(Goma) – Congolese authorities should intensify efforts to arrest and bring to justice a rebel commander whose troops have committed vicious killings, mass rapes, mutilations, and child abductions in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
On January 6, 2011, Congolese judicial authorities issued an arrest warrant for the Mai Mai militia leader Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka for crimes against humanity for mass rape, but he remains at large. Human Rights Watch published new information today about serious crimes committed by Sheka’s fighters since the arrest warrant was issued four years ago.
“An arrest warrant alone won’t stop a rebel leader like Sheka from committing atrocities – Congo’s authorities need to bring him to justice,” said Ida Sawyer, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The army and UN peacekeepers should increase their efforts to arrest him before more civilians suffer.”
In July 2014, the Congolese army and the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, began military operations against Sheka’s armed group in Walikale territory in North Kivu province. Officials said that one of the operations’ objectives was to arrest Sheka, but the operations have been hampered by the remoteness of Walikale – a territory roughly the size of Rwanda with few roads.
Since the warrant was issued for his arrest, Human Rights Watch found that Sheka’s forces killed at least 70 civilians, many of whom were hacked to death by machete. In some cases, Sheka’s fighters mutilated the bodies of those they killed and later paraded the body parts of their victims around town, while chanting ethnic slurs. During many attacks, fighters tied up and tortured men and women with knives and machetes, according to victims, former Sheka fighters, and photographs of victims.
Sheka’s forces raped women and girls and forcibly recruited scores of young men and boys into their ranks. Those caught trying to escape were executed. Certain parents who had walked days to Sheka’s military positions to beg him to release their sons or daughters were beaten so they would not return.
Many of the worst abuses occurred in and around Pinga, a strategic town bordering Walikale and Masisi territories, between August 2012 and November 2013. When Sheka’s forces fled Pinga in November 2013, they took dozens of women and girls with them into the forests of Walikale, many of whom are still being held hostage as sex slaves.
Human Rights Watch’s findings are based on eight research missions to Masisi and Walikale territories between July 2013 and August 2014 and interviews with over 100 victims and witnesses to attacks, former Sheka fighters, and others.
Sheka is an ethnic Nyanga former minerals trader from Walikale territory, who in 2009 established an armed group, known as the Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC), ostensibly to “promote development” in Walikale territory and to “liberate the mines” in Walikale from government control.
The United Nations reported that between July 30 and August 2, 2010, the NDC and two other armed groups raped at least 387 civilians – 300 women, 23 men, 55 girls, and 9 boys –in 13 villages along the Kibua to Mpofi road in Walikale territory. The UN named Sheka as one of the leaders who carried command responsibility for the mass rape. Congolese judicial officials issued the arrest warrant for Sheka following a Congolese investigation into this incident.
In November 2011, the UN Security Council added Sheka to the UN sanctions list, freezing his assets and imposing a worldwide travel ban.
In July 2011, Congolese judicial officials, with the support of UN peacekeepers, attempted to arrest Sheka when he sought medical treatment in Goma, North Kivu. But Sheka escaped, allegedly tipped off by Congolese army personnel who had a close relationship with him. In November 2011, Sheka and his fighters marched openly through the town of Walikale. A Congolese army officer received orders to arrest him, but before he could mobilize, Sheka was again tipped off and fled.
Since then, government and UN officials met with Sheka in Walikale on three occasions, in September and November 2013 and in April 2014, to hear his demands and encourage him to surrender. They made no attempt to arrest him during these encounters, and officials later said it would have been too dangerous to do so.
On November 6, 2013 – just after the army and UN forces’ defeat of the Rwandan-backed M23 armed group, with whom Sheka was allied – Sheka sent a letter to the Congolese government with a list of demands, including an amnesty for all his members, their integration into the army or police with their self-proclaimed ranks, and the annulment of all national and international judicial proceedings against them.
In late November 2013, Sheka feigned disarmament by sending 140 people, including 15 children, to surrender to UN peacekeepers with 12 weapons, none of which worked, according to former NDC fighters and UN officials. Those close to the NDC and UN officials said that only a handful of the 140 people were actual Sheka fighters; the others were civilians Sheka had promised to pay if they surrendered as “ex-combatants.”
