At least 739 civilians killed in two conflict-ridden provinces of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Attacks on civilians by armed groups have continued in two conflict-ridden provinces of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since the government imposed martial law in May 2021, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

Various armed groups, some unidentified, have killed at least 672 civilians, while Congolese security forces have killed 67 civilians, in Ituri and North Kivu provinces between the start of martial law on May 6 and September 10, according to data collected by the Kivu Security Tracker, a joint project of Human Rights Watch and the Congo Research Group.

A massacre in August, one of several mass killings that month, highlights ongoing insecurity in the region and the inadequate military response. On August 2, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist armed group led by Ugandans, allegedly killed at least 16 civilians, including 2 women, in the village of Idohu, Ituri province. A dozen Congolese army soldiers were in the village, and more were stationed in a military camp nearby, but they did not prevent the attack. Other armed groups and some elements of Congo’s national army have also been implicated in attacks in the area.

“The Congolese government may recognize the need for greater security in Ituri and North Kivu provinces, but imposing martial law hasn’t accomplished that,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Despite the government’s efforts to spin its actions as military successes, many people across eastern Congo still live in constant fear of the next massacre.”

President Félix Tshisekedi has asserted that military control would restore security in the region, but the numbers of civilians killed in attacks have largely remained unchanged. Despite the high civilian deaths, the government spokesman, Patrick Muyaya, while visiting Ituri province on August 21, said the results of martial law to date were “very encouraging.” On August 26, Muyaya told Human Rights Watch that martial law was “shock therapy” that was not intended to be permanent. “We are convinced that the solution cannot be military only, but it must start with the military part,” he said.

Human Rights Watch in August spoke to seven people by telephone who witnessed the Idohu attack, as well as local Congolese activists, national assembly members, security and diplomatic personnel, and United Nations staff, along with the government spokesperson.

Since the declaration of martial law, Kivu Security Tracker data shows no indication that Congolese forces have increased military operations to improve civilian protection in areas most at risk.

“We got information that these enemies [armed groups] were on their way, but [government soldiers] didn’t go after them,” an activist based in Idohu told Human Rights Watch. “In Idohu, there were troops, but they fled back to their camp, which is about a kilometer away. We don’t understand how they operate.”

The ADF’s leader pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2019, but the extent of links between the two armed groups remains unclear. The ADF has intensified attacks against civilians as well as government forces in Beni territory, North Kivu, with at least 18 incidents recorded and 90 civilians killed in July alone.

On August 27, suspected ADF fighters killed at least 19 civilians and abducted several others in Kalunguta, Beni territory, according to the UN. The media reported that suspected ADF fighters on September 1 killed at least four people in an ambush on a large civilian convoy escorted by Congolese soldiers and UN peacekeepers near Komanda, Ituri. Two days later, the ADF allegedly hacked to death 30 civilians in the village of Makutano in Ituri.

Joint military operations involving the Congolese army and UN peacekeepers began in August in Beni territory. The peacekeepers, deployed under the UN stabilization mission in Congo (MONUSCO), provide air and logistical support, intelligence and surveillance capacity, and the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), a combat unit.

Credible reports allege that Congolese troops have recently been using ethnic Banyabwisha from North Kivu, including recent defectors from the ADF, as proxy forces to fight the ADF in Ituri’s Tchabi area. Congolese authorities should urgently investigate the use of proxy forces and demobilize any former ADF fighters, Human Rights Watch said.

The citizens’ movement Struggle for Change (Lutte pour le changement, or LUCHA) on August 12 called on the authorities to end martial law in Ituri and North Kivu provinces. The group said that despite promises from President Tshisekedi, attacks against civilians had not declined, and that the authorities have used martial law to drastically narrow basic freedoms of expression and association.

The government also claimed that martial law was intended to eliminate corrupt military networks. Following an investigation led by the inspector general of the army, Gen. Gabriel Amisi, also known as “Tango Four,” military officials said they arrested several officers allegedly involved in misappropriating funds, embezzlement, and maintaining fake payrolls of non-existent soldiers. The government should ensure that those arrested are fairly prosecuted, and extend investigations to senior military officers who are under international sanctions, implicated in serious abuses or suspected of profiting fromillegal activity, including Amisi, Human Rights Watch said.

Congolese authorities with MONUSCO assistance should adopt measures to re-establish trust with civilian populations, including by reinforcing early warning networks and consulting with communities and civic groups about protection needs. Authorities should take all steps possible to protect civilians, including by promptly responding to those who bravely inform them of armed group activity and movements. Congolese army units deployed in operations should be carefully vetted to identify and suspend soldiers and officers implicated in abuses or collaborating with armed groups.

“President Tshisekedi should refocus attention on civilian protection and tighter military oversight in eastern Congo to spare long-suffering communities from further atrocities,” Fessy said.

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