December 5, 2022

Human Rights Watch accuses DR Congo of failing to investigate massacre of indigenous Iyeke people in Bianga district

US President Joe Biden (L) and DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi joke during a group photo at the G20 of World Leaders Summit. POOL/AFP via Getty Images
US President Joe Biden (L) and DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi joke during a group photo at the G20 of World Leaders Summit. POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday accused authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo of failing to fully investigate the killing of at least 66 Indigenous Iyeke people in the Bianga district of Monkoto territory in February 2021.

Congo’s National Assembly voted during 2021 for a law that would for the first time protect and promote Indigenous peoples’ rights, but the bill remains stalled in the Senate.

A house burned and destroyed by Nkundo assailants during the February 2021 attack on the Indigenous village of Sambwakoy, Tshuapa province, Democratic Republic of Congo, October 2021. © 2021 Thomas Fessy/Human Rights Watch

From February 1 to 3, 2021, hundreds of ethnic Nkundo assailants killed several dozen Iyeke villagers, including at least 40 children, 22 men, and 4 women, and wounded many more in eight villages. The assailants also burned down more than 1,000 houses as well as schools, churches, and health centers, according to survivors, witnesses, civil society groups, and provincial officials. The authorities initially opened an inquiry but did no field investigation. A year on and no one has been charged for the killings, which have gone largely unreported in the media. Two people were tried and acquitted on lesser charges and the case closed.

“The silence surrounding the horrific killings of Iyeke villagers and lack of accountability highlight the longtime discrimination against Indigenous people in Congo,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Congolese authorities should acknowledge the failure to prosecute anyone for murder, and fully investigate and fairly prosecute all those responsible for these massacres.”

The Human Rights Watch findings are based on an October 2021 research trip to the western Monkoto territory. Human Rights Watch interviewed 44 people, including Iyeke survivors and witnesses to the attacks, Nkundo villagers, judicial officers, civil society activists, members of parliament, provincial officials, and military personnel.

Indigenous Iyeke people – part of the larger Batwa Indigenous group – and ethnic Nkundo live in separate but neighboring villages dotted along a 100-kilometer stretch forming the remote Bianga district on the edge of the Salonga National Park, Africa’s largest tropical rainforest reserve, in Tshuapa province. Longstanding tensions between the two groups revolve around access to land and bonded labor.

On January 31, 2021, a scuffle broke out in the Indigenous village of Manga between an Nkundo coffee trader and an Iyeke villager over a debt, and the trader reportedly vowed revenge. The next day, scores of Nkundo villagers stormed Manga, looting and burning down dozens of houses, resulting in the deaths of two toddlers.

Several witnesses said many attackers’ faces were painted in charcoal, and that they wore red headbands and black-string bracelets around their wrists as protective amulets. Some were armed with hunting rifles locally known as “Calibre 12” or “Baikal,” while others carried machetes, knives, and spears.

A 66-year-old man described the loss of his 3-month-old granddaughter. “My daughter had twin babies,” he said. “She suddenly realized [that one] was missing while we were running away but we couldn’t go back because they were shooting.” He said that three days later, when they briefly came out of the forest to check on the situation, they found the baby girl’s charred body.

On February 2 and 3, armed Nkundo men simultaneously attacked seven other Iyeke villages, looting and burning houses, churches, health centers, and schools. Witnesses and official sources said at least one automatic weapon was used during the attacks. Some of the wounded later died in the forest.

A 55-year-old woman from Sambwakoy village said she and her husband were returning from the fields when he was killed. “He fell to the ground right outside our house,” she said. “He was struck by bullets in the face and in the chest.”  

When the attacks began, many young children including toddlers found themselves on their own, as their parents were working in the fields. The assailants did not spare them. Out of the 40 children killed, 33 were under age 10, according to lists compiled by Monkoto territory officials.

The attacks caused more than 8,000 Iyeke to flee into the forest, where most remained for at least six months. Provincial authorities and members of the national parliament distributed cash assistance following the attacks, including some payments for loss of life. The assistance provided was inadequate to redress the losses suffered, Human Rights Watch said.

The massacres occurred during escalating tensions between the Nkundo and Iyeke communities following the unresolved killing of an Iyeke laborer on December 29, 2020, near the village of Bondjindo. His body was found mutilated in an Nkundo-owned agricultural field. Iyeke villagers reportedly suspected the landowner’s family and looted and burned their home in retaliation.

Human Rights Watch reviewed a March 2021 parliamentary report that noted that local authorities “didn’t show any concerns for the deteriorating security situation in Bianga district … as if nothing was happening.”

The government response to the Bianga massacres has been wholly inadequate, Human Rights Watch said. On February 16, the Congolese military deployed seven national army soldiers to secure this vast district with no transport or means of communication.

On April 23, the authorities arrested seven men in connection with the killings, five of whom were eventually released. Three judicial officers said that the police commander of Bianga district was suspected of involvement in the attacks but his whereabouts remain unknown. In late December, a court in Boende acquitted both Nkundo defendants in a hasty trial in which no Indigenous survivors of the massacre were present.

Several officials have alleged that provincial politicians attempted to stall or close the inquiry, preventing the criminal investigation from moving forward to protect those responsible.

A 52-year-old Iyeke father of six hosting four people displaced by the massacre said that “peace will not return until those who attacked us are disarmed and arrested. We fear that they will exterminate us – next time it will be worse.”

Congolese authorities have an obligation to fully and fairly investigate the Bianga killings and bring those responsible to justice, Human Rights Watch said. To ensure that the investigators have adequate resources, the government should request technical support, including logistical and forensic assistance, from the United Nations Joint Office for Human Rights. The government should reinforce security in the area with well-trained police. It should provide, with international assistance, necessary health care and mental health support to survivors. The government should also work with humanitarian agencies to repair and rebuild homes, schools, and health centers.

Congolese lawmakers should adopt measures to recognize and protect Indigenous peoples’ rights in line with international standards, Human Rights Watch said.

“One year since the massacres, Iyeke families live in fear of the assailants who roam free,” Fessy said. “The government needs to prosecute those responsible for these horrific crimes, but also pass legislation to ensure that Indigenous people are no longer effectively second-class citizens

Read Also

Are you sure want to unlock this post?
Unlock left : 0
Are you sure want to cancel subscription?