Sheka has repeatedly changed alliances with other armed groups operating in eastern Congo and has benefitted from the financial and logistical support of Congolese army officers and Rwandan officials at various times, based on statements by former NDC fighters, Sheka’s own public declarations, and the UN Group of Experts monitoring sanctions in eastern Congo. Sheka’s ability to find new backers and shift alliances has helped him to resupply his fighters, enrich himself, and avoid arrest.
The UN, the Congolese government, and Congo’s allies should investigate the sources of support to Sheka and his forces and act to stop it and appropriately sanction those responsible.
“Thousands of civilians in eastern Congo have been affected by Sheka’s abuses, with many who still fear his forces’ next attack,” said Sawyer. “The Congolese government and its international partners should step up their efforts to arrest Sheka and make sure that all support to his abusive militia ends immediately.”
Abuses by Sheka’s Fighters and Accounts From Victims
Many of the worst attacks by Sheka’s forces in recent years took place in and around Pinga, where his fighters took control in late August 2012. On September 3, his fighters decapitated an ethnic Hunde motorcycle taxi driver named Kasereka. They impaled Kasereka’s head on a sword and paraded through town singing: “They don’t have the medicine, the Hunde, we are going to exterminate them,” a taunt implying the Hunde did not have a traditional healer powerful enough to protect them. Nearly all the Hunde in Pinga fled to the nearby forests, before going to other villages.
A 42-year-old farmer told Human Rights Watch that he was at his home in Nkassa, a neighborhood in Pinga, in June 2013 when a group of 25 to 30 of Sheka’s fighters came through the neighborhood from a battle with other armed groups at a nearby village. “One of the fighters held in his hand a piece of a person’s arm,” he said. “The fighter walked along, licking the blood that was dripping from the piece of arm. He shouted: ‘The flesh of a Hunde is good enough to eat.’”
In June 2013, six Sheka fighters called over a group of civilians in Pinga, saying they wanted to sell them some cabbage. When the fighters opened the sack, the civilians saw heads of three people who had been decapitated.
In September 2013, Sheka’s fighters cut off the heads and genitals of three people, which they put in a sack, and later paraded around Pinga “showing off to the population the heads and genitals,” while chanting ethnic slurs.
On September 25, 2013, Sheka fighters killed 11 civilians in Hinduka, a forest camp outside the village of Binyungunyungu. Photos obtained by Human Rights Watch show the victims’ corpses with visible machete wounds on their heads and bodies.
A Hunde grandmother who survived the attack told Human Rights Watch that she escaped when the fighters were busy counting the money they had stolen from her. She hid in the forest and heard gunshots coming from the direction of Hinduka. When she went back the next day, she found her eldest daughter had been shot in the head, and her daughter’s 6-month-old baby had been stabbed multiple times in the chest, head, back, and ribs. “We found him crying on his mother’s body,” she said. The baby survived.
From September 27 to October 3, 2013, Sheka fighters and allied fighters from the Raia Mutomboki armed group marched through the forest from Lwibo to Pinga, through a largely Hunde area of Masisi territory that had been controlled by a largely Hunde armed group, the People’s Alliance for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS). During the march they abducted more than 30 children and adults, including about 20 students taken from a primary school in Butemure village. When the fighters attacked the school on September 27, they beat children who tried to escape with sticks and bayonets, seriously injuring at least six of them.
As the Sheka fighters marched their hostages toward Pinga, they warned the children that anyone who was tired would be killed. Only 14 hostages – 12 children and 2 adults – eventually made it to Pinga, on October 3. While some escaped along the way, Sheka fighters killed at least one of the abducted children before they reached Pinga. Others are still missing and may have been killed.
A 22-year-old Hunde woman who escaped told Human Rights Watch that one fighter said, “Any child who is tired and can’t continue will be killed like the child who was just killed further back.” Those who made it to Pinga were held for two weeks and then released, after intervention by UN peacekeepers and other international organizations.
