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Kisangani in the Congo War

In the catastrophic war pitting the Congolese government, supported by Angola and Zimbabwe, against rebel movements backed at various times by Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, control of the city of Kisangani (estimated population 600,000) has been bitterly contested by various parties.2 Strategically located at the junction of the Congo, Tshopo, and Lindi rivers and at the crossroads between eastern and western Congo, site of the strategic airports of Simi-Simi and Bangboka, and home to a flourishing diamond market, Kisangani has seemed a prize worth fighting for.

Uganda and Rwanda, once allied in opposition to the Congo government of Laurent Kabila, first clashed over the city in August 1999, leaving 200 civilians dead. They fought again in May 2000 and then in June 2002, when the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) finally managed to evict the Ugandan People's Defence Forces (UPDF) from Kisangani. That round of fighting left some 1,200 Congolese civilians dead and many more wounded, in addition to totally or partially destroying 4,000 houses and other facilities essential for the well-being of the population.3 Soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) withdrew, leaving the city in the hands of their local proxy, the RCD.

Many Kisangani residents, like other Congolese, identify Rwandans as invaders and are hostile to other Congolese who cooperate with them, politically or militarily. Civil society activists have criticized the Rwandan presence in Congo and have sometimes criticized RCD authorities for allying with Rwandans in general or for particular actions. A significant number of Rwandans or Congolese of Rwandan origin do business in Kisangani. Local residents often link this commerce to the illegitimate exploitation of Congolese resources by foreigners, an activity amply documented by U.N.-appointed experts. Because many Congolese of Rwandan origin, particularly those who are Tutsi, have cooperated with Rwandans, other Congolese sometimes view them as part of a single group (this was apparently true for the mutineers). In cases where persons interviewed for this report referred to "Rwandans," we have kept that term in direct quotations. But otherwise we use the more general term "Kinyarwanda-speaker" or persons of Rwandan origin if their actual nationality is unknown.

In April 2002 representatives of the Congolese government, the various rebel groups, and civil society met for the dialogue provided for in the 1999 Lusaka Peace Accords. The Congolese government and representatives of the rebel group supported by Uganda4 - the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) - and the breakaway RCD-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML, also known as RCD-Kisangani) reached an agreement to share power, but the RCD (RCD-Goma), along with some opposition political parties, refused to sign. In late April, the dissidents formed the Alliance for the Safeguard of the Inter-Congolese Dialogue (ASD), which is chaired by the veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, and decided to install its headquarters in Kisangani. Tshisekedi toured eastern Congo and visited Kigali (the Rwandan capital). The RCD refusal to sign the agreement provided yet another reason for popular discontent among the great number of Congolese who wanted the war to end.

In January 2002 an RCD soldier named Patrick Masunzu began a revolt among the Banyamulenge, a Congolese group of Rwandan origin. RCD troops failed in early efforts to defeat him, as did strong reinforcements of RPA troops sent to crush the rebellion in February and March. By demonstrating the RCD weakness, this revolt-which continues at the present writing-may have encouraged the Kisangani mutineers to hope for similar success.

During a May 1 visit to the city, a mission of the U.N. Security Council demanded that the RCD demilitarize Kisangani "immediately and without conditions."5 Mutineers may have read this demand as an indication of U.N. support for their own desire to rid the city of Rwandan influence. If so, this may help to explain why they appealed to MONUC to support their uprising, as noted below.

Rwandan Responsibility

Rwanda claims that it has troops in Congo to contain the threat of attack from remnants of the former Rwandan army and militia groups who participated in the 1994 genocide against Rwandan Tutsi. But it uses those troops to facilitate its own economic exploitation of the area and to ensure the de facto control of its local ally, the RCD, over eastern Congo.

The Rwandan army repeatedly denied any involvement in the May events in Kisangani, and said it has had no troops in the city since June 2001.6 But, as a former RCD official suggested to Human Rights Watch researchers, the RPA did not need formal units on the spot to control events. They could achieve the same end by placing their own men in positions of command within the RCD structures.7 A Congolese commander of RCD forces told Human Rights Watch researchers in 1998 that it was his Rwandan deputy, not he, who had final say in making decisions. Attempting to deal with this argument, Moise Nyarugabo, acting secretary general of the RCD, noted that in Congolese communities, "Nilotics"-a common reference in Congo to Congolese of Rwandan extraction-are often mistaken for Rwandans. He reportedly claimed that RCD seventh brigade commander Laurent Nkunda and others identified by Kisangani residents as "Rwandan" were in fact Congolese of Rwandan extraction.8

