In late December 2018, Father Nestor Longota, a Catholic priest, returned to Bongende, his home village in northwest Democratic Republic of Congo. “What I saw was unimaginable,” he said last week. “There were putrefied bodies, some were mutilated, others had been burned in houses, and houses were destroyed.”
A few days earlier, on December 16, hundreds of ethnic Batende – armed with hunting rifles, automatic weapons, knives, and machetes – stormed the nearby town of Yumbi and killed at least 170 people, mostly ethnic Banunu. The day after, they attacked the villages of Nkolo II and then Bongende. A total of 535 people were killed, and 111 others injured. Father Longota lost at least 30 members of his extended family. He is still awaiting justice.
The secret burial of a Banunu customary chief on a private land claimed by the Batende ostensibly triggered the massacres, but government and United Nations reports indicated the attacks were planned and organized by local leaders. The attackers damaged, destroyed, and looted more than 1,500 houses, as well as health centers, schools, and polling places. About a third of the 16,000 people who fled to neighboring Republic of Congo have since returned to their villages. They have complained they have received very little assistance to rebuild their lives.
Two years after the massacres, investigations are ongoing. A judicial source told Human Rights Watch that the exhumation of graves is supposed to take place before any trial. In the meantime, credible information suggests at least three suspected assailants, who were among the dozens arrested and held in Kinshasa, the capital, have been released for reasons that remain unclear.
The trauma left by the Yumbi massacres is still palpable for its survivors and the families of the victims. It has upturned their lives and made them fearful of the future. The Congolese authorities, who have failed to provide psychological support, should now ensure those who orchestrated and carried out the massacres are fairly prosecuted.
“I feel that our government has abandoned us to our fate,” Father Longota said as the two-year anniversary approached. “A new massacre could take place if there is no justice.”