(Goma) – The Rwanda-backed M23 armed group has committed summary executions and forced recruitment of civilians in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Human Rights Watch said today. The Congolese army is responding to the M23’s offensive by collaborating with ethnic militias with abusive records.
The warring parties have increasingly appealed to ethnic loyalties, putting civilians in remote areas of North Kivu province at a heightened risk.
“Rwanda-backed M23 rebels in North Kivu are leaving behind a growing trail of war crimes against civilians,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Rwanda should end its military support for the M23 while Congolese government troops should prioritize protecting civilians and cease using abusive militias as proxy forces.”
Recent investigations by the United Nations Group of Experts on Congo, as well as Human Rights Watch research, provide significant photographic and other evidence that Rwanda is not only giving logistical support to the M23, but that Rwandan troops are reinforcing or fighting alongside the armed group inside Congo. The Rwandan government has denied supporting the M23 rebels.
The renewed hostilities by the M23, the Congolese army, and various other armed groups has forced more than 520,000 people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations. This has exacerbated an already catastrophic security and humanitarian situation in North Kivu and the broader eastern region. The humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières has warned of a potential health disaster as cholera spreads rapidly in camps for displaced people outside Goma, the North Kivu provincial capital.
Between October 2022 and January 2023, Human Rights Watch interviewed in person and by phone 48 survivors and witnesses of abuses as well as victims’ family members, local authorities, activists, UN staff, security personnel, members of armed groups, journalists, and foreign diplomats.
A 38-year-old woman said she was at home in Kishishe with her husband and their three children on November 29 when a group of M23 fighters kicked the door open. “They took my husband and our son by force outside, and told me ‘Stay in the house, if you come out, we will kill you!’” she said. “So I closed the door behind them. They shot them a few meters away, I could see them through a hole [in the door].” Her husband was seriously injured but survived. Their 25-year-old son died.
Human Rights Watch found that on November 29, M23 rebels summarily killed at least 22 civilians in Kishishe following fighting with factions of Mai-Mai Mazembe, Nyatura and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR). Reliable information indicates that the M23 killed at least another 10 civilians while searching for militia members. Further reports by the UN and others conclude that M23 fighters may have unlawfully killed many more people, including captured fighters.
In a December 3 statement, the M23 rejected murder allegations and said that eight civilians had been killed by “stray bullets” during the fighting.
In late 2022, while the M23 expanded control over Rutshuru territory and attempted to capture parts of neighboring Masisi territory, several armed groups organized mostly along ethnic lines deployed in and around the town of Kitchanga, in Masisi.
In May, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi said he opposed any alliance between Congolese military commanders and the armed groups. However, according to security sources, in late 2022 Congo sent two senior army officers to oversee military operations in Masisi, both of whom are former Hutu militia leaders who have retained close links to ethnic-based militias with poor rights records. This has raised fears of further retaliatory attacks and ethnic violence against civilians on both sides.
On December 16, the rebel commander Guidon Shimirai, who has been sanctioned by the UN, led his fighters from the main Nduma Defense of Congo-Renovated (Nduma Défense du Congo-Rénové, NDC-R) faction into Kitchanga following a meeting with leaders of other militias and army officers. Although Congolese authorities issued an arrest warrant for Guidon in 2019 for recruiting children, insurrection, and the crime against humanity of rape, he was filmed leading his fighters through one of Kitchanga’s main thoroughfares, walking alongside Col. Salomon Tokolonga from Congo’s national army.
Human Rights Watch recently documented Tokolonga’s involvement with a coalition of Congolese armed groups calling itself the Patriotic Coalition. Congolese officers who assist armed groups that commit abuses can be held responsible for aiding war crimes, Human Rights Watch said. Congo has an international legal obligation to investigate alleged war crimes on its territory and appropriately prosecute those responsible.
Hundreds of Tutsi civilians in Kitchanga and nearby villages, often perceived by members of other communities as supporters of the Tutsi-led M23, have fled for fear of reprisals from militias that are using increasingly hostile and threatening rhetoric against them. “The more M23 rebels attack and the more they advance, the more we’re being harassed by other communities who link us to them,” said a Tutsi community leader in Masisi territory, who for security reasons did not want his name used. On January 26, M23 rebels captured Kitchanga, prompting civilians from other communities to flee for fear of retaliation.
Rwanda has a long history of support for the M23 and its predecessor, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (Congrès national pour la défense du peuple, CNDP). Angolan-led mediation efforts by the African Union between the presidents of Congo and Rwanda have made little progress. The African Union and its member countries should make clear to Rwanda, publicly and privately, that its continued military support for the M23 could implicate Rwanda in M23 abuses as a matter of state responsibility, and that Rwandan officials could be found complicit in M23 war crimes, Human Rights Watch said.
