The Rwandan army and its Congolese allies have massacred and raped civilians in eastern Congo, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Their opponents, Hutu and Mai Mai armed groups, are also committing atrocities against the civilian population.
The rebel Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie (RCD), which is based in Goma, controls parts of eastern Congo in defiance of the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The RCD is crucially supplied and supported by the Rwandan government.
"The United Nations is looking for ways to prop up the 1999 Congo peace accord," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "But one thing must be clear—the human rights situation in Eastern Congo is disastrous. And civilians are bearing the brunt of the fighting."
During a visit to the areas controlled by the RCD and the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), Human Rights Watch interviewed survivors of the massacres, as well as rape victims. It found, for example, that on February 5, 2000, RCD and RPA troops attacked civilians in the village of Kilambo in North Kivu. Soldiers tied up men, raped their wives in front of them, and then killed them. Human Rights Watch has the names of thirty victims. The massacre took place in revenge for earlier attacks by Hutu armed groups.
Human Rights Watch also found evidence supporting reports by a local rights group, Heritiers de la Justice, that RCD soldiers sexually tortured and buried alive several women in Mwenga, an incident the RCD vehemently denies. Two women from Mwenga, a town in South Kivu, described to Human Rights Watch how soldiers stripped and raped five women. They also put hot pepper in the women's vaginas, then placed the women in several holes that were dug in the ground filled with salt water.
Mai Mai and predominantly Hutu armed groups are also committing widespread human rights abuses. They regularly attack villages, force people to hand over their belongings and kill them if they refuse to do so. Hutu armed groups in particular use rape as a weapon of war. Women are often gang-raped by groups of ten or more, or are taken as sexual slaves. One woman from South Kivu told Human Rights Watch how she begged members of a Hutu armed group to spare her. One let her go, but the next one broke her resistance by threatening to kill her child. He then raped her in front of her child and left her injured.
The justice system has broken down under RCD rule. Soldiers and the police act with impunity and the judicial authorities are reluctant to act on criminal complaints, particularly when crimes involve RCD or Rwandan soldiers. After having registered a complaint against a soldier who had committed armed robbery against him, Sebastien Balolebwami was attacked by soldiers and shot dead on February 10, 2000. Detainees are often held for weeks without charge, and are tortured in detention centers such as the infamous "Chien Mechant" (Vicious Dog) or "Bureau II" detention centers.
Human Rights Watch urged that the judicial system in Eastern Congo which has ceased to function be restored. The organization also called upon the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to add another chamber, to deal with the war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Human rights groups, church organizations and other members of civil society are regularly threatened, followed, arrested and beaten by RCD authorities, who brand any oppositional activity as "ethnic incitement." Despite the repression, some civil society groups continue to speak out. On International Women's Day, 8 March 2000, women's rights groups organized a day of grieving for their killed husbands and relatives. A women's activist, Zita Kavungirwa, was summoned and threatened, and another one, Marie-Jeanne Mbachu, was suspended from her job after the RCD pressured her employer.
Bruno Bahati, a leading member of the Coordination of Civil Society in South Kivu, was arrested by Rwandese security forces on April 22, 2000 on the Rwandan-Ugandan border. He is currently detained in Kigali and is accused of carrying newspapers from Kinshasa with him. In February 2000, Bukavu's Archbishop Emmanuel Kataliko was declared persona non grata by the authorities and sent to his home village outside the RCD-Goma area. The RCD accuses him of fomenting ethnic hatred after he criticized the authorities in his Christmas prayer.
The local Congolese population considers the Rwandan military, which is dominated by ethnic Tutsi, to be foreign occupiers. Their resentment often extends to all Rwandan and Congolese Tutsi. Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the existence of anti-Tutsi pamphlets circulating in eastern Congo, and warned that the abusive tactics of the RCD and RPA were inflaming ethnic hatreds and entrenching the conflict.
Human Rights Watch also called upon the U.N. to ensure that the field office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Eastern Congo has adequate resources to function effectively, as well as to ensure that the U.N. peace-keeping operation has a strong human rights component.
This report can be found on the Human Rights Watch website here.