(Goma) – Congolese authorities have not arrested a rebel commander wanted for multiple crimes under a June 2019 warrant even as his forces have continued to carry out summary killings, rapes and sexual slavery, extortion, and forced recruitment of children.
Congolese judicial authorities on June 7, 2019 issued the warrant for the militia leader, Guidon Shimiray Mwissa (known as Guidon), for participating in an insurrection, recruiting child soldiers, and committing the crime against humanity of rape in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The authorities also have not provided survivors of sexual violence adequate assistance. Congolese authorities should enforce the arrest warrant and bring to justice Congolese army officers found to have assisted him.
“A 2019 arrest warrant has not stopped Guidon from committing horrific abuses against civilians in areas he controls,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “His backers within the Congolese army should be investigated and prosecuted for using an abusive group as a proxy force.”
Guidon commands a faction of the Nduma Defense of Congo-Rénové (NDC-R), which until it split in July 2020, controlled more territory than any other armed group in eastern Congo. It was effectively in administrative control of much of Walikale, Lubero, Masisi, and Rutshuru territories in North Kivu – an area roughly the size of neighboring Rwanda. Human Rights Watch has not been able to identify any attempt by Congolese authorities or United Nations peacekeepers to arrest Guidon. Instead, there is evidence that elements of the Congolese army have been collaborating with the NDC-R. However, since the group split into two factions in July, Congolese troops have carried out military operations against Guidon’s forces and say they are seeking to arrest him.
Between January 2016 and September 2020, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 100 people, including victims and witnesses of attacks in all four territories, former child soldiers, Congolese security sources, UN staff, and local activists. Human Rights Watch also analyzed and authenticated a trove of footage filmed by local residents with undisclosed cameras showing abuses by NDC-R fighters and evidence of collaboration between the Congolese army and the NDC-R. Given the large scale of the abuses and the remoteness of the areas where the NDC-R has been operating, this research covers only a fraction of the abuses committed.
Since 2014, NDC-R forces have killed dozens of men, women, and children in those four territories, many of them hacked to death with machetes or shot. During attacks, fighters looted and burned houses, and tortured men and women with knives and machetes, said witnesses and victims, including former child soldiers.
In January, NDC-R fighters detained about 12 people at a banana plantation in Rutshuru territory. “[The fighters] made us sit together and started to cut us with machetes,” a 17-year-old boy said. At least two men were killed.
NDC-R fighters have also committed widespread sexual violence against women and girls, including rapes and sexual slavery. Women and girls described being raped, in some instances while being beaten, stabbed with knives, or tied up. Some survivors said they were raped repeatedly, in some instances by several fighters.
Human Rights Watch documented 15 cases of rape, of 11 women and 4 girls, and heard reliable accounts of scores of other cases. A 14-year-old girl from Masisi territory described being raped by an NDC-R fighter while returning from the fields in early 2020: “He took me and pushed me on the ground. He said, ‘If you refuse, I will shoot you in the stomach.’”
NDC-R fighters have also forcibly recruited scores of young men and boys and imposed forced labor and illegal “taxes” on people living in areas under their control. People who did not comply or failed to pay were kidnapped, severely beaten, and ill-treated while detained in underground pits at NDC-R bases. Since the arrest warrant was issued, the Kivu Security Tracker – a joint project by Human Rights Watch and the New York University-based Congo Research Group – found that NDC-R forces killed about a hundred civilians.
Guidon, 40, is an ethnic Nyanga and former government soldier from Walikale territory who defected in 2007 to become a rebel fighter. Shortly thereafter, he joined the Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC) under Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka. In 2014, Guidon broke away from Sheka and established the NDC-R. Sheka surrendered to the authorities in 2017 and was charged with mass rape, murder, pillaging, recruiting child soldiers, and torture. His trial took place before a military court in Goma, which has yet to deliver its verdict. Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious abuses by Sheka’s forces.
In January 2018, the UN Security Council added Guidon to the UN sanctions list, freezing his assets and imposing a worldwide travel ban. Reports by the UN Group of Experts and the Congo Research Group, along with videos obtained by Human Rights Watch, have shown that Congolese army units have continued to support and collaborate with the NDC-R, from planning military operations to providing the group with arms and ammunition.
