Today, the Congo Research Group is publishing the preliminary results of its investigations into the massacres around the town of Beni in northeastern Congo . The report is the result of months of fieldwork by five experienced researchers. We interviewed 110 sources, including 36 eyewitnesses and numerous self-confessed participants in the attacks. The report can be downloaded here.
Here are some of the highlights:
What are the facts?
Between October 2014 and December 2015, 551 people were killed around the town of Beni. This information comes from eyewitnesses, local administration, and civil society organizations. The UN peacekeeping mission has similar figures: 482 in the same time period. The killings have continued into 2016. They have targeted civilians from all religions and ethnic groups found in the region. The killings have been marked with extreme brutality. They include beheadings, the mutilation of corpses, and the killing of young children. This is one of the worst spates of violence in recent Congolese history.
Who is responsible?
That depends on who you ask. The government has mostly claimed that this is the work of the Ugandan Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels. They are sometimes portrayed by the government, civil society and the media as an Islamist armed group with possible links to Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, while more reserved, has largely backed this narrative.
But the ADF has never claimed responsibility, and many other actors have been accused. Some of the facts of the massacres contradict the ADF theory, for example the language spoken by the killers (ADF are not known to speak Kinyarwanda during operations), and the fact that they drank beer and targeted children (behaviors condemned by the ADF).
Our preliminary report comes to two conclusions in this regard: First, that the ADF were indeed deeply involved, but that the notion of a foreign Islamist group is flawed; the ADF has been in this area for several decades and has strong ties to local political and economic actors. Secondly, that the ADF were not the only ones involved. There is strong evidence that members of the RCD-K/ML (a former rebellion that controlled the area), local militias, and the FARDC (the Congolese army) participated in the massacres.
We are however, at this stage, not able to make any conclusions regarding the chain of command or motives of these networks. More on this below.
What is the background to the massacres?
How far back do you want to go? Congolese army and MONUSCO officers often cite the Sukola I operations, which began in January 2014 against the ADF. Those operations, conducted with support by MONUSCO, resulted in heavy losses on both sides, and destroyed most ADF camps in the Semuliki valley, their main bastion. This narrative suggests that the massacres were carried out by the ADF in retaliation to this offensive, and that they targeted Congolese civilians either because they felt the local population had betrayed them, or as a means of shaming the Congolese army.
There is probably some truth to that narrative. But it elides the deeper background to the ADF, an armed group that, in various incarnations, has been based in this area since the 1980s. During this time, the ADF has embedded itself in local society and has forged deep ties with local political and economic operators. At one point, over half of its members were Congolese, and it had strong ties to the RCD-K/ML when that rebellion governed Beni (1999-2003) under the leadership of Mbusa Nyamwisi, who was then a minister in national government between 2003-2011.
Was Mbusa Nyamwisi really involved in the massacres?
Some members of the government, in particular North Kivu Governor Julien Paluku (a former ally of Nyamwisi and a staunch ally of President Kabila), would like us to believe so. In 2011, Nyamwisi fell out with President Joseph Kabila and went into exile the following year. There has been a pitted political battle for control of Beni and Lubero territories, the heartland of the RCD-K/ML, since then. And there is some solid evidence that former members of the RCD-K/ML rebellion have been involved in the killings. However, we are not able to draw any firm conclusions with regard to Nyamwisi’s own involvement, and he has denied the allegations.
What about the Congolese army?
In the initial stages (January-June 2014) of the Sukola I operations the FARDC displayed determination and bravery.; hundreds of their soldiers were killed in operations against the ADF. However, there is little doubt that since then they have been guilty of inaction and inefficiency. In our report, we catalog many instances when the FARDC did not react to massacres close by or where they discouraged their troops from intervening. This is also backed up by a Congolese parliamentary report and UN sources. In addition, we document three massacres where there is significant evidence of FARDC involvement in the killing. At this stage in our investigation, we are not able to determine what the chain of command was or what the motives may have been. It is, for example, possible that the ADF or the RCD-K/ML have infiltrated the FARDC.
What does this say about MONUSCO?
The UN peacekeeping mission has been eager to relaunch joint operations with the FARDC, which were suspended in January 2015 due to allegations of abuse by two Congolese generals. That was one of the main messages delivered during the recent visit by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Given the evidence that FARDC were involved in the massacres, the UN should be much more circumspect about renewed collaboration. In addition, according to internal UN documents and local testimony, MONUSCO troops in the region have been largely passive in face of the mass abuse of civilians, failing to mount regular foot patrols, to carry out investigations, and to liaise sufficiently with local communities.
What should be done?
Our report is a preliminary investigation. We hope to continue our research to shine more light on the complex dynamics behind the killings so as to better understand who is ultimately responsible for the violence.
The Congolese government should launch a serious, thorough investigation into the massacres. They have not done so thus far––there has been a short parliamentary fact-finding mission, and several investigations by the FARDC into misconduct by the troops, but nothing close to what is needed given the scale of the crisis.
Finally, the UN Security Council renews the mission’s mandate at the end of this month, it should call upon MONUSCO to launch serious investigations into the massacres, as well as into the behavior of UN troops. It should carry out these investigations before any new joint operations with the Congolese army are launched.