between the the agriculturalist Lendu people and the pastoralist Hema, who are identified with the Tutsi and the Ugandan Hema. At least seven thousand people were killed, and another 200,000 were displaced in less than a year. Sparked in mid-1999 by individual disputes over land tenure between the two groups, the conflict flared up when Ugandan officials around the same time unilaterally decreed the creation of a province in the disputed area, and placed mostly Hema officials in control of its administration. Leaders of the RCD-ML told Human Rights Watch and the Kampala press on various occasions that commanders and soldiers of the Ugandan army frequently took part in that conflict on the side of the Hema, mainly to earn lucrative payments from Hema farm owners and businessmen. In August Human Rights Watch wrote to RCD President Ernest Wamba dia Wamba and to President Museveni of Uganda calling for an investigation into the role of the Ugandan army in recruiting children and manipulating ethnic tensions in the region.
Rwandan and Ugandan forces fought particularly destructive battles for the control of Kisangani in early May, and again in early June. Some seven hundred civilians were killed, and another one thousand were seriously wounded as the nominal allies indiscriminately clashed with heavy artillery and automatic weapons in the city. The fighting cut off the supply of electricity and water and caused widespread damage to civilian property.
Democratic Republic of Congo
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