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Mass rape in Walikale: What happened?

As you may have read in the papers, at least 179 women were raped by armed men around the small town of Ruvungi in Walikale territory between July 30 and August 2. The account I have heard on the radio (in particular on BBC, who interviewed International Medical Corps at length) goes more or less a follows: The rebels attacked the town, which is in a mineral-rich area, systematically raping women, children and some men during four days despite the presence of a MONUC base close by. They implied that the rebels attacked the town to get at the minerals.

This is mostly correct, but it isn’t clear to me why rebels would rape 179 women in order to get their hands on minerals. Let’s try to dig a bit deeper.

The facts are still a bit hazy, but this is what I can glean from some sources on the ground. (See map to get an idea where this took place – Ruvungi is around 20km west of Kibua).
Walikale is home to the largest tin deposits in the Congo and to some very large gold mines, as well. In particular, the Bisie mine is supposed to account for somewhere between 50 and 80% of tin exports from North Kivu. The control of Bisie mine is a main source of contention within the Congolese army, as it provides for upwards of $100,000 a month in taxes for local soldiers, which does not include the individual pits that some commanders control and kickbacks thet get from trading houses.

Since the Kimia II operations last year, the mining area has been controlled largely by former CNDP commanders. Until recently, Walikale town was controlled by the 212th brigade, led by Lt. Col. Yusuf Mboneza, an ex-CNDP commander still sympathetic towards Laurent Nkunda. He has deployed officers in various mining sites around Walikale, with orders to bring back a cut of the taxes on sales.

There are also various non-governmental armed groups in the area. In June 2009, a man called Tcheka, a former employee of the MPC mining company, started a new militia with a few local deserters and youths. He grew quickly, allegedly with support from Congolese army officers in Goma, and began launching attacks on mining villages. Many demobilized soldiers, disappointed by their lack of prospects, joined up – he now calls himself a colonel and allegedly controls several hundred men.

Another armed group in the neighborhood is led by Colonel Emmanuel Nsengiyumva, a Congolese Tutsi officer who used to be in the CNDP and defected in 2009, starting his own little armed group, allegedly in complicity with officers close to Nkunda.

Then, of course, there is the FDLR, the Rwandan rebels, who have several large bases in the Walikale forests. Of the non-governmental groups, the FDLR are probably the strongest. The relevant commander appears to be Colonel Sadiki, who is usually based in eastern Walikale, on the border with Masisi territory.

These four groups – the 212th brigade, Tcheka, FDLR and Emmanuel – reportedly collaborate. Tcheka, Emmanuel and the FDLR plan attacks together and share the loot, or divide up local taxation rackets. There was allegedly a meeting at Sadiki’s headquarters around a year ago to formalize this collaboration. The fact that Emmanuel is apparently the cousin of the 212th brigade commander helps the group obtain ammunition and avoid clashes with the Congolese army. Tcheka has also allegedly been in touch with military officials in Goma recently, even receiving some new equipment around the time of the 50th independence anniversary celebrations.

Their lucrative racket has recently, however, been threatened, as the 212th brigade is supposed to be replaced by the 211th brigade, which is currently located in Omate (there is another gold mine there) to the east. The local population is tired of the 212th brigade, which has been abusive and is led by Tutsi – people are also sick of Tcheka, who initially had said he was going into the bush to protect to population against the Tutsi invasion. Voila, people say: now he is collaborating with them.

The mass rape took place when the 211th brigade, which is usually deployed in the area around Ruvungi, left to move to Walikale center, its new deployment. According to interviews carried out by MONUC and others, the rapes were carried out by a Tcheka-Emmanuel-FDLR alliance under the command of Colonel Mayele, a Tcheka commander. The armed groups carried out attacks on civilians in over a dozen villages along the Mpofi-Kibua road.

So was the violence carried out to protest the removal of the 212th brigade in the area? Or was it supposed to intimidate the population into providing the militias what they wanted: gold and tin from the nearby mines (there is a gold mines 7km from Ruvungi)? Was it supposed to be a warning to the announced operations to be conducted against Tcheka and the FDLR by the new troops in the area? It isn’t clear. The rebels apparently told villagers that they wanted to stop the transport of minerals to Goma and to get rid of the Congolese army troops in the area.

The other scandal has been MONUSCO’s reaction. I have heard various allegations, the most extreme of which was that the rapes happened at their doorstep and they did nothing to intervene. This is not entirely accurate. The MONUSCO base was 15-30 kilometers away at Kibua. But they had allegedly been informed by villagers about lootings (not rapes?) in that area on July 31, when the violence began. (Although now the UN is saying that the rebels cut off the road, preventing any information from getting to the blue helmets.) Some locals also say that MONUSCO carried out a patrol along the Mpofi-Kibua axis on August 2nd, after most of the violence had occurred, but didn’t stop to talk to villagers.

Did they not want to drive/walk the 30 kilometers? Were they afraid of ambushes? We do not know – the initial information of the attacks did not come from the peacekeepers, but rather from International Medical Corps and local groups. Finally, on August 13 a MONUSCO joint civilian and military team from Goma arrived to investigate and was able to confirm most of the allegations. By that time, International Medical Corps had treated 157 victims, although local authorities have reported that there were many more.

All in all, there are more questions than answers here. Two main points:

  • MONUSCO’s interaction with the local population appears to be poor, and their military are not patrolling and prioritizing protection of civilians as they should;
  • There seems to be a deadly symbiosis between various militia groups and Congolese army officers centered around gold and tin mines in Walikale – this violence could have been prevented if the Congolese army had gotten rid of Tcheka when he was just a gang of 15 bandits in the bush last year, instead of collaborating with him.
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