On December 15, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Rwanda should “use its influence with M23 to encourage” them to withdraw and to “pull back” its own forces. Belgium, France, Germany, and the European Union have also urged Rwanda to stop assisting the M23. The US, the EU, France, the United Kingdom, and other countries should suspend military support to Rwanda so long as it is assisting the M23. The EU should ensure that its recent assistance to the Rwandan Defence Force mission in northern Mozambique is adequately monitored so that the EU is not contributing indirectly to abusive military operations in eastern Congo.
The armed conflict in eastern Congo is bound by international humanitarian law, notably Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which prohibits summary executions, forced labor and recruitment, and other abuses. Serious laws-of-war violations committed with criminal intent are war crimes. Individuals also may be held criminally liable for attempting to commit a war crime, as well as assisting in, facilitating, or aiding a war crime. Commanders and civilian leaders may also be prosecuted for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility when they knew or should have known about the commission of war crimes and took insufficient measures to prevent them or punish those responsible.
Congolese authorities should investigate and appropriately prosecute alleged war crimes, including ethnic violence and reprisals against the Tutsi community. Governments should maintain sanctions against senior M23 commanders and expand them to include commanders and officials across the region implicated in serious abuses.
“The Rwandan government’s support for the abusive M23 rebels is raising concerns about further ethnic violence in eastern Congo,” Fessy said. “Greater international pressure is urgently needed so that Rwanda and Congo take all steps necessary to end abuses and ensure the protection of ethnic groups under threat.”
For additional details about M23 abuses and the recent violence, please see below.
Killings in Kishishe
The village of Kishishe is in the predominantly Hutu area of Bwito chefferie (chiefdom) in north-western Rutshuru territory. Bwito is home to a headquarters, known as Kazahoro, of the largely Rwandan Hutu armed group FDLR, some of whose leaders took part in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and to their families.
Following the capture of Rutshuru-Center and Kiwanja in late October, M23 rebels advanced into Bwito in November, committing atrocities along the way.
Human Rights Watch research corroborated through interviews with family members and witnesses the names of 22 civilians the M23 summarily killed in Kishishe on November 29, including 20 men and two teenage boys. Human Rights Watch identified 10 other civilians killed that day through secondary sources.
Residents said that M23 rebels first entered Kishishe on November 23. They briefly held the village following two days of fighting against government troops, Nyatura, and FDLR factions in the vicinity. On November 23, M23 fighters killed at least seven civilians outside of Kishishe as they were returning from their fields. The fighters soon left for nearby areas controlled by the FDLR and their allies.
Several residents confirmed that on November 28, fighters from Mai-Mai Mazembe, a Nyatura faction, and the FDLR entered Kishishe. Some of the fighters were wearing civilian clothes and were primarily carrying machetes and hoes, although some had guns. “People got scared and many fled,” one villager said. “We begged them to leave for fear that the M23 would target villagers,” another resident said. “People started to flee saying [the fighters] wouldn’t be able to fight against the M23 and would have us killed [by their presence].”
Early on November 29, M23 rebels in military uniforms with bulletproof vests, carrying guns, again advanced on Kishishe and overran militiamen to capture the village. A Mai-Mai leader known as “Pondu” was killed in the fighting. “I know that other [militiamen] were also killed but I can’t say exactly how many,” the same resident said. “They exposed people because the M23 rebels accused all young boys and men of collaborating with [their enemy].” When the fighting was over, M23 fighters went door to door searching for men they suspected of being Mai-Mai or FDLR fighters.
A 45-year-old man said he was hiding under a bed when M23 rebels entered his house demanding that all men go outside. Two other villagers who had sought refuge in the house came out. “They asked if anyone else was inside, but my wife said I was away,” the man said. “They shot them both in front of the house.” The man said he then fled through the forest. He said he saw five bodies while fleeing.
A 21-year-old man said four M23 rebels took him from his house when they first came to Kishishe on November 23 and forced him to carry supplies and ammunition. When they joined with the other fighters outside of the village, he said, there were about 30 other young men who had also been forced to work as porters.
He said M23 rebels went back to Kishishe on November 29 to fight militiamen who were there. After the fighting, those who had been recruited by force were divided into three groups to bury the dead. “On the first day [November 29] we buried 18 people, including my father and my brother,” he said. “[W]e buried them both in the same hole with three other people whom I didn’t know. There were people whom I knew the faces of but not their names, and others whom I didn’t even know.”
The young man said he had seen at least three bodies of Mai-Mai fighters with knives and a machete lying next to them. On November 30, he and others buried 11 men, 4 children, and a woman who had all been shot dead behind the church. “We dug only one hole and buried them all there,” he said.
