The arming of civilians by officials in eastern Congo has increased the risk of further violence and is undermining United Nations efforts to bring stability to this volatile region, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
Rival factions of the Congolese army, fighting each other in December, executed civilians and raped scores of women and girls in three towns in North Kivu, a volatile province in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Victims were targeted on the basis of their ethnicity or their perceived political loyalties. These abuses were exacerbated by the provincial government authorities, who armed untrained Hutu civilians in the months preceding the fighting.
“The arming of civilians in an environment of ethnic tension and ongoing conflict is irresponsible and dangerous,” said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa advisor at Human Rights Watch. “The Congolese government and the U.N. peacekeeping forces must take immediate steps to disarm civilians and reduce local tensions.”
The 34-page Human Rights Watch report, “Democratic Republic of Congo: Civilians Attacked in North Kivu,” documents war crimes and other serious human rights abuses committed during fighting in December. The failure to integrate the former belligerent groups into one unified national army was a major cause of the conflict; another was heightened ethnic tensions in North Kivu. Some of the newly armed civilians participated in the human rights abuses.
Soldiers of the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Goma (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie-Goma, or RCD-Goma), a former rebel movement now turned political party and member of the Congolese transitional government, in December fought other troops of the national army for control of RCD-Goma’s base in North Kivu. The fighting took place in the context of increased tensions between Congo and Rwanda. Rwanda had backed RCD-Goma during the war that ended with the official withdrawal of foreign troops in 2002.
In the months just prior to the fighting, administrative and security officials loyal to North Kivu’s governor, Eugène Serufuli, distributed thousands of weapons to Hutu civilians in the province. Serufuli is also a high-ranking member of the Rwandan-backed RCD-Goma. Local analysts believed this was an attempt by Governor Serufuli to counter plans by the national government based in Kinshasa to retake this strategic area, which borders Rwanda.
Some Hutu were threatened and at least one was killed for opposing the arms distribution. In the provincial capital Goma, five local Congolese human rights activists who denounced the arms distribution and the December abuses were threatened and had to leave the city.
The distribution of arms to civilians in North Kivu highlights the problem of the proliferation of small arms in central Africa, an issue addressed this week in New York at a U.N. meeting on illicit trade in small arms. In 2003, following the country’s brutal civil war, the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo on the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was recently extended to cover the entire country.
“The Congolese government should collect and dispose of all firearms held illegally by civilians in the volatile eastern part of the country,” said Des Forges. “And all countries in the region must enforce the U.N. arms embargo on the DRC.”
Soldiers and irregular forces on all sides committed rapes and killings of civilians, as well as widespread looting, during and after a week of intense combat in December at Kanyabayonga and other locations in North Kivu. One woman told Human Rights Watch that two of her daughters were killed when RCD-Goma soldiers fired into a crowd at a church.
At a Hutu village, Mayi-Mayi combatants—locally-based militia opposed to Rwanda and the RCD-Goma—threw a grenade at a wedding party, killing several of the guests, including a three-year-old child being carried on a woman's back. Because of the fighting and looting at Kanyabayonga and the town of Nyabyondo, tens of thousands of residents were forced to flee into the forest, where they lost access to humanitarian assistance.
In recent months, the U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MONUC and the Congolese army have conducted a serious campaign of militia disarmament in the Ituri district of northeastern Congo, but they have not articulated a strategy for North Kivu.
Since the December fighting, there have been renewed incidents of violence between rival army factions resulting in civilian deaths. On June 30 in Goma, fighting between former RCD-Goma and Mayi-Mayi forces left three soldiers and four civilians dead. On July 2, newly integrated troops in a military camp just outside Goma burned several huts in a nearby Hutu and Tutsi village in revenge for the killing of a soldier the night before, reportedly by an armed civilian.
“Civilians suffer the brutal effects of the Congolese army’s internecine fighting,” said Des Forges. “Soldiers and their officers must be held accountable for this. Continued impunity will only add to further tensions and abuses.”