A Congolese army spokesman in North Kivu told Human Rights Watch by phone in October that government troops were “actively seeking to arrest Guidon.” “We want to get him alive so we can hand him over to face justice,” said Maj. Guillaume Njike Kaiko. “We have seen no evidence but if army officers were found to have collaborated with the [NDC-R] group, they will be handed over to the competent authorities because that would be against the army’s mission.”
The Congolese government should step up efforts to arrest Guidon and end his capacity to commit abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Congo’s international partners should publicly and privately urge the administration of President Felix Tshisekedi to act.
Under article 190 of Congo’s constitution, supporting non-state armed groups amounts to high treason. In February 2013, 11 African countries signed the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Region in Addis Ababa, in which they agreed not to tolerate or provide support to armed groups. Congolese authorities should investigate the sources of support to the abusive NDC-R forces – whatever the faction – and act to stop it. Military commanders implicated should be suspended and appropriately disciplined or prosecuted.
“Congolese commanders have helped Guidon’s rebels control vast swathes of territory despite killing civilians, raping women and girls, and causing massive displacement,” Fessy said. “The Congolese authorities not only need to shut down Guidon, but also all those military officers who have kept him from justice.”
Abuses by Guidon’s Forces since 2018
Since the NDC-R was established in 2014, its leaders have promised to provide the Nyanga people greater access to land and mineral resources, to fight the armed group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR) and to improve their representation in public office and the army. With several thousand members, the NDC-R set up governance structures and a sophisticated system of illegal taxation, mainly on households and mining activities. Guidon’s NDC-R rapidly became a key partner for Congolese army units operating in the area.
Human Rights Watch documented widespread abuses by the NDC-R against civilians in parts of Masisi territory as well as in and around the town of Katsiru, in Rutshuru territory. The Kivu Security Tracker reported that the group killed more than 130 civilians, including children, since 2018.
On July 8, 2020, the NDC-R split in two, when deputy commanders broke away from Guidon. Both factions have since been fighting for control, forcing thousands of people out of their homes.
Killings near Katsiru
In December 2019, the NDC-R took control of Katsiru, a town with an estimated 33,000 people in western Rutshuru territory. In Katsiru, Guidon’s troops imposed taxes and forced labor, looted houses, and stole harvests from fields.
Following clashes with a rival armed group in early 2020, Guidon’s forces accused civilians of collaborating with the enemy, and on January 21 and 22 went on a rampage, killing at least 15 women, men, and children in nearby Kabweja, Mukaka, and Kinyamugezi.
On January 22, NDC-R fighters killed two loggers in Bulanda village. A man who managed to escape told Human Rights Watch: “[My friend] was on a log. I heard gunshots and saw him fall.” He recognized the attackers as NDC-R by their clothing and said that a second person was killed nearby. On the same day, NDC-R fighters ordered Katsiru residents to bury those the fighters had killed earlier. Witnesses said that some corpses were mutilated, with genitals and other organs cut off.
Killings in Masisi
Guidon’s troops also committed widespread abuses against civilians in Masisi territory, as the NDC-R expanded its reach in late 2018. In early January 2019, NDC-R fighters killed at least 15 civilians in the area of Shibu, near Ronga. A woman said she heard gunshots as she was walking back from the fields carrying her child on her back. On arriving home, she saw her 8 and 12-year-old boys lying dead in the yard. She tried to flee but she and her child were both struck by a bullet. That day, she said, the NDC-R killed nine other people in a single house: a mother who had given birth three days earlier, a nanny, and seven children. “The three-day-old baby died because he was abandoned,” she said. Four other men were also killed in the area that day.
In April 2019 in Ronga, the NDC-R detained a couple and their year-old baby because they had not paid the unofficial monthly tax. The man paid a fine for his release, but he was not able to pay more to free his wife and child. “A few days later, we heard that some detainees had been killed while trying to flee overnight,” he said. “I found my wife and child dead. She had been shot in the back and died with the baby strapped to her back.” The bodies of three other women who were held for the same reason were also found the same day, April 9. NDC-R fighters also fatally shot two shepherds in nearby Rugarambiro. Two witnesses said both bodies’ genitals had been cut off and taken away.
Human Rights Watch documented that NDC-R fighters killed seven more people, including two women, in July 2019, in two separate incidents. Witnesses said genitals also had been removed from most male corpses.
The NDC-R committed further abuses near Miandja, Bapfuna groupement, from August 2018 onwards after they pushed the Nyatura militia, mostly ethnic Hutu, out of the village. A man from this area prepared a list documenting the killings of 21 civilians by the NDC-R in Bapfuna and Bashali-Kaembe groupements between August 2018 and August 2019.