A 30-year-old woman said she and her children had sought refuge at her father’s house when they started to hear gunfire early on November 29. Her father was hosting six men and their wives who had fled the nearby fighting from the week before. Later in the morning, M23 rebels came to the house. She said:
They were many and I was very scared. They screamed orders that we open the door. I opened and they said that all men must come out of the house. They all did. Three were shot on the spot, and they left with the other three, but they also killed them just a bit further away.
While Congolese authorities claimed that nearly 300 people were killed in Kishishe, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Congo (Mission de l'Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo, MONUSCO) said its preliminary investigation found that M23 rebels had killed 131 civilians.
Other M23 Killings and Abuses
Elsewhere in Rutshuru territory, Human Rights Watch confirmed the killings of at least 13 additional civilians by the M23 in October and November.
On October 28, near Rugari, M23 rebels opened fire on a bus and two motorbikes transporting civilians who were fleeing the fighting. A 35-year-old woman said from her hospital bed that she and four of her children were on one motorbike, while her other two children were on another bike. She said her 17-year-old daughter was killed, and her 14-year-old son wounded. At least two other children, ages 5 and 7, were killed in the attack.
Four men, ages 22 to 26, said that M23 rebels forced them to carry supplies and ammunition, do chores at their military camps, and take part in fighting. They said they found themselves with dozens of other young people who had also been forcibly recruited, including some brought in from Rwanda.
“They would whip us and order us to scout for [Congolese military] positions,” a 25-year-old said. “We had no shoes. They would beat us and leave us in the rain. I was taken for two months.” He escaped at night while on the lookout for government troops.
A 26-year-old said:
After one month, they took us to Chanzu [near the borders of Rwanda and Uganda]. It must have been like a headquarters as this is where they organized the fighting and there were so many fighters: it was an impressive camp. All fighters come through there, new recruits are trained there before they are sent to the front line. A group of about 50 youth arrived from Rwanda [when I was there]; they had come through the forest. After a week of training, they were given weapons and sent to fight.
On November 21, M23 rebels went through Butare where they forced 10 men to transport goods for them while on their way to Bambo, near Kishishe. The bodies of seven of them were found together in Mburamazi, just outside Bambo, the following day. The brother of one victim said, “I went with family members of four other victims to retrieve their bodies. We buried three on the spot.” Three more bodies were found three days later, according to local groups.
On November 26, M23 rebels killed at least three civilians when they opened fire near the market of Kisharo while chasing militiamen. Human Rights Watch received credible reports that another three civilians were also killed by the M23.
In a January 27 statement sent to Human Rights Watch, the M23 spokesperson Lawrence Kanyuka rejected Human Rights Watch’s findings and denied that the M23 executed civilians or forcibly recruited men to fight. He added that “civilians may be used to transport food for the military,” but “in return for payment as agreed.”
Coalition of Militias and Collaboration with Congolese Army
The resurgence of the M23 rebel group since late 2021 led several Congolese armed groups to form a coalition to fight “the aggressor.” Most of these militias are organized along ethnic lines and some were previously rivals. As Human Rights Watch recently documented, this coalition, called the Patriotic Coalition, was formed in Pinga in May 2022, and fought the M23 either alone or alongside Congolese troops until August.
Most of these militias gradually returned to their respective strongholds in August. But following the M23 offensive in late October and its advance into the Bwito chefferie and Masisi territory in November, the coalition resurfaced. It took on a prominent role on the front line with the apparent backing of some senior Congolese army officers.
The armed groups include the Patriots’ Alliance for a Free and Sovereign Congo (Alliance des patriotes pour un Congo libre et souverain, APCLS) led by Janvier Karairi; the Nyatura’s Coalition of Movements for Change (Coalition des mouvements pour le changement, CMC/FDP) led by Dominique “Domi” Ndaruhuste; the Nduma Defense of Congo-Renovated (Nduma défense du Congo-Rénové, NDC-R) faction under Guidon Mwisa Shimirai; and the Nyatura Abazungu’s Alliance of Congolese nationalists for the defense of human rights (Alliance des nationalistes congolais pour la défense des droits humains, ANCDH/AFDP) under Jean-Marie Bonane.
These armed groups have been implicated in serious human rights abuses in their strongholds. Human Rights Watch has previously documented widespread abuses by forces under the command of Guidon, the NDC-R leader, who remains under UN sanctions.
Some of these militias, most notably Nyatura factions and the APCLS, have often fought alongside FDLR fighters.
