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.
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.
Human Rights Watch 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. 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. The government should request technical support, including forensic assistance, from the experts mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to support such investigations. The military prosecutor should transfer appropriate cases to the civilian courts, keeping in line with the UN Human Rights Committee, the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has stated that civilians should be tried by military courts only under exceptional circumstances and only under conditions that genuinely afford full due process.
After the attacks, UN peacekeepers maintained a small presence in the territory, but withdrew in March. The Congolese government should reinforce the military presence in Yumbi with well-trained police to develop a long-term strategy to enhance security in the area. The government, with international assistance, should provide necessary health care and psychosocial support to survivors. They should reconstruct schools and health centers and seek foreign assistance for humanitarian agencies to rebuild and repair homes, with a view to facilitating the safe and voluntary return of those displaced.
"One year on, the families of more than 500 victims are desperate for justice," Mudge said. "The government should abide by its obligations to the dead and wounded and their families, and fully investigate and prosecute those who planned and carried out the Yumbi massacres."
Controversy Over Banunu Chief's Burial Site
Yumbi is one of eight territories in the Mai-Ndombe province in western Congo. The ethnic community of Batende is the majority in 33 of Yumbi's 38 towns and villages, mostly situated in the interior, where their livelihoods depend largely on subsistence farming. The ethnic Banunu live mostly along the Congo River, where they primarily engage in fishing. The Banunu are the majority in the territorial capital of Yumbi, located along the river, as well as in neighboring Nkolo II and Bongende.
While Mai-Ndombe has been largely peaceful in recent decades, longstanding grievances between the Batende and Banunu concerning changing administrative demarcations and customary and political leadership have occasionally sparked violent confrontations.
The tensions in Yumbi territory stem in part from a 1943 decision by the Belgian colonial administration that gave some of the land previously controlled by Batende customary leaders to the Banunu. The fight over land is often a top issue during elections in rural areas, with constituencies largely voting for members of their own ethnic group, whom they believe will protect their interests and access to land. In the Yumbi region, elections have been flashpoints for violence. Clashes broke out during both the 2006 and 2011 elections.
Several Banunu told Human Rights Watch that tensions between the two communities mounted prior to elections scheduled for December 30, 2018.
On December 2, the leader of Yumbi's Banunu community, Fedor Mantoma, died in Kinshasa. A controversy broke out between members of the Banunu and the Batende communities about Mantoma's place of burial, with the Banunu contending that he should be buried on private property in town - on what some Batende claimed was their land - while Batende insisted he should be buried in the town cemetery. This appears to have exacerbated tensions, according to the UN, the National Human Rights Commission, and civil society leaders in Yumbi. Some Batende warned of attacks if the burial took place in the private plot.
Banunu leaders in the town of Yumbi and Bongende called on the population, including Batende, to respect rituals as they grieved the chief's death. Mantoma was secretly buried in a family plot in Yumbi town during the night of December 14. Batende politicians in Kinshasa told Human Rights Watch that the burial provoked local Batende to initiate deadly attacks on Banunu the next day.
Attacks in Yumbi Territory, December 16 and 17
Batende assailants attacked Yumbi and the villages of Bongende and Nkolo II on December 16 and 17. The worst killings and destruction were in Bongende. Some Banunu tried to defend their villages but were neither prepared nor equipped to repel hundreds of assailants armed with firearms and crude weapons.
The UN joint human rights office reported that assailants killed at least 528 people during the 3 attacks and an additional 7 people during an attack at a logging company workers camp called Camp Nbanzi. Two navy sailors in Nkolo II and one navy sailor in Bongende were also killed. The actual toll is most likely much higher, given that some people were burned beyond recognition in their homes and others were thrown in the Congo River or drowned while trying to flee. Following the massacres, assailants and residents of nearby villages looted Banunu homes.
At about 2 p.m. on December 16, several hundred Batende villagers, including some 16 and 17-year-old boys, together with demobilized soldiers and army deserters, attacked Yumbi with Kalashnikov assault rifles, hunting rifles, knives, and machetes. They entered the town, which is majority Banunu, from the south, killed and injured Banunu and some members of other ethnic groups, and looted and burned their homes. At least 170 people, largely Banunu, were killed over the course of 1 to 2 hours, according to the UN joint human rights office. Two Congolese security officials told Human Rights Watch that local security forces in Yumbi - a few dozen mostly unarmed police and several navy sailors - were completely outnumbered.
A Yumbi resident said that he found four members of his family dead in their home in Bolu neighborhood:
I was walking in Yumbi when I heard that the Batende had attacked the city. I decided to go home to protect my family members. When I entered the house where they had all taken refuge, it was already late. I found my father already dead. His head had been split; it was horrible to see. My dead stepmother was right next to him, as well as my wife and my 5-year-old son, all dead. They were cut and hit in the head. I also found my older sister with a broken arm and some others alive. I took them to the hospital, where they were treated.
The next day, December 17, some Banunu retaliated against Batende, burning dozens of their homes, as well as the office of the electoral commission. Banunu assailants also killed the territorial administrator, Paul Nsami, an ethnic Muboma. Some Banunu suspected Nsami of having facilitated the killings by calling on the population to stay home before the attacks started.