Substantial numbers of Congolese of Rwandan origin have lived in Rwanda and have family members living there still. Many of them have served in the RPA as well as in RCD forces. Others, including Nkunda and RCD fifth brigade commander Bernard Biamungu, have taken training courses in Rwanda while serving as members of RCD forces; indeed, these two were en route back to their command posts from such a training program when the mutiny began. Many soldiers serving in Congo, whether in RCD or RPA forces, use only their first names or adopt a nom de guerre, a practice which serves to further obscure their genealogies and places of origin. For all these reasons, it is often difficult-if not impossible-to establish the nationality of any given soldier. In fact, the soldier himself may feel simultaneously citizen of both Rwanda and Congo.

It may prove impossible to establish that soldiers who committed abuses in Kisangani were Rwandan nationals, but as the de facto occupying power in the region, Rwanda bears responsibility for ensuring the safety of civilians in areas under its control.9

Applicable Legal Standards

In northeastern Congo an international armed conflict intersects with several internal conflicts. The conduct of combatants in both international and internal conflicts is regulated by several international conventions.

The DRC became a party to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949 in 1961 (as the Republic of Congo) and Protocol I of June 8, 1977 additional to the Geneva Conventions and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts in 1982 (as the Republic of Zaire). Rwanda became a party to the Geneva Conventions in 1964, as well as Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions and Protocol II relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts in 1984.10 The DRC has not acceded to Protocol II.

Combat between two factions of the RCD, as well as between it and the Congolese government, qualified as an internal armed conflict with international dimensions, insofar as one group benefited from the support of the Rwandan army. All the parties to the internal conflict, whether insurgents or government, are obliged to uphold the standards set forth in Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions which prohibits attacks on civilians, including violence to life and person, cruel treatment and torture, taking of hostages, outrages upon personal dignity, and the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court.11 Common Article 3 also provides: "Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of the armed forces who had laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause shall be in all circumstances treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria." The RCD violated all these regulations during its crackdown in Kisangani.

Since theirs is an international conflict, Rwanda and the Congo government are obliged to abide by the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949 and Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions.

The crimes documented in this report-deliberate killings of civilians, summary executions of detained persons, rape, and pillage-are also violations of customary international law. As such, they are outlawed at all times, in both internal and international conflicts, regardless of whether the parties responsible for these crimes have acceded to specific international humanitarian law treaties such as the Geneva Conventions.

2 The war has caused an estimated two million deaths through combat, malnutrition, and disease. All parties have engaged in violations of the laws of war, killing, raping, and otherwise injuring civilians. See Human Rights Watch short reports on the DRC: Casualties of War: Civilians, Rule of Law, and Democratic Freedoms, vol. 11, no. 01(A), February 1999; Eastern Congo Ravaged: Killing Civilians and Silencing Protest, vol. 12, no. 3 (A), May 2000; Uganda in Eastern DRC: Fueling Political And Ethnic Strife, vol. 13, no. 2(A), March 2001; Reluctant Recruits: Children and Adults Forcibly Recruited for Military Service in North Kivu, vol. 13, no 3(A), May 2001. See also Human Rights Watch, The War Within the War: Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls in Eastern Congo, June 2002.

3 For a detailed assessment of the damage, see U.N. Security Council, "Report of the inter-agency assessment mission to Kisangani," S/2000/1153, December 5, 2000.

4 The signing of the agreement leaves the status of Uganda unclear; it continues de facto control over a large part of northeastern Congo.

5 U.N. Security Council, "Report of the Security Council Mission to the Great Lakes Region, 27 April - 7 May 2002," S/2002/537, May 13, 2002.

6 "Rwandan-Backed Rebels in DR Congo Want U.N. Envoy Pulled Out," Agence France Presse, May 27, 2002.

7 Human Rights Watch interview, Kisangani, June 2002.

8 "Ngongi précise sa mission face à la situation de Kisangani," news article posted at: News/French/21_Mai_2002.htm, dated May 21, 2002 (accessed on July 20, 2002).

9 See: "A Briefing Paper for the "Arria Formula" Meeting on the Situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo," April 25, 2002, available at: In Resolution 1304 (2000) on the Situation Concerning Democratic Republic of the Congo," S/RES/1304(2000), June 16, 2000, the Security Council recognized that Rwanda had violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Congo and demanded that it withdraw its forces without delay.

10 The corresponding years for Uganda and Burundi are 1964 and 1991, and 1971 and 1993 respectively.

11 Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949.

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