Several security sources, including a high-ranking army officer, told Human Rights Watch that the Congolese government deployed Gen. Janvier Mayanga Wabishuba and Gen. Hassan Mugabo to oversee military operations in Masisi territory. According to a 2008 UN Group of Experts’ report, Mayanga helped organize the Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance (PARECO) in early 2007 and helped channel weapons and ammunition to the armed group.
PARECO has been implicated in raping women and girls, killing civilians who opposed their activities or whom they accused of being collaborators with their enemies, and raiding villages for cattle, goats, and other goods. Mayanga maintained contacts with PARECO as well as the FDLR while the Congolese army fought the M23’s first iteration, the CNDP, from 2006 to 2009. Mugabo was one of the founding members of PARECO and its deputy commander.
On December 10, Mayanga and Mugabo met with some of the Patriotic Coalition’s leaders at the Hotel Nyarusumba in Kitchanga. Two onlookers confirmed that a second meeting involving Congolese army officers and armed group leaders took place at the Hotel Nyarusumba on December 11. It is unclear whether Colonel Tokolonga participated in these meetings, but he appeared in a December 16 video walking in Kitchanga between Guidon and Deo Bafosse, respectively leader and chief of staff of the NDC-R.
Human Rights Watch has received credible information that more meetings took place in January, allegedly to coordinate operations against the M23 in Masisi. Three security sources, two fighters from Nyatura Abazungu, and one APCLS fighter said that although militia were fighting alone on the front line, they were at times receiving ammunition and food supplies from Congolese army officers.
“[The situation] is taking on an ethnic dimension in Bwito and Masisi: it’s getting worse,” a high-ranking military officer said. “Rwanda threw oil on the fire by arming the M23 but using these armed groups now [in response] is adding more oil [to the fire].”
Since October, Nyatura and FDLR factions have been responsible for kidnapping for ransom, sexual violence, and murders in areas under their control, according to the Kivu Security Tracker, which tracks violence in the region.
Most armed groups from the Patriotic Coalition took part in the third round of inter-Congolese talks in Nairobi, Kenya between late November and early December, and agreed to demobilize. The Congolese government’s use of these armed groups as proxy forces severely hinders national and regional efforts – so far unsuccessful – to demobilize fighters and militias responsible for abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
On February 5, 2023, Congo’s minister of communication and media, and government spokesman, Patrick Muyaya, told Human Rights Watch that “there is no collaboration between the army and the self-defense militias.” He said: “This would be counterproductive and could only exacerbate tensions and complicate the situation. However, there may be combat situations where our forces may have the same enemies as the militias’. We have to distinguish between collaboration that can be systematic and isolated events, because these are not things that are tolerated or that can be accepted.”
Abuses Against the Tutsi Community
The M23’s renewed military operations and abuses have stoked ethnic hatred against the Congolese Tutsi community, whom many Congolese in North Kivu consider supporters of the M23, a largely Tutsi-led armed group. Human Rights Watch documented several instances in which people from an ethnic Tutsi background or simply perceived as Tutsi or Rwandan faced hostility, threats and attacks by ethnic-based militia and the communities they claim to represent.
On November 28, Janvier Karairi, the leader of the APCLS, travelled to Kitchanga. Videos of his arrival show chanting crowds escorting his convoy through the town center. Among the chants heard, people repeated slogans hostile to the Tutsi community, such as “Janvier has come home, Tutsi go away!”
In the ensuing days, groups of hostile residents threatened Tutsi families and, in some cases, pelted their houses with stones. Residents also attacked cows belonging to Tutsi farmers, injuring or slaughtering some.
On November 25, a mob stoned to death a Tutsi man accused of spying for the M23 in Kitchanga. Two witnesses confirmed the presence of the Congolese military, which did not intervene. On January 1, an unidentified gunman fatally shot a Tutsi resident in Kilolirwe-Nturo in Masisi territory, just a few hundred meters from a Congolese army position and a position of a Nyatura faction. On January 4, just outside Kitchanga, APCLS fighters killed two Tutsi men, whom they accused of collaborating with the M23.
A senior military judicial source told Human Rights Watch that in the final months of 2022, government troops had arrested scores of villagers perceived to be Tutsi or Rwandan and accused them of collaborating with M23 rebels. “We fear racial profiling,” the source said. “These people are just farmers or herders.… Some are found without any ID and accused of collaborating with the M23.” Dozens remained in detention at Goma’s central prison facing charges such as unlawful “recruitment” or “infiltration.”
Congo’s government has repeatedly condemned hateful speech and violence against ethnic communities. However, most offenses targeting ethnic groups in North Kivu have not been investigated nor led to any prosecution.
President Tshisekedi’s administration should address historical discrimination, land and customary conflicts, and ensure accountability for past abuses, Human Rights Watch said.