On the night of December 16 and into the early morning of December 17, Batende assailants attacked Nkolo II, a village of 8,000 people about 15 kilometers south of Yumbi. Like Yumbi, Nkolo II is majority Banunu, with a minority of Batende. Much of the population had fled in anticipation of the attack, especially after the Banunu customary chief urged people to evacuate the village on December 16. The assailants killed 10 people, 5 of whom were older and unable to flee, as well as 2 navy sailors, according to a witness and reports. The Ministry of Human Rights commission reported that the assailants also burned at least 235 houses. Four schools, one health center, and six churches were damaged or destroyed, according to the UN joint human rights office.
Bongende village, with a population of about 2,500, is 27 kilometers south of Yumbi. Assailants from nearby Batende villages attacked the town on December 17 and killed at least 348 people, including many women and children, and wounded many others, according to the UN joint human rights office. One navy sailor was also killed. The Congolese government recorded 805 destroyed homes.
The assailants broadly consisted of three groups. One was men with apparent military training - some survivors identified them as demobilized or deserted soldiers - including some who wore camouflage clothing and carried military-style weapons. A second group included Batende villagers, many of whom wore banana leaves and covered their faces in ashes, who carried machetes and knives and used gasoline to burn homes. A third group arrived after the killings and looted homes. The attackers spoke Kitende, the language of the Batende, or Lingala, the national language spoken in this region.
Some assailants attacked Bongende from the river on wooden boats while others encircled the village in an apparent attempt to block escape routes and kill as many people as possible. Many people were killed in their houses after attackers set the buildings on fire with gasoline, and at times locked people inside.
A 31-year-old mother of 2 who was 7 months pregnant at the time said:
Around 7 or 8 a.m., when I went to the market, I heard an exchange of gunfire. I was told: "The Batende are attacking us!" Then I saw them with my own eyes. They had banana leaves around their waists, red bands around their heads, and black markings on their faces.
Many people could not flee by boat because assailants had untied their moorings the previous night. The boats that remained were full of water from the heavy rain that night, which complicated a swift escape. A 27-year-old mother of three who fled to a small islet said: "Many people swam. All the river was full of people. The assailants hacked people en masse at the river. Parents lost their children."
Assailants pillaged Bongende following the attack. "Batende came on foot, with bicycles and motorbikes," said a Mununu survivor hiding in Bongende. "They called others to come steal and see how they destroyed Bongende. They stole roofs, clothes, chairs, luggage, radios, motorbikes, and bicycles."
An estimated 2,100 people escaped Bongende and fled to neighboring Congo-Brazzaville across the Congo River, most to Makotimpoko.
Bongende remains largely destroyed and desolate, with a small dispatch of Congolese security forces remaining.
Role of Batende Leaders and Chiefs
The scale and speed of the attacks on Banunu communities depended on the organized participation of hundreds of assailants. This necessitated the active involvement of Batende leaders, including local chiefs. Then-Human Rights Minister Marie-Ange Mushobekwa told Human Rights Watch in April that "customary chiefs played a very big role [in the attacks]."
The Human Rights Ministry's commission of inquiry reported receiving information from several sources that corroborated the involvement of customary chiefs as well as government officials who were personally involved in planning and organizing attacks.
The UN Group of Experts concluded, based on five sources, that Batende leaders organized meetings in several Batende villages to plan the attacks against Banunu. Witnesses told the UN Group of Experts and Human Rights Watch that Malala Ngobila from Yumbi and a primary school director known as "Yashin" were key supporters of the attacks. A preliminary government report stated that Malala Ngobila "brought all the Batende population for the war against the Banunu (he went from one village to another for mystic-magical ceremonies [to prepare for attacking])."
An internal briefing note by the Congolese army from December 26 named Malala Ngobila as one of the people who ordered the massacres. Three Banunu survivors identified Yashin among the attackers in Bongende. A witness also identified a local chief, Djokaris Ngwe Molutu from Mansele, 30 kilometers from Yumbi, as having participated in the attack in Bongende.
Hundreds of Batende men in Mansele were organized to attack Bongende village, just seven kilometers away, on December 17. A Banunu community leader provided Human Rights Watch a list of 43 Batende from Mansele whom Banunu survivors recognized among the attackers. Among the most prominent was Molutu, the chief in Mansele, and a teacher from Mansele named Mbaka Kora. Both men were identified by 10 Banunu survivors from Bongende with whom Human Rights Watch spoke. An army colonel told Human Rights Watch that Molutu was the "commander [of the attack] against Bongende." The UN joint human rights office also received information indicating that preparatory meetings were held in Mansele as late as December 15.
The authorities arrested Jean-Paul Leka Mbaka, the sector chief of Mongama, 40 kilometers from Yumbi, following the massacres. A senior judicial officer said that Mbaka had been detained because he had "spoken to local Batende chiefs who mobilized young Batende for the attack. There were meetings in his village [Mongama]. All the youth met in Mongama to go attack Yumbi [town] and other villages." He has been detained at Ndolo prison in Kinshasa.
Human Rights Watch was unable to meet with the three leaders - Malala Ngobila, Molutu, and Yashin - who were hiding from the authorities. A lawyer representing Mbaka and other Batende in Ndolo told Human Rights Watch that most of his clients arrested had been falsely accused.