Both government soldiers and dissident forces have carried out war crimes in Bukavu, killing and raping civilians in their battle to control the eastern Congolese city.

On May 26 dissident forces under Brigadier General Laurent Nkunda and Colonel Jules Mutebutsi started an uprising against the unified national army of the 10th Military Region in Bukavu. Government troops killed at least 15 civilians between May 26 and 28, including those from the minority Congolese ethnic group known as Banyamulenge. Dissident troops killed civilians and carried out widespread sexual violence against women and girls, some of them as young as three years of age. In an unconfirmed estimate, international humanitarian agencies report that as many as 80 people may have died in fighting in the city from May 26 to June 6.

“Once again, civilians have been targeted by all sides,” said Stephan Van Praet, advocacy director for the Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. “Commanders say they acted to protect civilians, but instead their soldiers have raped and killed.”

In the past few months, rebellious factions of former rebel groups in Ituri and the Kivus have used violence to oppose integration into the new Congolese army and to challenge the authority of the fragile transitional government in the capital Kinshasa. The Kinshasa authorities have been unable to meet the political challenges and failed to stop the violence. Local sources claimed to have identified Rwandan military working with the dissident forces, an accusation Rwanda has emphatically denied.

Human Rights Watch commended the U.N. Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) for having saved the lives of numerous civilians but is deeply concerned about its apparent failure to protect civilians by using its full powers under the Chapter VII mandate. Government troops retook Bukavu on June 9 after the retreat of dissident forces, though fears remain that civilians may again be targeted in retaliation.

General Nkunda was accused by Human Rights Watch of having committed war crimes in Kisangani in May 2002 when an attempted mutiny in the Rwandan-backed rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy-Goma (RCD-Goma, or Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie-Goma) was brutally stamped out, resulting in the deaths of some 160 people. General Nkunda was never investigated and was later proposed for a senior position in the newly unified army, an offer he refused.

“Investigations must be carried out on the serious crimes committed in Bukavu and those responsible brought to justice,” said Van Praet. “Guilty commanders must not be rewarded for their actions, a practice we have seen too frequently in the DRC.”