One night in 2013, Jeanne was awakened by pounding on the door of her home in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, she told Human Rights Watch in a soft, sad voice. When she asked who was there, the men outside yelled “Police!” They broke down her door and rounded up all the men in the house and beat them, but let them go once they found Jeanne’s 19-year-old grandson, Joseph, whom Jeanne had helped raise. They dragged her grandson outside the house, shot him three times in the chest, and left him dead in the avenue, covered in blood.
Last November, Congo’s government began “Operation Likofi” – “iron fist” or “punch” in Lingala, one of Congo’s languages. The police operation was aimed at ending a surge of armed robberies and other crimes in Kinshasa by members of organized gangs known as “kuluna.” The kuluna carry machetes, broken bottles, and knives, and threaten or use violence to extort money, jewelry, mobile phones, and other valuables. Political leaders have also used the kuluna for protection or to intimidate opponents during elections.
Kuluna who commit crimes should be arrested and brought to justice. But Operation Likofi did not enforce the law in Kinshasa but instead reinforced a climate of fear. In raids across the city, uniformed police wearing black masks dragged suspected kuluna out of their homes at night at gunpoint with no arrest warrants. The police frequently shot and killed the unarmed youth outside their homes, often while family members and neighbors helplessly watched. Some victims were apprehended and executed in the open markets where they slept or in nearby fields or empty lots. Many others were taken to unknown locations and were not seen again. At least 51 young men and boys were killed and another 33 were forcibly disappeared during the operation.
The nightmare for victims’ families lasted well beyond the shootings.
Jeanne’s family took Joseph’s body to the morgue, but when they came to collect it for burial, morgue employees told Jeanne that the authorities had ordered them not to release the bodies of anyone killed during Operation Likofi. Jeanne yelled at the morgue employees until the police detained her. She was released later that day, but without Joseph’s body. She felt empty, she said, but she organized a traditional mourning period regardless. Yet each time the family and neighbors gathered, the police came to their home and threatened to arrest them for mourning Joseph. (Their names were changed to protect the family.)
In interviewing the families of the dead or “disappeared” teenagers and young men, the Human Rights Watch senior researcher on Congo, Ida Sawyer, heard the same pleas over and over. Those whose children were disappeared want to know what happened to them and where they are. Those whose relatives were killed want to bury them with dignity. If their children did something wrong, the families said, they should be arrested and brought to trial. You can’t just kill and kidnap people.
Police officers, intelligence agents and other officials have threatened and warned victims’ relatives, journalists, magistrates, and doctors, suggesting that senior officials knew about the killings. But rather than act to stop the police and bring those responsible to justice, authorities became more secretive and attempted to cover up the abuses. When a military magistrate wanted to investigate a police colonel who allegedly shot and killed a suspected kuluna, a government official told him to “close [his] eyes” and drop the case.
The primary commander of Operation Likofi was Gen. Célestin Kanyama, currently the Kinshasa police commissioner. Police officers who participated in the operation described a well-organized campaign during which Kanyama’s orders led to killings. One officer said he was told to call Kanyama whenever they arrested a suspect, as Kanyama would give instructions on whether to kill the youth or jail him. Kanyama himself was sometimes present during the operations. Police officers also said that many young men who weren’t immediately killed were taken to Camp Lufungula, a police camp where Kanyama was based. They said that some of those detained were taken out of the camp at night and executed.
When Sawyer met with Kanyama in August to present the Human Rights Watch research findings, he rejected all allegations of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances. “Operation Likofi did not have the mission to kill or to execute people,” he said. “Everything that people tell you doesn’t come from the Bible. There are rumors.”
What is urgently needed is an independent and impartial investigation into Kanyama’s role in the deaths and disappearances during the police operation he commanded. In the meantime he should be suspended as Kinshasa’s police commissioner. The family members of the dead and missing young men and teenagers – people like Jeanne – deserve justice.