Human Rights Watch demands justice for 500 people killed in DRC ethnic attacks

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Updated: March 7, 2021

Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo have not brought to justice those responsible for the massacres of ethnic Banunu in Yumbi territory one year ago, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

On December 16 and 17, 2018, hundreds of ethnic Batende assailants killed at least 535 people and wounded 111 more, though the actual death toll is most likely much higher. The assailants also damaged, destroyed, and pillaged more than 1,500 houses as well as health centers, schools, and polling places, according to witnesses, the United Nations, and the Congolese government.

“The Congolese government needs to do much more to hold accountable those responsible for the Yumbi massacres last year,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Prosecuting the people who planned these attacks will provide justice for victims and their families and help prevent future atrocities in this volatile region.”

Congolese military justice officials have begun preliminary proceedings, but they are closed to the public and the status of the investigations is uncertain.

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Human Rights Watch said it investigated the massacres in Yumbi territory in the country’s northwest and in Makotimpoko sub-prefecture, Congo-Brazzaville, in February, and interviewed over 100 people, including survivors, witnesses, police, military personnel, and government officials. It added that the UN joint human rights office in Congo also documented the attacks in March, as did Congo’s National Commission on Human Rights and a Human Rights Ministry commission in May, and the UN secretary general-appointed Group of Experts on Congo in June.

The ostensible cause of the violence was the secret burial of a Banunu customary chief on private land claimed by the Batende on the night of December 14, said Batende leaders and a UN report. The region has long experienced rivalries between the two groups over customary land rights.

Hundreds of Batende villagers, including demobilized and retired soldiers, attacked the town of Yumbi on December 16 and Nkolo II and Bongende villages, further south, on December 17.

Many attackers were bare-chested, adorned with banana leaf skirts, ash on their faces, and other attire considered to have magical properties. Some were armed with hunting rifles or automatic weapons, while others carried machetes, knives, fishing spears, axes, bows and arrows, and clubs.

The UN Group of Experts reported that the assailants targeted their victims based on their ethnicity or perceived ties to Banunu, while sparing others. The attackers sometimes mutilated and disfigured their victims, including women and children, and took body parts with them. Attackers used gasoline to torch homes and other structures, looting and carting away victims’ belongings.

A 40-year-old teacher who lost 22 members of his extended family told Human Rights Watch that many people “fled toward the riverbed…. Many were wounded by machete. Others had already been killed, their arms cut off. Pregnant women were cut open and had their genitals cut out. It was terrible. Lots of small children were wounded and killed by machete.”

About 16,000 people from the Yumbi area fled to the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), about 15 kilometers across the Congo River. A year later, about half had returned to Congo. Another 20,000 were displaced internally.

The UN Group of Experts, the UN joint human rights office, and the government in two reports concluded that local Batende leaders planned and organized the attacks. In addition, two confidential reports that Human Rights Watch reviewed, one from the government and one from the military, also found that local leaders assisted in the planning and execution of the attacks. One local Batende chief has since been arrested. Other evidence of planning included barriers along the main road from Yumbi that the assailants erected at least five days before the attacks to prevent people and supplies from entering Banunu neighborhoods.

Congo’s military justice officials began investigating the Yumbi killings shortly after the massacres and arrested scores of suspected assailants over the next few months. The principal suspects were transferred to Kinshasa, Congo’s capital. About 50 suspected assailants remain in pretrial detention, but no trials have taken place.

“It’s a huge disappointment,” said a Banunu resident of Bongende who lost 30 family members. “One year after these massacres, we still have not seen a trial and many of our attackers are moving freely around Yumbi territory.”

Judicial authorities should conduct their investigations transparently, impartially, and promptly, and the military prosecutor should make its preliminary report public, Human Rights Watch said. 

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