Former fighters who escaped Sheka’s ranks described the leader as often drunk, volatile, and brutal. They said that Sheka himself ordered the execution of fighters who were caught trying to escape. In some cases, fighters would tie up the individual’s hands and feet and then stab him to death with a bayonet. One former fighter described the execution of three former fighters caught trying to escape:
Sheka gave the order to kill them. He said: “If these men are going to die, it’s because they tried to flee. To show you not to flee, we are going to kill them in front of you.” After that, the commander, the S3 [who was in charge of operations], gave instructions to find fighters to do the killing. The [victims] asked to be forgiven, but nobody listened to them. The fighters then stabbed them in the chest, neck, head until they died.
Many women and girls were raped when Sheka’s fighters controlled Pinga, and some were forced to be the “wives” of Sheka’s fighters.
Several girls told Human Rights Watch that if they refused to have sex with their “husbands” they were beaten or threatened with death. A girl described how she had been kidnapped by four fighters on her way home from school when she was 12-years-old. They raped her and when the NDC fighters left Pinga they took her with them to the forest. In the forest, her “husband” raped her every night for four months.
Another 12-year-old girl told Human Rights Watch how she was taken by Sheka fighters around June 2014:
We were walking around the market in Kibua when they took us. There were six of us. Two fighters took us. One of them said I would be his wife. I said I was a child. They said: “No, you aren’t a child anymore.” We walked for two days in the forest until we got to Twamakuru. There were lots of women there. Three girls there were pregnant. They were 18-years-old. I lived with [name withheld]. He was 18. I had to have sex with him once a day, every day. I felt pain and there was a lot of blood. I took traditional medicine. He said he can’t leave me; he said: “I’m a Big Man.”
When Sheka and his fighters fled their main base in Pinga in November 2013, they forced dozens of women and girls they had kidnapped to flee with them to the forest in Walikale. Women and girls who escaped described living in miserable conditions in the forest where some were raped multiple times a day by their “husbands.” They ate boiled leaves, supplemented by occasional bush meat, and were often forbidden from seeking health care. Several women became pregnant by Sheka fighters and gave birth in the forest with no trained birth attendants present. Others were chased away after the fighters learned the women were pregnant. At least five women had miscarriages in the forest.
Since Congolese and UN troops began military operations against the NDC in July 2014, Sheka’s forces have continued to commit serious abuses, including large-scale looting of villages. On September 16, Sheka’s fighters attacked Bunyatenge village in Lubero territory. They systematically looted the village and forced 65 people to carry looted goods some 70 kilometers through the forest to the NDC’s base. In October, Sheka’s fighters looted Kishanga village in Walikale and again forced villagers to carry stolen goods to their base. The civilians were beaten and accused of revealing NDC positions to the Congolese army, before being released.
While originally allied with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a largely Rwandan Hutu armed group, some of whose members participated in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Sheka turned against the group in 2011. After that, Sheka’s fighters received support from individuals in Rwanda and later the Rwandan-backed M23 armed group, based on Human Rights Watch research as well as information from the UN Group of Experts monitoring sanctions in eastern Congo.
During a public meeting in a church in Pinga in August 2012, Sheka told the crowd of about 200 people that he received monthly payments from Rwanda, and that the payments had begun after his fighters killed a senior FDLR commander, Lt. Col. Evariste Kanzeguhera (alias “Sadiki Soleil”), witnesses to the meeting told Human Rights Watch.
Former NDC fighters also told Human Rights Watch that Sheka received financial and other military support from Rwanda. They said that Sheka’s ethnic Tutsi wife travels regularly to Rwanda and acts as a liaison with Sheka’s contacts in the country. One former fighter said that ammunition was often sent into Congo from Rwanda via Goma and was delivered to Sheka on motorcycles in bags of beans.
Those close to the NDC said support from Rwanda continued as recently as early December 2014. Some former M23 fighters who fled to Rwanda after their defeat in November 2013 have returned to eastern Congo in recent months to join Sheka’s movement, according to NDC fighters and those close to the group.
Congolese army officers have also collaborated with or provided support to Sheka’s forces in the past, including Col. Etienne Bindu, an ethnic Nyanga officer from Walikale who played a key role in the creation of Sheka’s armed group and who provided them with weapons, ammunition, and intelligence on army operations, Human Rights Watch and the UN Group of Experts found. Sheka’s fighters have also allegedly bought weapons and ammunition from other Congolese army officers, sometimes