A special investigative mission to Yumbi territory in Mai-Ndombe province, in the west of the Democratic Republic of Congo, found that horrific intercommunal attacks carried out between 16 and 18 December 2018 at four locations were planned and executed with the support of customary chiefs and may amount to crimes against humanity.
The UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC initiated an investigation following reports that as many as 890 people had been killed and thousands displaced as a result of clashes between the Banunu and Batende communities.
The investigation team was able to verify that at least 535 men, women and children were killed and 111 others injured in Yumbi town, Bongende village and Nkolo II village. In addition, almost 1,000 buildings, mostly houses as well as some churches, schools and health centres were destroyed or looted. The investigative team was unable to reach a fourth location, Camp Nbanzi, where attacks were also reported. The number of casualties is likely to be higher, as the bodies of some who died are believed to have been thrown into the Congo River. It was also not possible to confirm the number of persons still missing as an estimated 19,000 people were displaced by the violence, 16,000 of whom crossed the Congo River into the Republic of the Congo.
The investigation found that the attacks, which were triggered by a dispute over the burial of a Banunu customary chief, followed strikingly similar patterns and were characterized by extreme violence and speed, leaving little time for people to escape. They were led by Batende villagers equipped with firearms, including hunting rifles, machetes, bows and arrows, and gasoline, and targeted Banunu villagers. People were attacked in the streets, in their homes and as they tried to flee.
The report details horrors documented such as a two-year-old reportedly thrown into a septic tank, and a woman reportedly brutally raped after her three-year-old child was decapitated and her husband killed. In some cases, witnesses report that victims were asked if they were Banunu, before they were killed. Many were killed as they tried to cross the Congo River. Others were burnt alive in their homes, and some survivors had serious burn injuries. In some cases, the attackers mutilated the bodies of their victims, cutting off heads, limbs and genitals.
"The similarity in the way the attacks were carried out indicated prior consultation and organization," the report states. "Certain chiefs of Batende-majority villages were cited by many sources as having taken part in the planning of the attacks."
The investigation concluded that the crimes documented in Yumbi may amount to the crimes against humanity of murder, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as persecution.
The report stresses that the violence was facilitated by the absence of State action to prevent it, noting that "provincial authorities appear to have failed in their responsibility to protect the population." In spite of clear signs of rising tensions and an increased risk of violence, no steps were taken to reinforce security ahead of the attacks.
The report warns of the risk of renewed violence.
"Tensions and resentment between the two communities, combined with rumours of reprisals, could give rise to new waves of violence at any time," the report states "which could also flare up in other territories of Mai-Ndombe or Equateur."
The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in the DRC, Leila Zerrougui, called for urgent measures to restore the authority of the State in Yumbi territory, and to create conditions for the safe and voluntary return of those displaced.
"The neutral presence of State institutions, including the police, is important to maintain law and order and to prevent the risk of further violence," Zerrougui said. This is particularly important in the run-up to national and provincial legislative elections, which were delayed due to the violence and are now due to take place in Yumbi territory on 31 March.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stressed the importance of justice and accountability to establish the facts and hold those responsible accountable. She offered the support of the Office to ongoing judicial investigations into the violence.
"It is crucial to ensure that the perpetrators of these terrible crimes are punished and that the many women, children and men who were victims of this terrifying violence receive justice and support," Bachelet said. "I also urge the Government to initiate a process of truth and reconciliation between the Banunu and Batende communities, which will be essential in addressing feelings of intercommunal conflict and preventing further violence."