(Goma) – The Democratic Republic of Congo authorities have not meaningfully investigated the role of security forces in the killing of at least eight people in ethnic violence outside Goma in April 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. Police commanders and officers implicated in at least three extrajudicial executions and other killings should be suspended, fully investigated, and appropriately prosecuted. On April 11 and 12, 2021, ethnic Kumu men who were later joined by local police and military police, raided the Buhene district in Congo’s eastern North Kivu province, killing at least eight ethnic Nande, leaving scores more wounded, and looting Nande-owned houses and businesses. Seven women and ten children were among the wounded.
“The authorities’ failure for over a year to investigate strong evidence of unlawful police killings in Buhene highlights the broader problem of impunity in Congo,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The families of the victims are entitled to justice, which the government seems to have no desire to provide.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 56 people over the past year in Goma and Buhene, including victims and witnesses, local activists, political and traditional leaders, police officers, members of parliament, judicial and medical sources, and journalists.
The killings took place following general strikes and protests across North Kivu, including a four-day general strike by shops and markets known as journées villes mortes (ghost town days). During this strike some people marched for peace and increased civilian protection, particularly in Beni, a predominantly Nande area that has been hit hardest by recent violence. Between April 8 and 11, security forces killed at least five people, including two children, while breaking up protests across the province, Human Rights Watch determined.
On the last evening of protests, April 11, two ethnic Kumu men were killed in Buhene, sparking ethnic tensions with Kumu community members, who immediately accused Nande residents of the killings. These killings were apparently never investigated. Several witnesses said that Kumu men began erecting barricades in the streets on the same night while shouting “tomorrow will be the end of the Nande!”
Tensions escalated overnight as uniformed police officers carrying assault rifles joined scores of Kumu men armed with wooden sticks and machetes, who attacked Nande residents, property, and businesses. The attacks continued through the morning of April 12. Provincial authorities eventually sent security forces from Goma to quell the violence.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed that at least 8 Nande were killed on April 11 and 12, while another 40 people, mostly Nande, were wounded during the attack, including more than 20 from gunshot wounds. At least 40 Nande-owned houses and businesses were burned, and dozens more were ransacked and looted.
Several witnesses said that the attackers asked residents if they were Nande. “A group of bandits and two police officers ran after me and another person,” said an 18-year-old Nande student who was shot in the leg. “When they caught up with us, they asked [the other person] if he was Nande. He said yes and [one of the policemen] shot him in the head – he died on the spot.” The student, who was in school uniform that morning, said his life was spared because he spoke Kinyarwanda, the language of the attackers.
Kumu assailants were typically scattered in small groups and joined by one or two armed police officers. Several witnesses said they recognized their neighbors and members of the local police force – also mainly Kumu – among the attackers.
Following the attacks, security forces arrested about 30 Kumu and Nande youth, and accused them of being involved in the violence. All were eventually released without charge. Although victims and witnesses identified some police officers among the assailants, none were subsequently arrested, suspended, or investigated.
On April 15, North Kivu’s provincial assembly set up a commission to investigate the violence and killings. However, it had not conducted any investigations before President Felix Tshisekedi declared martial law in the province on May 6, handing over powers to the military and suspending all provincial parliamentary work.
Between April 18 and 25, members of the national parliament took part in a commission d’information (commission of information) in Goma and Buhene to “inquire about the very tense situation.” The unpublished commission’s report, which Human Rights Watch has seen, raised “the involvement of some members of the police in the burning of houses and looting of property.” It also recommended the “prompt” establishment by the national parliament of a commission of inquiry “to uncover serious leads of complicity and other wrongdoings to be seriously sanctioned by justice.” However, parliament never followed up.
A North Kivu member of parliament told Human Rights Watch that since martial law came into force in May, the new authorities “[haven’t] shown interest in investigating” what had happened.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the Ministry of Information to present its findings but did not receive a response.
Congolese authorities outside the local police chain of command should promptly conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the causes of the violence, the role of the police, and everyone responsible for abuses, regardless of position or rank, Human Rights Watch said.
“Allegations of summary executions and other abuses by Buhene’s police force should be fully and impartially investigated,” Fessy said. “There should be no room for criminal offenders within Congo’s security forces, and martial law should be no pretext to leave victims and their families without justice.”
For detailed accounts of the events in April 2021, please see below.
