The targeting of the Hema community in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with violence, including killings and rape, may amount to crimes against humanity, said the UN on Friday.
An investigation carried out by the UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) in the DRC, found that at least 701 people have been killed and 168 injured following attacks involving the Hema and Lendu communities in the country's northeast province of Ituri, between December 2017 and September last year.
"In addition, at least 142 people have been subjected to acts of sexual violence" the report said, "most of them members of the Hema community."
Since September 2018, Lendu armed groups have become increasingly organized in carrying out attacks against the Hema and members of other ethnic groups such as the Alur, the investigators said.
Among their objectives is to take control of the land of the Hema communities and their associated resources, they added.
The report documents numerous cases of women being raped, of children - some in school uniforms - being killed, and of looting and burning of villages.
Rape and beheadings
On 10 June last year in the district of Torges, a Hema man who was trying to prevent armed assailants from raping his wife witnessed his 8-year-old son being beheaded.
"The barbarity that characterizes these attacks, including the beheading of women and children with machetes, the dismemberment and removal of body parts of the victims as trophies of war, reflects the desire of the attackers to inflict lasting trauma to the Hema communities and to force them to flee and not return to their villages," the report said.
"The violence documented... could contain some elements of crimes against humanity through murder, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, pillage and persecution."
Schools and health clinics have been attacked and destroyed. The report said that most attacks occurred in June around the harvest period, and in December during the sowing season. "This makes it more difficult for the Hema to cultivate their fields and exacerbates their lack of food."
As the violence has intensified, for the past two years around 57,000 have taken refuge in neighbouring Uganda, and more than 556,000 have fled the territories of Djugu and Mahagi, in Ituri, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
Several camps and villages where the Hema have taken refuge, have been "stormed, burned and destroyed" by Lendu armed groups, the report details.
Investigators have also documented acts of reprisal by some Hema community members, including village-burning and "isolated attacks" targeting the Lendu.
Army and police units deployed since February 2018, have failed to stop the violence, the report states, adding that the security forces themselves have also committed abuses such as extrajudicial executions, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests and detention.
So far, two police officers and two soldiers, have been convicted in the Congolese courts.
The joint rights office, UNJHRO, is recommending now that the DRC authorities properly address the root causes of conflict, including access to resources - including the contentious land issue - and that they maintain "ongoing reconciliation efforts between the two communities and their peaceful cohabitation."
The report urges an independent and impartial investigation be carried out by the Government, into the years of violence, as well as "ensuring the right to reparation for victims and their access to medical and psychosocial care."