Photo Gallery: Congo's Decade of Violence

Foto: Brennan Linsley/ AP

Hell on Earth The UN Documents Congo's Bloodbath

Women and girls were raped. Men slaughtered. Refugees killed with machetes and sticks. A new UN report describes an orgy of violence in Congo between 1993 and 2003, meticulously documenting how law and humanity were abandoned. It also accuses Rwanda of atrocities in Congo -- something that has not gone down well in Kigali.

The report is over 500 pages long. It is one of the most comprehensive investigations into war crimes in the history of the United Nations. Even though it has not even been released yet, it has caused serious diplomatic tensions in New York, Congo and Rwanda.

Two dozen UN inspectors meticulously examined the mass murders in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 1993 and 2003. They assessed reports, viewed film documents and interviewed thousands of witnesses. They collated everything that was considered significant. The draft report has already been leaked and it is a documentation of horror.

The investigators describe how for years Rwanda-backed rebel groups hunted, tortured and massacred Hutu refugees in Congo, or Zaire as it was then known. Schools, hospitals, refugee camps, children, women, the aged -- nothing and no one was safe from the murderous gangs on both sides. By no means were the pursuers from Rwanda the only ones to perpetrate crimes. The report describes the massive country as corrupt and rotten, a place where human rights, justice and humanitarian values had lost any worth decades ago.

Ethnic Conflicts Across Congo

The decline of the country began long before the First Congo War of 1996 to 1998 and the overthrow and exile of the former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. At the end of 1991 the Congolese from the copper-rich province of Katanga in the south of the country had started to persecute, displace and murder people who had migrated from the Kasai region. The conflict was fuelled by Mobutu, who felt threatened by many opposition politicians from Kasai.

Traders from Kasai were denied access to the markets in Katanga, their property was stolen, and they themselves were persecuted. In late autumn of 1992, around half of the residents of the town of Likasi in Katanga were forced out, around 60,000 people in total. Kasai migrants were also chased out of the mining town of Kolwezi, with the aid of the local police and officials.

The same occurred in other provinces, sometimes at the instigation of the provincial governors. The conflicts between different ethnic groups led to the deaths of over a thousand people in Katanga alone, something that barely registered in Europe and the US. The conflicts soon spread to the capital Kinshasa, where Mobutu was trying with all his might to hold on to power. Migrants from Kasai were the main victims, but political opponents also had to fear for their lives.

Meanwhile, in the mid 1990s in the resource-rich east of the country, agitation began against Tutsi immigrants from Rwanda and Burundi. In the North Kivu province, Banyamasisi-Tutsis had already been the victims of forced displacement. Now pressure was growing on the Banyamulenge-Tutsis in South Kivu. This pressure increased because two years previously millions of refugees from Rwanda, primarily Hutus, had fled into eastern Congo. They were a mixture of soldiers and civilians, murderers and children, and all had left Rwanda out of fear that the victorious Tutsis and their military leader Paul Kagame  would wreak their revenge following the genocide of 1994 when 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu extremists over just 100 days.

Systematic Murders

Many reorganized themselves in the refugee camps dotted along the border and they then began tracking down Tutsis who had been settling in Congo for decades. By the end of September 1996, the systematic murders of Banyamulenge-Tutsis began. The UN report describes this in minute detail:

  • On Sept. 29, 1996 in Lueba, 78 kilometers south of Ivira, units of the Bembe ethnic group killed 152 Banyamulenge civilians, including many women and children, with the help of the regular Zairean army. Some of the victims were killed with machetes, other were burned in their homes. There was mass rape of women and girls.
  • It seems that at this time North Kivu was a hell on earth. Hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing their homes. Tutsi militias and Rwandan soldiers stormed refugee camps along the main road between Goma and Rutshuru. Men were bound and shot, women were raped, children battered to death.
  • On the night of Sept. 29 into the early morning of Sept. 30, Bembe units killed almost 100 Banyamulenge civilians near the village of Mboko. The victims were survivors of the Lueba massacre that had taken place just hours earlier. The militias said they would bring them back into Rwanda. However, while the women and children were allowed to leave the country, the men were bound and thrown into Lake Tanganyika.
  • On Oct. 21 a Banyamulenge man was killed in Uvira and his head was carried on a stick through the town. The perpetrators hung his testicles on a string and wore them around their necks.
  • The chief of staff of the Zairean army accused the Banyamulenge on Oct. 11, 1996 of working with Rwanda to wage war against Zaire. The announcement amounted to an official declaration of open season on the Tutsis. Then the Tutsis and Banyamulenges, backed by Rwandan soldiers, began to push into Congo, fighting back with no less gruesome methods. They set up roadblocks and filtered out Rwandan and Burundian Hutus from the flood of refugees. Hundreds of Hutus were killed then and there, thousands more were selected and told they would be sent back to Rwanda before being killed nearby.
  • On Nov. 22, 1996 hundreds of refugees were herded together in the refugee camp in Chimanga, 71 kilometers west of Bukavu. A cow was slaughtered, ostensibly to give them strength for the long march back to Rwanda. As the Hutus began to register, the guards posted around the camp opened fire on them, killing between 500 and 800 refugees.

  • On the Ulindi bridge not far from the town of Shabunda, Tutsis murdered 500 refugees on Feb. 5, 1997. The local people had to remove the bodies and traces of the slaughter from the bridge.

The report soberly describes more than 600 similar incidents and for every case there are witnesses and proof. The investigators did not rely on rumors.

The report states that people were "executed in their hundreds, often with edged weapons." It states that "the majority of the victims were children, women, elderly people and the sick ... who posed no threat to the attacking forces." The report goes on to say that the "systematic and widespread attacks have a number of damning elements which, if they were proven before a competent court, could be classified as crimes of genocide."

Yet it was not just Tutsis who put aside all standards of humanity in their war of revenge against the Hutus in Congo. The Congolese did not treat each other much better. The report provides ample evidence of that.

When clashes between the Hema and Lendu people escalated in the Ituri province in February 2003, the Hemas invited a Lendu delegation to talks in the village of Sangi. The Lendu group, which included a number of women, had barely arrived when the Hemas attacked them with machetes, knives and clubs. Some were bound and killed in the village church. Only two Lendu survived the slaughter. The conflicts between these two ethnic groups are also painstakingly documented in the UN report.

Rwanda Threatens to Withdraw From UN Missions

The official version of the report is to be released in a few days, but already in Rwanda in particular, the first reports in the media have caused great disquiet. The Kagame government has expressly denied that it took part in any crimes that could be equated with genocide in Congo. Over the past few months the government has even tried to prevent the publication of the report, or at least to mitigate it somewhat.

Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in which she threatened to end Rwanda's involvement with the UN, and in particular said it would withdraw Rwandan peacekeeping troops from UN missions, for example in the Sudanese crisis region of Darfur. And the government spokesman in Kigali says that it would be "immoral and unacceptable" for the UN, "an organization that failed outright to prevent the genocide in Rwanda" to now accuse "the army that stopped that genocide of committing atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo."

And yet Rwanda and its history are inextricably linked with the decades of bloodshed in Congo. That was made apparent once again at the beginning of August. Members of the FDLR, the Rwandan Hutu militia, raped at least 179 women not far from Walikale in Congo. The victims said that they had each been raped between two and six times. The terrible violence went on for several days.

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