(Goma) – Unidentified rebel fighters have killed at least 184 civilians and wounded many others in attacks on villages in Beni territory in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since October 2014. Such killings amount to war crimes.
Victims and witnesses described to Human Rights Watch brutal attacks in which rebel fighters methodically hacked and shot civilians to death with axes, machetes, and firearms.
“Large-scale rebel attacks occurring nearly weekly have terrorized residents of Beni and left them uncertain where to seek safety,” said Ida Sawyer, senior Congo researcher. “UN and Congolese forces need to urgently coordinate their efforts and improve protection of civilians in Beni.”
Senior United Nations and Congolese army officials say they believe the recent attacks were carried out by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan-led Islamist rebel group that has been active in Beni territory since 1996. Some officials say the ADF may be acting together with fighters from other armed groups. UN and Congolese officials should further investigate the identity of the attackers and those who support them.
ADF fighters, including Ugandans and Congolese, have been responsible for scores of kidnappings in recent years. Civilians who had earlier been held in ADF camps said they saw deaths by crucifixion, executions of those trying to escape, and people with mouths sewn shut for allegedly lying to their captors. Some captives accused of “misbehaving” were held in holes or in a casket lined with nails for days or more than a week. The attackers also raped women and forced them to be their “wives.”
In January, the Congolese army officially opened a new phase of military operations against the ADF with some limited logistical support from the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, and its Intervention Brigade, a 3,000-strong force within MONUSCO created in mid-2013 to carry out military operations against armed groups.
The latest wave of attacks began several months after the Congolese army pushed the ADF out of their main bases. In recent months, MONUSCO has significantly increased its presence in the Beni area in an attempt to better protect civilians.
Some witnesses described getting no response or a delayed reaction when they asked the army for protection. UN officials said that the army has resisted its attempts at coordination to protect civilians and has blocked UN troops from carrying out patrols in certain areas. The Congolese government should ensure that UN troops and UN human rights monitors are given immediate and unrestricted access to all areas where attacks have taken place or where civilians might be at risk, as per MONUSCO’s Chapter VII mandate under the UN Charter, which authorizes UN troops to take military or non-military action to protect civilians.
During two research missions to Beni territory in November and through interviews with over 70 victims and witnesses to attacks and others, Human Rights Watch confirmed the killing of at least 184 people during attacks between October 5 and December 6 in the Boykene neighborhood of the town of Beni and in the villages of Linzosisene, Oicha, Ngadi, Kadou, Erengeti, Ondoto, Kambi ya Chui, Manzati, Tepiomba, Vemba, Ahili, and Manzanzaba. It is likely that the actual number of people killed during these attacks is significantly higher. Congolese human rights activists have documented the killings of over 230 civilians in the Beni area since early October.
A large attack occurred on November 20 in the villages of Vemba and Tepiomba and the surrounding areas, on the edge of Virunga National Park. The attack killed at least 50 people and possibly many more. In another attack on December 6 in Ahili and Manzanzaba villages, fighters killed at least 38 civilians. Congolese human rights activists reported the killings of at least another 18 civilians during attacks between December 7 and 9.
Congolese government officials say they have arrested a number of suspected ADF fighters and others they believe collaborated with or supported the ADF. The Congolese government should ensure that those who have been arrested are promptly charged with specific crimes, brought before a judge, and have the assistance of counsel before being questioned.
Congolese judicial officials, with the support of international agencies that support Congo’s justice system, should urgently carry out credible and thorough criminal investigations into the recent wave of killings, including responsibility for the attacks and their source of support. Congo’s partners should support greater intelligence gathering capabilities in the region to determine who is responsible for the recent attacks and to improve protection for civilians.
The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) should collect information and examine the abuses with a view to determining whether an ICC investigation into alleged crimes in the Beni area is warranted. The ICC has jurisdiction over serious international crimes committed in Congo. It opened an investigation there in June 2004. The ICC can step in when national courts are unwilling or unable to prosecute grave crimes in violation of international law.
MONUSCO should increase patrols to the affected areas, including foot and night patrols, and set up mobile operating bases closer to the remote villages where many of the recent attacks have taken place. Community Liaison Assistants (CLAs), who speak the local language and have a deep understanding of the local context, should immediately be placed within Intervention Brigade units and peacekeeping contingents based in the Beni area. A hotline should also be set up so that civilians can directly contact peacekeepers in the area and alert them quickly in case of attack.
“Much more could be done to enhance protection of civilians and prevent the next massacre,” Sawyer said. “UN peacekeepers should improve ties with local communities and be prepared to deploy to threatened areas immediately.”
The Vemba Attack and Army Rebuff of Peacekeepers
Before the attack on the villages of Vemba and Tepiomba, several unidentified men, some dressed in military uniforms, arrived at the home of the Vemba village chief, where local residents had gathered to drink locally made corn beer. The men initially claimed to be Congolese soldiers and told people not be to be afraid.
