In December 2004 soldiers of the Congolese national army, (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, FARDC), attacked and killed at least one hundred civilians and raped scores of women and girls during fighting in North Kivu, a province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In some cases ethnic Hutu civilians, armed by local authorities, joined the soldiers in committing these crimes.
The fighting pitted FARDC forces still loyal to the Congolese Rally for Democracy - Goma (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie-Goma, RCD-Goma), against other units of the same army who were opposed to RCD-Goma. Soldiers on both sides of this split deliberately attacked, executed and raped civilians in various incidents throughout the province.
At least two hundred thousand local residents fled the fighting, many seeking refuge in forests where they had no access to food, clean water, or medical help. The armed conflict between the two different factions of the same army illustrated the failure of the Congolese government to integrate the forces of previously belligerent parties at war since 1998. The creation of a single national army was part of the Pretoria agreement of 2002 that led to the establishment of the transitional government in June 2003.
The fighting in North Kivu was linked to political struggles in Kinshasa, the capital, where leaders of the former government and rebel groups jostled to position themselves ahead of national elections planned in 2006. But the fighting also reflected local ethnic tensions. Coming after two other periods of sharp ethnic hostility in June and August, the incidents in late 2004 with their further loss of life and the new involvement of armed civilians raised ethnic fears and antagonisms to greater heights.
Eugene Serufuli, the governor of North Kivu and an important RCD-Goma leader, ordered the movement of troops on some occasions during these incidents, and would have been in a position to prevent some human rights abuses committed by them. He subsequently established two commissions to investigate some of the abuses committed but neither he nor RCD-Goma military officers insisted that senior commanders implicated in war crimes during the operations be brought to justice. Some thirty soldiers from the group opposed to RCD-Goma, were tried, found guilty and some were sentenced to death for some of these crimes. They have appealed the judgment.
Rwanda, central to the formation of and of continuing importance to RCD-Goma, threatened to invade Congo in November 2004 to disarm Rwandan rebels said to pose a risk to its security. In response to these threats and continuing resistance to national control by RCD-Goma, the transitional government sent 10,000 troops east, sparking fears that widespread armed conflict could resume. By mid-December, these forces or their local allies had militarily engaged soldiers loyal to RCD-Goma in at least five places in North Kivu.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Congo (known by its French acronym MONUC) has a mandate to protect civilians under imminent risk of physical violence. However, it responded too slowly to save lives or, in some cases, did not respond at all to attacks against civilians. Later the human rights section of MONUC investigated many of the abuses and publicly concluded that soldiers linked to RCD-Goma had killed at least ninety civilians at Nyabyondo and Buramba and that soldiers of this and other factions integrated into the FARDC had raped more than a hundred women in the area of Kanyabayonga.
In the face of the Rwandan threats, important donor nations, grouped in the International Committee to Accompany the Transition (known by its French acronym CIAT, for Comité International dAccompagnement de la Transition), reaffirmed the integrity of Congolese territory. Two donors, the United Kingdom and Sweden, suspended aid payments to the Rwandan government to signal their concern. MONUC also denounced Rwandan threats to the transitional process. However, donor governments and international organizations remained largely silent, at least in public, about the responsibility of officials within the transitional government for the deteriorating situation in North Kivu. Nor did they say much about the crimes against the civilian population and the need to prosecute those who perpetrated them.