Accounts from Victims, Witnesses
The Buhene district is on the northern outskirts of North Kivu’s provincial capital, Goma, and has been historically populated by Kumu people. Over the past decade, members of the Nande community have moved to and settled in Buhene, often buying land from Kumu residents and building homes and businesses. Facing growing urbanization, Buhene is struggling with communal conflicts over political and customary power, land, and identity.
On April 12, 2021, as attacks started across Buhene, attackers targeted Nande residents and their properties and businesses. A Nande woman said that a group of armed young men and four police officers stormed her house around 8 a.m.: “They entered our house, made us all sit on the floor, and took away our phones. They threatened to burn down the house if I didn’t give them money. They would soak cloths with gasoline, which they carried in a small can.”
She said they beat her with a stick and took her money and phone. They then forced open the door to her small shop, where they stole bottled drinks.
Another woman, 65, and a neighbor, who witnessed the scene, said the assailants and police officers were going door-to-door. She said she saw them take a child away. “He must have been about 12 years old,” she said. “They asked him ‘Are you Nande?’ but the child didn’t answer the question and begged for forgiveness. They placed two small pieces of wood on both sides of his neck and took him away. I don’t know what happened next.” Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm what happened to the child or corroborate the account.
A Nande teacher, 45, described seeing smoke billowing from houses on the morning of April 12. He said he and other people tried to put out a fire by the “Beleku” roundabout, but police prevented them from doing so and opened fire on them, forcing them to flee. Later that day, he was part of a group of residents, including women with young children and toddlers, trying to escape the violence when three men carrying sticks and machetes, and an armed police officer, assaulted them. The men were bare-chested and wearing shorts. The policeman was in his uniform and had a gun.
“A young boy arrived from the other side,” the teachers said. “He was running.… They kicked him in the legs, he fell, and they beat him with clubs with nails. The police officer who was with them didn’t do anything: he just sat there and watched them beating this boy.”
The teacher said more attackers joined, causing people to scatter in various directions. But the attackers caught him and he fell to the ground:
There was blood on my head. I saw two young men and a policeman. They hit me with sticks full of nails. I was on my knees, asking them what I had done and to forgive me but they wouldn’t listen to me. I tried to block their blows with my arms so they got injured from the nails, and my head was also struck. Then, the one who had a machete started to hit me as well. [The police officer] sat on a rock and watched.
The teacher said they also asked him whether he was Nande or Kumu. “I didn’t even have the strength to answer them, I was so weak,” he said. “They asked for my identity card … they found it in my jacket’s inside pocket. When they saw my name, they shouted: ‘He is a Nande!’ and hit me until I lost consciousness.” He was later taken to hospital.
A number of members of the local police and military police participated in the attacks or encouraged the violence. Some of them actively took part in serious crimes and human rights abuse.
“It was unimaginable to see police officers not doing anything when [the attackers] were setting houses on fire,” a resident said. “These soldiers and policemen are supposed to ensure our security but instead they support those who commit crimes.”
On the evening of April 11, tensions escalated and Kumu residents apparently made their intentions to attack Nande people known. Groups of men on motorbikes armed with machetes, clubs with nails, and other weapons traveled to Buhene from surrounding areas. Several interviewees alleged that security forces manning two known checkpoints on a stretch of road leading to Buhene let them through, raising further concerns that attackers may have been given free rein to loot and kill.
A local police officer told Human Rights Watch that many officers stationed in Buhene had a poor training record and that some used to be members of local armed groups. He believed that the majority of police officers posted in Buhene were ethnic Kumu.
On April 12, after the military and elite Republican Guards quelled the violence, North Kivu authorities held a meeting with security officials, members of the provincial parliament, and other officials. “We asked the police to explain why people were killed, and how the looting and burning happened when they were there to protect them,” a provincial member of parliament said. “We asked them how such bandits went through checkpoints instead of being arrested. They told us that they were overwhelmed.”
The lawmaker added that police commanders were “lecture[d]” since “they [had] done nothing to protect people.” However, the government took no disciplinary action and did not investigate the role of the police in the attacks and abuses. No one has been brought to justice, he said.
The then-provincial governor, Carly Nzanzu, on April 12 visited the scene of the violence in Buhene with a large number of security forces. Residents said that those deployed with Nzanzu assisted the wounded and helped transport dead bodies away.
As martial law came into force in North Kivu in early May, President Felix Tshisekedi appointed the police commander in charge at the time of the attacks, Col, Jean-Marie Malosa Mboma, as deputy territory administrator.