The men then took people out of the chief’s house, forced them to sit on the ground, and tied their arms behind their backs with strips of rubber from bicycle tires. One witness saw the leader of the group talking on a cell phone. After he finished the call, he said to the others in broken Swahili: “Start the work. Cut them.” The assailants then killed scores of civilians with ax blows to their heads.
The next day, the army and some civilians found nine of the bodies and took them to the morgue in Oicha. The army then quickly sealed off the area of the massacre, not allowing anyone, including UN peacekeepers, to access it for several days. The army said its troops had come under fire near the site where the bodies were located and it was too dangerous for family members and others to come close to the area.
The army buried 49 bodies near the site of the massacre, according to a declaration from a provincial government minister. Witnesses who escaped the attack and saw the bodies told Human Rights Watch that the number of people killed during the attack was much higher. Congolese human rights activists say dozens of people are still missing and presumed dead.
Coordination efforts between the Congolese army and MONUSCO peacekeepers to protect civilians in the aftermath of the November 20 massacre have been fraught with difficulties. When MONUSCO’s Intervention Brigade prepared to send troops to the area to conduct joint operations with Congolese soldiers, army officials stopped the joint operation, telling MONUSCO it would be “difficult to recognize” the UN forces in the forest and “friendly-fire” incidents could occur, according to a senior UN officer. Instead, the army said it would pursue the attackers alone.
On November 23, the army led MONUSCO forces on a joint patrol to a location where they claimed the massacre had taken place, but that was another location not linked to the massacre. On December 3, the army took MONUSCO troops to another location, saying it was the site of the mass grave in Vemba. But peacekeepers again suspected it was another location since they found no evidence of the massacre or the mass grave.
Accounts of Victims, Witnesses
Human Rights Watch interviewed the following people between October 16 and November 26.
A man, 30, who was stopped on the road and escorted to the chief’s house by eight unidentified men armed with guns and axes before the November 20 massacre in Vemba:
[While at the chief’s house], they arrested a pygmy and tied him up. When I saw that, I said to myself: “These aren’t our soldiers.” I saved myself, by the grace of God, by going behind the chief’s house. I heard the attackers say: “Tie the people up.” Then they started to tie the people up, and it started raining. When the rain let up, I heard the head [of the attackers] say: “Start the work. Cut them.” Then I pulled back from where I was hiding. My uncle and I spent the night in the forest. On Friday, I came to inform people after seeing bodies of those who were killed with my own eyes. I saw the dead bodies of my younger brother, my brother-in-law, my uncle, and a woman and a boy I knew.
Many bodies were in the chief’s compound. Some were killed on the road, others were scattered…. I wasn’t paying attention to all the bodies, just those of people I knew. I was afraid [the attackers] would come back. They were all killed by axes to the head.
A woman, 22, who was at the chief’s house in Vemba at the start of the massacre:
[The attackers] asked us: “Where is the chief? We are hungry. Give us a goat.” The chief left with them to get them a goat. It started to rain. The assailants who stayed with us said: “Nobody leaves the house. If somebody dares go out, we will shoot you.” When the rain began to stop, these soldiers started to tie people up in the house and brought them outside into the rain. I gave my baby to a pygmy who was next to me. Then they tied me up. The boss of the fighters came, and when he saw the baby he said: “Who does this baby belong to?” I said it’s my baby. He said: “Leave her. I don’t kill anyone with a baby. Take your baby and leave.” I fled to the forest and that’s where I spent the night. I didn’t see what happened behind me, but I heard the sound of the axes striking heads.
A farmer, 35, who was stabbed in the neck during an attack by unidentified attackers in Linzosisene on October 5:
One of the fighters told us: “My Bible says if someone kills you with a machete, you should kill him with a machete.” Then he pulled a knife from his bag. We were with a 14-year-old girl and he killed her. He cut her up and put her body parts in a bag. There was a second girl, and they cut the lower part of her face off. They took the part of her face but left the rest of her body. The third person they killed was a man who they cut in the back of the neck. Then they told the rest of us who were there: “Go lie down on the ground.” Then they started stabbing us. After they did all this, I lost consciousness and thought I was dead.
A man, 32, from the Boykene neighborhood of Beni who survived an attack in his house by 9 or 10 unidentified attackers on November 1:
I saw them approaching through the bedroom window, and I hid under the bed. My wife ran into the attackers in the hallway, and they immediately shot her and then chopped her in the hip with an ax. They pulled back the mosquito net in the kids’ room and shot dead my oldest son who was lying on the bed. The [Congolese] army arrived at my house around midnight. I dressed my wife and son’s bodies in nice clothes before taking them to the morgue.
