More than 100 people have been killed and thousands displaced in ethnically motivated massacres in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since mid-May, according to government officials.
Bigembe Turikonkinko, the sector chief of Katoyi in North Kivu's Masisi territory, has recorded the details of 120 people, primarily women and children, who were killed in 12 village massacres carried out between 17 and 22 May in Katoyi and its environs.
The police commissioner in Katoyi, Capt Lofimbo Raheli, says the attacks were carried out by a coalition of two Mai-Mai groups: the Raia Mutomboki, until this year only operational in South Kivu, and the Mai-Mai Kifuafua. According to Raheli, this Mai-Mai alliance is believed to be operating as a collective of smaller groups targeting speakers of Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda.
Mai-Mai Kifuafua was founded by ethnic Tembos in the early 1990s to fight Rwandan pro-Hutu militia group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and claims to have supported the Congolese army, FARDC, in operations against FDLR for years. Raia Mutomboki, meaning "angry citizens", was loosely formed in South Kivu less than five years ago but revived and took up arms against the FDLR in 2011 when government forces left empty positions in Shabunda, South Kivu.
Fighting between the Raia Mutomboki and FDLR ensued, with at least 50 reported killed, according to DRC analyst and blogger Jason Stearns. The attacks spread northwest and, in alliance with Mai-Mai Kifuafua, Raia Mutomboki moved into Masisi and Walikale - also in North Kivu Province - where they carried out the first reported attacks in May this year. Since then some 1,500 families have fled to Katoyi, according to village officials, where their newly constructed bamboo huts dot the steep green hillsides.
Experts are concerned that these latest attacks suggest the Raia Mutomboki has moved from targeting the families of FDLR fighters to directing attacks against any Rwandaphone communities in eastern DRC.
Patrick Borama, 26, describes without emotion the attacks that killed his mother, pregnant sister and two nephews, along with 20 other fellow residents in Marembo village on 14 and 15 May. "Before the attacks we heard rumours of the Raia Mutomboki. On the [first] day of the attack, we saw it was people speaking Swahili wearing clothes made from raffia, nearly naked," he said.
Borama could not say how many men there were, but other witnesses report groups of 10-40. Borama said they attacked with machetes, spears and axes, as well as some Kalashnikovs; he said they shouted out their intention to kill anyone who speaks Kinyarwanda.
|The situation is the worst it's been for several years. Progress made is being lost as previously stable areas are becoming increasingly insecure|
The attackers killed Borama's mother by stabbing her in the chest; they killed his sister with a bullet in the back of her neck as she fled, and his nephews with machetes, their intestines left spilling out. He spent a week hiding in the forest, only returning when the sound of gunshots stopped; he buried 10 corpses, already rotting, including those of his mother, sister and nephews.
"The situation is the worst it's been for several years. Progress made is being lost as previously stable areas are becoming increasingly insecure," said Samuel Dixon, policy adviser for the NGO Oxfam.
FARDC has maintained a fragile stability in the region since 2009, but in April, a string of defections led by indicted war-criminal Gen Bosco Ntaganda, left power vacuums that have been filled by militia. The army is now overstretched in dealing with these new threats as well as the mutiny playing out close to the Ugandan border.
Thousands of Congolese refugees have been streaming across the border to Rwanda and Uganda as a result of fighting between FARDC and mutineers.
Overlooking the village of Remeka in Masisi, FARDC has deployed a battalion in response to pleas from locals to secure their safety. The thousands of displaced persons in Remeka, many living with host-families, fled retaliatory attacks by the FDLR that security experts say left hundreds dead. MONUSCO has deployed a platoon of 36 Uruguayan peacekeepers at a temporary base on a hilltop overlooking Katoyi, from where they carry out daily patrols.
On the afternoon of 2 June, police commissioner Raheli arrived at the peacekeeper's base with news of another massacre. He said Raia Mutomboki had attacked at the village of Kahunda - a few kilometres from Katoyi - at 1pm that afternoon. The next day, sector chief Turikonkinko confirmed that Raia Mutomboki were now closer to the village than ever before. "Our security has been breached," he said. According to Raheli, nine people were left dead in Kahunda.
Turikonkinko says he has received a communiqué from Raia Mutomboki that details their intention to kill all remaining Kinyarwanda speakers in the area.
On the morning of 3 June, many of the temporary bamboo houses inhabited by displaced people stood empty. Camp officials said it was because people had heard of the 2 June attacks and fled once more, fearing the Raia Mutomboki would move on Katoyi; by 4 June those who fled had returned, but the atmosphere remains tense.
Need for lasting solutions
MONUSCO has operational procedures in place should the village of Katoyi come under attack. Four heavy machine guns will take hilltop positions surrounding the wire-fenced base; the troops will be outside, with civilians held in the enclosed area little bigger than a football pitch.
Bernard Harerimana, director of the primary school in Katoyi, seems weary of the 120 displaced persons living in his school but is nonetheless concerned for their welfare; he says he fears the roofs leak at night, leaving many shivering cold and wet. Harerimana says they began arriving in mid-May. By day, they vacate the classrooms, but by night he allows them to sleep under blackboards and among the desks. His pupils have nowhere to sit, he says, as the displaced are using the benches for firewood, and the school is becoming unclean with human waste.
Oxfam’s Dixon says the Congolese government and UN do have plans to stabilize eastern Congo, but that the current wave of insecurity shows they are not working; he called for a serious political commitment to a long-term solution involving local, regional and international actors, and including real progress on army reform.
"Without a lasting solution to eastern Congo's problems, crises such as this will continue to plague DRC and ordinary people will continue to face the everyday risk of violence such as massacre, rape, extortion, forced labour and looting. It is unacceptable that violence in Congo goes unstopped and under-reported. While world leaders rightly condemn Syrian massacres, the human tragedies happening in Congo are hidden at best, ignored at worst," he said.
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises. Become a member of The New Humanitarian today.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions