Over the past month, over 80 civilians have been killed in Beni territory of North Kivu, civil society organizations report. Most point the finger at the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels, who have been based in this area––their main redoubt was in the Ruwenzori mountains along the border with Uganda––since 1995. The attacks have displaced over 30,000 people, according to a United Nations source, and many of the victims, including young children, were hacked to death with machetes and hatchets.
This is by far the worst spate of violence in recent months in the Congo––for comparison, during the nineteen months of the M23 rebellion, the UN reported 116 fatalities at the hands of those rebels. And yet, many questions remain about these recent killings.
A few facts are clear: Following their defeat of the M23 in November 2013, the Congolese army launched a large offensive against the ADF on 16 January, 2014. These operations––which were controversial, as the UN peacekeeping mission wanted to prioritize operations against the FDLR––allowed the Congolese government to take back ADF strongholds that had been occupied for years. The Congolese army declared victory on March 13, 2014, when the army destroyed their last military base in the Ruwenzori mountains.
Fighting was very heavy, and the Congolese army suffered at least 217 fatalities in this period. The Congolese government initially said they killed 531 rebels during those operations. A UN official I spoke to yesterday suggested that the figures of ADF killed cited by the Congolese were now around 700, a figure that Uganda authorities deem to be credible, although the UN Group of Experts said in June 2014 that casualty figures were most likely inflated.
It is also clear that the ADF are no strangers to brutality. In mid-2013, they reportedly beheaded five people around the village of Kamango, where according to local civil society they also killed 40 people on Christmas day in 2013.
According to sources within the UN, the ADF appears to have split into three parts, with some having fled northwards into Ituri, while others try to maintain their supply lines into Uganda. The same UN source, who has been following the ADF attacks closely, said that these atrocities smacked of desperation, since the group may have lost up to 80% of its troops in the past year. “We estimate them to be around 150 strong now,” he suggested. Other UN sources have placed the number higher, at 500, but still considerably lower than the 1,200 estimated in January 2014.
So what prompted this latest killing spree? Some suggest that it was intended to distract from Congolese army operations, which have continued to the southwest of Beni. This sort of strategic violence would also serve to discredit the Congolese army, which would be exposed as unable to protect its population, and would require redeployment of troops. This is certainly a possibility––probably the most likely one––although the pace of FARDC “Sokola” (“Clean”) operations has slowed considerably since March 2014. Another hypothesis links the massacres to the FARDC operations earlier this year, suggesting that they were simply revenge attacks, without strategic purpose. Finally, some local leaders have suggested that the attacks may have been carried out in complicity with––or perhaps even entirely by––Congolese army officers, who are upset that they were passed over in the recent army shuffle.
Whatever the reason, the ADF has now taken on a much higher priority for both the Congolese army and the UN. Senior MONUSCO commanders were on their way to Beni yesterday to assess the situation. Relations between the UN peacekeeping mission and their Congolese counterparts had soured in recent months, especially since the head of the mission Martin Kobler turned his attention toward the electoral process. The commander in charge of Operation Sokola, General Muhindo Akili Muondos, has cooler relations with the UN than both General Lucien Bauma and Colonel Mamadou Ndala, the previous commanders of North Kivu and Operation Sokola, respectively. On their part, the local population has complained that the local UN troops are rarely seen patrolling and never at night.
For more information on the ADF, the International Crisis Group published a report on the group in 2012 here. One of the important takeaways from that report––and the reporting by the UN Group of Experts––is that, despite the presence of foreign Islamists within the group, the links to Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab have probably been exaggerated.