Atrocities in Beni: Struggling to Make Sense of the Violence

Published: 13 Jun 2016
By: Djibril Balde

On 2 June 2016, the Congolese organisation Filimbi asked Fatou Bensouda, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), to investigate the ongoing situation near Beni, in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the words of a representative of the organisation, “A case like that of the massacres of our brothers in Beni – should – absolutely permit the opening of an investigation.” Apparently, the Office of the Prosecutor is considering it. An office spokesperson was quoted in the media as saying: “We are following the situation closely and particularly the allegations of crimes committed in the area of Beni and Lubero” [author’s translation].

According to the Study Center for the Promotion of Peace, Democracy and Human Rights (CEPADHO), between October 2014 and December 2015 more than 500 people were killed in the Beni region. The Congo Research Group concurred with this number in a report published in March. The killings began with a series of attacks in October 2014 in which, reportedly, 80 civilians were killed, apparently sparked by a major government offensive against Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels earlier in the year.

Since then, killings in the area have continued. On the evening of Tuesday 3 May 2016, at least 17 people were killed by suspected ADF rebels in the Minibo and Mutsonge neighbourhoods approximately 60 kilometres northeast of Beni town. The attackers used machetes, and children from the village were among the dead. Some speculated that the use of machetes was intended to avoid alerting UN peacekeepers in the area.

Despite the level of violence, these killings are not well known outside the DRC and are not well understood. It would seem that this confusion is attributable, in part, to the fact that there does not appear to be any single perpetrator or discernible pattern of attack.

The Congolese authorities often attribute these killings to the ADF. Bolstered by the fact that the killings began after a major offensive by the government of the DRC and the UN mission in the country (MONUSCO) against the ADF and this narrative has been largely taken up by the media. The ADF, a rebel group that originally consisted of recruits from Uganda including possible remnants of the National Army of the Liberation of Uganda and the then-defunct Rwenzururu movement. It began an insurgency against the Ugandan government in 1996, attacking civilians living in western Uganda from bases in eastern DRC. By 2003, the rebellion had all but disappeared with many of its fighters coming out under an amnesty. However, more recently there has been increased activity by armed actors thought to be a re-grouping of these rebel, which has targeted civilians in North Kivu. As a group that has been labelled as “Islamist,” and “terrorist” (it is on the Ugandan government’s list of terrorist organisations), the ADF seems a likely villain in this drama.

Certainly, it appears that the ADF is responsible for at least some of the attacks. The UN group of experts on the DRC has found significant evidence of ADF involvement in killings, including eyewitness testimony from individuals held captive by the ADF and the testimony of ADF deserters that these killings had been ordered in an effort to divert the attention of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) from ongoing operations against the ADF. However, evidence gathered by the UN Group of Experts also suggests that the ADF are not the only perpetrators. Indeed, they report that of 13 incidents for which they gathered information, 10 displayed elements that were not consistent with the modus operandi of confirmed ADF attacks.

Congolese experts point to a diversity of actors responsible. Junior Safari, Executive Director of the Congolese NGO Action for the Respect of Human Rights, told IRRI on 19 April that, some of “the massacres of Beni are carried out by the ADF, the other part by the FDLR (Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda) in the presence of all the regular resistance forces such as the FARDC, police and security forces. It is in Beni that Colonel Mamadou Ndala, who had defeated the M23, was killed and suspicions are that the ADF, which were marginalised for a long time during the various political negotiations between the government and negative forces, are responsible. For the most part, they conspire with local authorities” [author’s translation].

The Congo Research Group agrees that a number of different actors are responsible. In addition to the ADF, they say that “certain members of the FARDC, former members of the Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie-Kisangani/movement de libération (RCD-K/ML) as well as members of community militias, are also implicated in attacks on the civilian population” [author’s translation]. Jason Stearns, an activist working on the DRC, claims that the ADF’s role, and its Islamic identity, are overstated. In his words, “[t]he ADF is not really what people make it out be. It’s not a foreign Islamist organisation, but a militia deeply rooted in local society with links to political and economic actors. While the ADF are responsible for a majority of the massacres, it is clear that other groups, including Congolese soldiers, were involved as well.”

Some point to the involvement of the Mayi-Mayi or community militias. According to the journalist Caroline Hellyer, “it is possible that the recent massacres in Beni territory were committed by the ADF, but it could also be done by some Mayi-Mayi militiamen who have links with the ADF. Indeed, when they have common interests, the ADF and the Mayi-Mayi groups can work together, but they can then separate.” [author’s translation]

Others report that the FDLR – a rebel group founded by Rwandan Hutus opposed to current government in Rwanda – are operating in the area and perpetrating serious abuses. At least 15 people were reportedly killed early January 2016 in the village of Miriki 110km north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu. George Katsongo, an NGO representative, claimed that “all of the victims were Nande.” Some speculated that the Nande in this case had been targeted because they had opposed the return of Hutu to the area. Other activists told IRRI that the Nande are targets of an ongoing “genocide”. On the other hand, taking the patterns of attacks as a whole, others contest the notion that Nande are being targeted. The Congo Research Group says that “it is hard to make generalisations” about the victims. In their words, “the majority of killings have been committed without any apparent ethnic discrimination.” Therefore, it is possible that the attacks by the FDLR are targeting the Nande, but that those of the other groups are not.

Regardless of who is responsible and whether or not there is an ethnic pattern to the attacks, it is clear that civilians are being killed and that they are in need of protection. Both the FARDC, as a representative of the Congolese government which bears the primary responsibility to protect civilians on its territory, and MONUSCO, which has a mandate to protect civilians, should be intervening. Sadly, to date neither has been able to provide effective protection.

The UN group of experts documented 12 eye-witness accounts in which an attack was reported to the FARDC shortly after it occurred, but the FARDC refused to intervene. According to the report, in “each case, the response of the FARDC was the same: it was too dangerous, it was dark, the soldiers were ill-equipped or they had insufficient manpower to react.” The report of the Congo Research Group agrees: reporting that the Congolese army “did not react in a timely manner,” or “lacked initiative” (something of which they also accuse MONUSCO) and even committed abuses themselves. Further, they say that their researchers documented cases in which FARDC officers, “dissuaded their units from intervening during massacres and there are numerous pieces of evidence indicating that members of the FARDC actively participated in massacres.” In another case, documented by the UN group of experts, a Congolese officer captured the perpetrators, despite having been instructed not to pursue them. Despite the fact that the attackers admitted their involvement, they have never been brought before the competent prosecutor.

Regular failure to pay soldiers’ salaries and the involvement of officers in illegal trading in natural resources, such as wood, gold and coltan, have weakened the army, according to a source interviewed by IRRI, and contributed to this failure of discipline. In addition, according to a civil society activist, “there is a certain inefficiency even in the management of information.”

Regardless of who is responsible for the violence, the fact remains that civilians in eastern DRC are once again being killed and the impunity continues. The persistence of this violence, the failures to protect civilians, and the lack of progress in terms of accountability for crimes that have been committed, shows the need for more comprehensive and effective civilian protection strategies to be adopted by both the FARDC and MONUSCO. In addition, these attacks need to be systematically investigated with a view to ensuring that the problem is correctly diagnosed and conflict mitigation measures are implemented. The perpetrators must be held to account, either by the ICC or by a competent Congolese court.

Programmes: Resolving Displacement, Justice and Accountability
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Democratic Republic of Congo
Type: IRRI Blog