An elderly woman who survived an attack by unidentified attackers, including some who appeared to be child soldiers, in the town of Erengeti town on October 17:
They found my sister, [my daughter] Noëlla, and me, all of us in the house. They were wearing military uniforms but the pants were cut off at the knees. The kadogo [child soldiers] wore camouflage shorts and tank tops. They spoke a Swahili that wasn’t from here.
Noëlla was carrying her 6-month-old child, and her other child was holding onto her. The attackers cut her other child in the head [with a machete]. Then they wanted to kill another girl, Masika. Noëlla tried to defend her and said: “You can kill me instead of this girl.” Masika then fled into the bush. The attackers immediately killed my daughter Noëlla with a machete.
I then fled into the forest. I heard people yelling after me, saying: “You civilians, you called the Congolese army to kill us! You killed our sons and wives. We are widowers. We are going to kill you so your husbands are widowers and so your kids are orphans.
A church official, 34, who was present during the attack in Erengeti on October 17:
The attackers arrived about 6:30 p.m. They told the women not to be afraid because they were soldiers on patrol. They had torn uniforms and there were children among them. Some could have been 10, 13, and 15-years-old. They first went to the [Congolese army] position. After 20 minutes, we heard two gunshots. Then after another 15 minutes, we heard lots of gunshots. They killed a soldier, and then they started going house to house. They tied people up and brought them all into a house. It was the third house from the river; that’s where they brought people and killed them. One of the attackers said in Swahili to a woman who resisted opening her door: “Your military killed our kids and you’ll see. We’re going to exterminate you.” I heard cries of people being killed by machete. One of them said, “Mama, I’m dying.” Then the cries faded away. The army soldiers were 200 meters away, but they didn’t react when my son and a woman went to alert them.
The wife of a Congolese army soldier who was hiding in her house when fighters attacked her in the Ngadi neighborhood of Beni town on October 15:
Three people came, dressed as women. We thought they were women, but really they were men, the enemy. My husband started to welcome them, but they were people who didn’t know Swahili. He greeted them anyway. After he greeted them three times, these people still said nothing. As they moved closer to our house, my husband then spoke to them in Lingala, saying “Stop there.” Without waiting, they shot at my husband. He shot back at them. He started calling for help because the village was full of soldiers, but he received no help. The attackers spoke Kinyarwanda. They said: “This loser is going to kill us.” Then they shot my husband in the head and then cut him with a machete.
A woman, 18, who was captured by the ADF in January 2013 and held in Medina camp, one of the ADF’s main bases that was taken over by the Congolese army in April:
Medina was like a big village. We had to pray five times a day, and they gave me a husband by force. I know of 25 people who died in the camp [while I was there]. Some died of starvation, others were killed. If they learned that you wanted to leave to go home, even if it was rumor, they’d kill you by cutting your neck. If you fled and were caught, you were killed immediately. They killed people in front of the others.
There was a woman who fled and she was caught at a village called “25”. They said I knew that she was going to flee, so they put me in a hole for one month. I was 6-months pregnant. I couldn’t leave the hole and I had to defecate in a pail. I didn’t bathe the entire time I was there. There were 12 of us women in the hole. We were given taro roots to eat. Only myself and one other lived.
Another form of punishment was “the cross.” They hang you up like Jesus. Thirteen people died on the cross. There was another punishment in a casket, with nails pointing up inside the casket. They close you inside, and they don’t give you any food. Depending on the fault you committed, you might get 5 days or 10 days in there. If you didn’t die in there, you were really lucky.
A woman, 24, who had been tricked by her husband, an ADF fighter, and taken to an ADF camp, described conditions after army operations started against the ADF in January:
Being on the run made our lives even worse. We could go days without eating, and the children were the first to die. I saw lots of children die, some died from hunger, and others were shot to death. Many were sick; they were swollen and had holes in their skin. We buried a lot of children. It was a horror for me and the other mothers. My sister-in-law lost three children: two died of hunger and one was shot to death. Aside from all this, there were rules [in the camp]. Don’t speak badly about others or they sewed your mouth shut as punishment. Don’t flee or they’d kill you by cutting your throat in front of others or they cut you into pieces. The children shouldn’t cry, or [the mother] is punished. The punishment, depending on the seriousness of what you did, ranged from 100 lashes to 500 or you were put in their prison.
A woman, 35, who was kidnapped by the ADF near Chuchubo in Beni territory in December 2012 and was with the group until she escaped in July 2014 said:
If you were Congolese from Beni or the Grand Nord [northern part of North Kivu province], they could kill you immediately. If you were Ugandan and you told a lie, they sewed your mouth shut. After stitching your mouth shut, they threw you in a hole. There was a woman who misled them. She was beaten and thrown in the hole for two and a half months.