Sexual Violence in Masisi and Rutshuru
Human Rights Watch interviewed rape survivors and heard credible reports of dozens of other cases of sexual violence in the Katsiru area.
In January 2020, NDC-R fighters captured four women peeling bananas in a plantation and raped them. One woman who was seriously injured died on her way to Mweso hospital, near Katsiru, said one survivor.
In February, another rape survivor said: “Not one day goes by without a woman who has been raped going to the health center.... [The NDC-R fighters] tell us that the Nyatura [another armed group] are our children. ‘We must rape you,’ they say.”
Human Rights Watch also interviewed seven women and three girls from Masisi raped by NDC-R fighters. An 18-year-old woman said that Guidon’s troops stopped her on her way to Bibwe market in September 2019, accusing her of not paying the monthly tax. They stole her money and beat her severely. She said they put her in a small house where a fighter raped her at least twice. She was released after her mother gave them a goat.
In January 2020, a 14-year-old girl, displaced to Mpati, was walking on the road with two girlfriends when three NDC-R fighters stopped and raped them in the nearby bush. “When we resisted, they told us, ‘We’re going to kill you,’ so we couldn’t do anything,” she said. The three girls were taken to an NDC-R position but managed to escape overnight during an attack from the Nyatura.
Human Rights Watch also heard credible reports of girls being held as sex slaves for several days or weeks in the NDC-R camps. An activist described this situation in Katsiru in February:
When [NDC-R fighters] meet pretty underage girls, they forcibly take them to their camps.… They use them as wives for a while, then chase them away. They have to go home. It’s like taking turns; they take other pretty girls afterwards. That’s what happens. They are kept for several days before being chased away. The families of these girls don’t know how to protest – if they did, they could be killed.
A 45-year-old woman said NDC-R fighters abducted her 14-year-old daughter along with four other girls in March 2019. They were in a camp in Mpati where they had been displaced. She said the fighters took them to their position and several men repeatedly raped them. Her daughter was only able to escape two months later.
The woman said that in July 2019, four NDC-R fighters came to their house and forced her to lead them to her daughter, who had gone into hiding. They took them to their position, where they beat them and detained them in an underground pit – common in NDC-R positions – with their hands and feet tied. NDC-R fighters repeatedly raped both of them. The mother was released nine days later, and the daughter was freed eventually, following ransom payments. Fearing further retaliation, the daughter fled Mpati.
In June, the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo found that armed combatants, especially those from NDC-R and the Collectif des mouvements pour le changement/Forces de défense du people (CMC/FDP), a coalition of Nyatura militias, had “committed widespread conflict-related sexual violence amidst recurrent fighting in Masisi and Rutshuru territories from January 2019 to February 2020.... Those acts included rape, gang rape, some instances of sexual slavery and forced marriage” that “may amount to torture, may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
The Group of Experts further noted that, “Some NDC-R and CMC/FDP commanders committed those acts, and commanders of both armed groups, who had effective control, failed to take the necessary measures to punish subordinates responsible for those acts, despite awareness thereof or owing to willful ignorance.”
Illegal ‘Taxation;’ Forced Labor
The NDC-R set up a sophisticated illegal tax system in areas under their control. Adults were forced to pay about 1,000 Congolese francs (US$0.60) per month for a security tax known as lala salama (“sleep in peace” in Swahili). Guidon’s group at times also imposed additional taxes on the population. Those unable to pay were often detained, beaten, raped, and forced to pay large sums in cash or in-kind to be released.
The NDC-R often forced adults and children to take part in “community labor,” or salongo in Swahili. Several people from Masisi said that men and boys were forced to work one or two days a week. This included heavy work, such as digging trenches or constructing shelters at NDC-R positions, building and cleaning roads, or clearing land.
Those who failed to comply with the salongo were beaten and forced to pay “fines.” For the work, the NDC-R gave them jetons, tokens which certified their attendance.
A teacher from Masisi territory said: “We keep the jetons jealously. If I lose it and they [NDC-R] stop me on the way, they can kill me. Even the students have to do this work.”
