At 3 a.m. on December 18, 2013, about 20 police officers stormed the home of 24-year-old Gauthier (a pseudonym) and forced him into their pickup truck. This was the last time his mother saw him. Gauthier was among dozens of young men and boys suspected to be “kuluna,” or gang members, who fell victim to a months-long, brutal police campaign in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa.
“No one has ever told me where my son is,” Gauthier's mother told Human Rights Watch by phone last week. “It hurts so much when my grandson, who is now 10-years-old, asks me where his father is.” During the operation, which started on November 15, 2013, police killed at least 51 young men and boys. Thirty-three others, like Gauthier, were arrested and never heard from again. Two years later, Congolese authorities, under then-President Joseph Kabila’s administration, admitted to some cases of police misconduct. But seven years on, those most responsible for the abuses have not been investigated nor prosecuted, and families of those killed or forcibly disappeared are still awaiting answers and justice.
Dubbed “Operation Likofi,” or “iron fist,” the campaign aimed to rid Kinshasa of violent youths who had been a growing source of insecurity in the city since at least 2006. Often carrying machetes or broken bottles, these loosely organized gangs had been used by political leaders for protection or intimidation of their opponents. Far from achieving its goal, Operation Likofi helped spread terror and fear throughout Kinshasa. Four subsequent operations – Likofi II, Plus, III and IV – were conducted in ensuing years. During the most recent campaign in 2018, police killed at least 27 suspects and another 7 were never found. There was no investigation nor prosecution for these abuses either.
Under President Felix Tshisekedi’s administration, police have this year rounded up hundreds of suspected kulunas amid renewed insecurity in the capital. About a hundred of them have been sent without charge or trial to a paramilitary education center in the southern province of Haut-Lomami. The rest remain in detention in Kinshasa awaiting charge.
Congolese authorities should ensure that any new police operation is respectful of rights and work to finally deliver justice to the families of victims from past deadly police campaigns.