Congolese Army Support
The NDC-R rapidly benefited from the support of Congolese military officers who used the group as a proxy force in their fight against other militias. Several sources told Human Rights Watch that Guidon’s troops had consistently received material and operational support from the 3307th, 3410th, and 3411th regiments of Congo’s armed forces since at least early 2018. These regiments were all involved in operations dubbed “Sukola 2” (“clean-up” in Lingala) against FDLR rebels. Support was also channeled through the 34th Military Region in Goma.
The NDC-R actively took part in military operations against FDLR rebels and its offshoots throughout 2019, according to several sources, confirming its prominent role as a proxy force for the Congolese army. This collaboration appeared to be closely managed by certain networks within the Congolese military in exchange for access to resources where the NDC-R operated and controlled much of the business and trade of gold and minerals around mining sites.
Senior Congolese army officers have provided NDC-R troops with material support such as arms and ammunition. At least five sources said that Gen. Innocent Gahizi, former deputy commander in North Kivu, was among them.
At least four sources said that Col. Yves Kijenga, the former commander of the 3411th regiment in Kitchanga, met senior NDC-R commanders to arrange the delivery of military equipment several times and managed day-to-day operations with the group. At least two other sources also confirmed the involvement of Col. Claude Rusimbi, a commander from the same regiment.
Rusimbi denied the allegations when Human Rights Watch contacted him by phone in October. He said he had “not participated in any meetings” with the NDC-R and that he was “not aware of any army support” to the group. Human Rights Watch attempted but was not able to reach Gahizi and Kijenga.
In the town of Katsiru, for instance, residents said that the collaboration between government troops and the NDC-R was well known. “We see them together – they even drink beer together,” one resident said in February. “The Ndime Ndime [NDC-R] ‘arrest’ people, but soldiers don’t intervene.”
Two sources described a meeting they attended in Katsiru on December 23, 2019, with local authorities and an army commander in town – from the 3307th regiment in Nyanzale – who had asked the NDC-R to come to the city. “We were all there one morning and [an army commander] rang ‘General’ Guidon from his phone,” one of the two witnesses said. “[The army commander] told him, ‘Guidon, can you send troops to guard the town of Katsiru?’ At 2 p.m. that same day, [NDC-R] fighters were already there.” The same witness said that Guidon himself stayed overnight in town. He left the day after but came back to Katsiru about two weeks later.
Guidon’s forces held several positions near Katsiru with an estimated 200 fighters – some of whom were recruited locally – residents said. Only 17 government soldiers and 7 police officers were stationed in town.
Videos obtained by Human Rights Watch provide further evidence of this collaboration. In one of them, filmed in Masisi territory in 2019, an NDC-R fighter said:
We have no problems [with the Congolese army]. Yesterday, we came into Masisi town and we were with them. We work together and the collaboration is going very well. We also spent the night together.... When we need ammunition, it’s not really a problem. All we need is to make a phone call and an army convoy comes over. We aren’t rebels.
In another video, an NDC-R fighter said: “At the end of the day, we wanted to be integrated [into the army]… Our training is like that; we are the government’s children. Whenever we cross paths with government troops, we have a conversation.”
An NDC-R commander seen in a different sequence went even further: “When [Mapenzi Likuhe, Guidon’s then-deputy] arrives in Goma, he first goes to the [34th] military region’s headquarters. There, they assign police officers to guard his house.” Other sources confirmed the occasional presence of Mapenzi in Goma for meetings with army officers.
From late 2018, Guidon’s NDC-R increasingly became an asset for Congolese army units conducting operations against other armed groups. NDC-R fighters were often sent to the front line and they successively pushed fighters from the Conseil national pour le renouveau et la démocratie (CNRD) – a splinter group from the Rwandan FDLR – and their dependents out of Masisi from December 2018 through to January 2019, as well as the CMC.
In another video, an NDC-R fighter described the division of roles in combat. “We split in two groups. We would be out in the front and they [the Congolese army] would be out back,” he said. Or we would cover one side and they would cover the other, and we would regroup in a set location.”
In a video shot in 2019 in Masisi territory, two officers from the Congolese army’s 3410th regiment are seen discussing their collaboration with the NDC-R. “Our cohabitation has been very peaceful,” one said. The other, who is being called “commander,” said that the NDC-R fighters “can even sleep over at our position if they want … they really are tied to us, they are our children. They came to join in the operations against the FDLR.” He added, “Why would you call someone who is hanging out with us a ‘rebel’?”
Human Rights Watch also received reports alleging collaboration between Rwandan security forces and Guidon’s NDC-R. Such information should be investigated.